No good at public speaking? Six reasons why improving is just like learning to play a new sport (or any other complex skill)
I recently heard someone describe the three phases he goes through when learning a new skill. The first stage is fear. The second stage is grit – the hard work that goes into getting good at anything. Thirdly, there is mastery – the feeling of being highly skilled.
I found this relatable. I started my public speaking journey 17 years ago as an extremely nervous speaker. It took me eight years of consistent effort to feel proficient. Mastery is a strong word – especially when there is always room for improvement – but when things go well, I feel proud of what I have achieved.
I took up yoga around the same time as public speaking and have established a consistent practice that serves me well. I can identify the three phases too. The fear wasn't intense but I had nagging self doubt about whether my body was right for yoga (a baseless concern but very real!)
However, I can think of many things I have started but not achieved mastery or even proficiency.
Languages, for example! At various times in my life, I have studied Latin, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Māori – but have not become fluent in any of them. I don’t have a gift for languages – but nor do most people. I am not fluent because I never persevered long enough to achieve that level. In fact I have never really progressed beyond the fear stage - fear that I sound terrible!
Back to public speaking. Like any sport, craft, or even a language, public speaking is a skill-set that anyone can learn. No one would expect to be instantly good at a new activity requiring complex skills, but for some reason, we don’t view public speaking the same way. Many people are quick to judge themselves as just not suited to public speaking.
How to share something personal with an audience without oversharing! Seven questions that will help if you are unsure
On the first night of my public speaking course, I tell people the story of my epic public speaking fail. You can read all about it on my Medium site. The short version is that I had a panic attack in front of the senior executive team of the organisation I was employed by. Six months later, I joined Toastmasters. Twelve years later, I became a public speaking coach.
I tell this story to every new group without hesitation. My clients have a fear of public speaking. It is a perfect way to start the course because it helps reassure them that they are in a safe environment with a coach who understands how they feel. It also gives them hope that it is possible to move past a crippling fear of public speaking.
The first time I told my story, I looked for reasons not to. I was concerned it would make me look weak. And I did not want to re-live the shame! I wondered if I could get away with something vague like, “I used to be a bit anxious about public speaking, and so I understand how you feel.” But I realised that would be dishonest and not nearly as powerful as sharing that I once was them!
Although it is the right thing for me to share my story, I was justified in hesitating. I have been on the receiving end of speakers who have overshared — and you probably have too!
There are plenty of useful articles about public speaking, but many of them repackage similar tips. Remember to pause; practice your presentation thoroughly; maintain eye contact; focus on your audience; tell stories; and so on. Don’t get me wrong — it is all great advice! But I get excited when I stumble upon new insights.
In this article, I have put together five less-known tips. Some of these I have discovered through my own practice and all of them I have put into effect or tested for myself.
It is easy to recognise an “authentic” speaker but unpacking what this really means can be confusing. Public speaking is a performance; so how can you perform and be authentic at the same time?
Although public speaking is a performance, it is not the same as acting. As an actor, you are pretending to be someone else, but as a public speaker you are yourself. In fact, the trick is to come across so naturally that it doesn’t look like you are performing!
But this highlights a problem for inexperienced speakers. The advice to “be yourself’ is not helpful when you are trembling bundle of nerves.
“Be yourself” does not mean for you to stand up and tell everyone how nervous you feel, then waffle on about your topic! You might look “real” but in a raw, uncomfortable way that lacks professional credibility and leaves the audience squirming.
Instead, you need to bring your best self to the stage – you “on form”. A high energy version of yourself. The self that you might bring to a job interview! And it takes much practice to achieve that. Being “real” is not quite enough. An authentic speaker also has confidence and credibility.
Let’s take a look at what an authentic speaker does – and how you can do the same.
Everyone wants to look confident when they are presenting. We also want to feel confident – but most people can handle feeling a bit nervous as long as they can hide it from others!
This in itself is interesting and I touched on it in a previous blog article (“Public speaking and the shame of looking nervous”). But this article is about how you can employ some techniques to look confident even if you don’t initially feel it. Or to put it another way, how to ‘fake it until you feel it.’
Before we look at the five tips there is some good news. You probably already look more confident than you feel. Surveys indicate that over 70% of people have some level of fear of public speaking. But most people look reasonably confident when they speak. So how can this be? Either fewer than 30% of the people are doing all the talking (unlikely) or most people don’t show their nerves (more likely).
Watching a video of yourself presenting can help reassure you that your nervousness is not on full display. You may feel your stomach churning, your palms sweating, your heart pounding – but these symptoms are not visible to your audience.
Recognising that your nerves are not as visible as you imagine can be a huge relief in itself. But there are additional things you can do to look more confident.
I had a cooking teacher at high school who told us that “good cooks are born, not made” which left me confused about why she had decided to become a cooking teacher!
This is a perfect illustration of a ‘fixed mindset’ described by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. A person with a fixed mindset believes that qualities such as intelligence and talent are innate and can’t be developed. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset has a thirst for learning, loves a challenge, and believes that they can improve by commitment and hard work. Carol’s research demonstrates that having a growth mindset is a better predictor of success than natural talent.
You may have heard the expression 's/he has the gift of the gab' meaning someone is naturally good at talking. But this reflects a fixed mindset towards verbal communication and public speaking. While some people probably do have natural talents in this area, it is possible for anyone to become a strong public speaker.
Nine ways to calm your nerves by connecting with your audience (and imagining your audience naked is not one of them!)
esenting to an audience can feel unnatural. Most people don't like being in the spotlight. It is tempting to become less noticeable by hiding behind a PowerPoint presentation. But that is an unhelpful strategy. We need to do the opposite because connecting with the audience is the key to feeling more comfortable.
I had a conversation recently with a sales manager, Mike. He told me that when he was 18, he lived in Spain for his final year of schooling. He was asked to talk about life in New Zealand at a school assembly. His hand shook uncontrollably as he started to speak. He was holding notes which made this obvious! Then he put up a slide of a cow. I am not sure what he said, but everyone started laughing. And suddenly he felt relaxed!
Most public speaking coaches agree that the old advice to imagine your audience naked is lousy advice! The intent is to make the audience seem less threatening. But instead of treating the audience as hostile or dangerous, we need to connect.
Here are nine things you can try instead.
Do you find impromptu speaking difficult? Are you articulate giving prepared presentations but struggle to “think on your feet?” Many people find this hard. Even when you have plenty to say, organizing it into something coherent can be challenging with no time to prepare.
In a recent job interview, my 21-year-old son was asked to describe a time he had to think “outside the box” in an everyday situation. He said he would need a minute to think. He came up with a work-related example that was not very radical and only partly his idea. It was to do with their pricing strategy, and he admitted it was mainly his boss’s idea. He thought that the interview had gone quite well but was worried about his answer to that question.
He got the job, and I am guessing that his response to that question was adequate. They were probably looking at how he would respond to a tricky question rather than what he said. Asking for a minute to think was a good strategy. It showed that he didn’t panic. And he came up with an answer even if it wasn’t a brilliant one.
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.