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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

5 Ways to Leave Your Fears Behind and Learn to Love Public Speaking

In one way or another, I speak before an audience two to four times a week.

This is an activity that makes a lot of people cringe.

While public speaking is nearly second nature to me now, as a CEO, I wasn’t always this comfortable with it. In fact, my hands used to shake every time I even thought about going onstage. Yes, becoming confident at presenting in front of a group is something that takes everyone time and effort to accomplish. Even the greats—in fact, they work especially hard at it.

Whether you’re gearing up for a speaking gig a few weeks from now or are about to step onstage momentarily, here are some quick (and, dare I say, fun) ways to feel more confident about your public speaking abilities.

1. Copy the Greats

A common piece of public speaking advice is to watch talks by great public speakers to see what you can learn from them. I’d say, take this one step further. Once you watch that speech, practice by giving the same one yourself—emulating the things you particularly like about the speaker’s style—and record yourself. You’ll get to practice speaking without having to worry about the content, you’ll be able to pick up on some of the mannerisms that make these people so good, and you’ll have a chance to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who is already a great public speaker.

Pick a speech you love that has a transcript somewhere (TED is a great source for this—there are plenty of short talks, and each one includes a transcript) and get practicing!

2. Talk to Strangers

Especially if you’re shy, one of the biggest barriers to public speaking is the idea of talking to complete strangers. You may think: What if they’re not interested in me? Are they all judging me?

If this is the case with you, it’s time to stop seeing strangers as scary and start seeing them as people, just like you. The more you can find a connection with the people you’re talking to, the less scary they become.

One way to start doing this is to strike up more conversations with strangers in your daily life. Chat with the barista at your local coffee shop. Make a comment to the person next to you on the subway. Some people won’t be very chatty, but you’ll likely be surprised by how many people want to engage with you. Plus, you’ll get more comfortable keeping calm and collected in slightly awkward situations.

If you’re feeling really bold, consider taking an improv comedy class. Chicago’s Second City and New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade both offer easy opportunities for people to try their hand at wacky, off-the-cuff improvisation games. Once you’ve had to stand in front of a group of people and act out “the discovery of the slip and slide,” getting up onstage and giving a prepared talk will never seem quite as scary again.

3. Think Storytelling, Not Public Speaking

“Public speaking” puts a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths—it just has a negative connotation. So cut the words from your vocabulary, as well as words like “presentation” and “pitch.” Instead of thinking, “Yikes, I have to go give a presentation in an hour,” just think about telling a story to a group of people.

First of all, this makes the whole ordeal sound far less intimidating. We tell stories all the time. You’ve probably told a story this week, whether it was to your friends at a bar or your child before bedtime, right? This one just happens to be onstage.

Second, telling stories makes your presentation much more engaging to the audience—and makes you much more relatable. When I used to talk about tips for negotiating salary, I’d start by telling people about the time I asked for a raise and got so nervous that I ran to the bathroom and threw up afterward! Yes, it’s a little embarrassing, but people relate to the story—and it makes the rest of the speech far more memorable.

4. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

A great way to make the public speaking experience easier is by standardizing as much as you can. For example, I’ll often tweak or combine speeches I’ve used before rather than coming up with brand-new content each time. I’ll even move in a similar pattern around the stage (just not back and forth between the same two spots—that’s a mistake people make a lot when they’re nervous!). Anything I can think about ahead of time and then use over and over again gives me more mental energy to focus on delivering an engaging, interesting presentation.

In that vein, I even have a few go-to outfits that I rotate wearing when I’m giving talks—it’s one less thing I have to think about, plus it’s kind of like my “public speaking costume,” putting me in the perfect mindset to get up there and rock it.

5. Remember the Worst Case Scenario Isn’t So Bad

Finally, if you’re really panicked before a presentation, I challenge you to ask yourself, “What am I really afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen?”

You stumble over a few words? Most people probably won’t even notice, and certainly won’t remember for more than a few minutes. You’ll lose your train of thought and forget what you’re supposed to be saying? Then you’ll make a joke about it, people will laugh and find you more relatable, and you’ll pick right back up.

I love this quote from one of our Muse writers, Caris Thetford: “In any situation, the very worst outcome is that you fall over dead. How likely is that to actually happen from giving a brief public speech?”

Remember, at the end of the day, public speaking isn’t about you giving a performance to impress other people. It’s about you sharing something to help other people. And that shouldn’t be a scary thing at all—in fact, it’s a pretty awesome thing.

This article was sponsored by University of Phoenix. I’m a compensated contributor, but the thoughts and ideas are my own.

Photo of nervous woman courtesy of Shutterstock.