So, you have finally decided to do something about your public speaking anxiety and signed up for a course. Congratulations – you have taken a great first step!
As a public speaking coach, I see so many people get amazing results – but not everyone gets what they need. Here are some tips that will maximise your chances of success.
1 - Make the course a priority and stick with it!
Attend every session if you possibly can. A typical public speaking course might have six 2.5-hour sessions. If you miss one session, you have missed 16% of the course. And if you are absent for two sessions, you have missed one-third! We all have busy lives, and I know how hard it is to get there sometimes – but when you have paid the money and made the commitment, you owe it to yourself to get the most out of it.
Almost all public speaking courses will have a practical component, and just as important is preparing between sessions. Don't leave it till the last moment to prepare! Very few people will present well unless they have prepared and practised. These are two different things. Preparing means deciding your content and designing your presentation or speech. And then you need to practice the delivery.
As a rough guide, you should allow an hour for every minute you speak – so for a 5-minute presentation, you should allow up to 5 hours to prepare and practice. (If you know your topic well, you might get away with a little less). If you leave that until the night before, that will seem overwhelming. But if you spend 30-45 minutes a day in the week leading up to the presentation, you should be ready!
I occasionally have people drop out because life gets in the way. If I believe this is genuine, I offer them a place in a future course. But guess what? Most don't return, even though they are adamant they will! I recently had a young woman who suffered a miscarriage, contracted COVID, and had her partner leave her - all in two weeks! Understandably she dropped out of the course but, to my surprise, returned to the next one. She had told me she would be back, but I was still surprised because I know how rare this is!
Try to hang on in there through a rough patch. Coming back later in the year might seem easier, but it is often not.
2- Don't stress about your speech topic
Deciding what to talk about can cause a lot of anxiety for people. I have heard so many people say that they don't have anything interesting to say or are worried about boring the audience.
If possible, talk about something you know and care about. You won't have to do any research, and you can speak more convincingly. Paradoxically, I find it easier to come up with speech topics for my Toastmasters club than I used to – even though I have probably done close to 100 speeches. There are speech topics all around you – but you have to recognise them.
I recently heard a great speech about the differences between where the speaker grew up in Indonesia and where she now lives (New Zealand). The speech was moving and a great reminder to appreciate what we have!
Another speech that sticks in my mind was about how everyone should have a favourite song. The speaker's favourite song was "I don't like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats. Perhaps it was because I love that song too, but I thought the speech was a great example of a simple, well-executed idea.
Your work, upbringing, family, hobbies, interests, trips, and experiences are all sources of speech material. And don't worry about boring the audience. If you talk about something you care about for five minutes, I can guarantee no one will be bored!
3- Don't compare yourself to others
Even in the courses I run for people with extreme public speaking anxiety, I attract people with a wide range of experience. Some have done no or little presenting, and others have done a lot of presenting but have had their confidence knocked along the way.
I tell people on the first night to be careful that they don't compare themselves to anyone else (especially negatively!) How you compare to anyone else in the group is just not relevant. Focus on your own progress and celebrate small wins, even if you think you are the most nervous speaker there.
4 - Take risks – even ditch the notes!
A public speaking course is a safe place to practice, meaning you can take many more risks than you might when presenting to a large work audience. If things go well, you will get a great reaction from others on the course. And if they don't go so well, you can still expect support and encouragement.
One thing that holds people back is being attached to a script. For most types of public speaking, you want to sound natural and conversational. If you read or memorise a script, it will usually sound read or memorised.
There is nothing wrong with having notes, but if you write out your speech in full, you'll be tempted to read it. I learned to use notes effectively by ditching them entirely for a few speeches. It felt scary, but I was at my Toastmaster's meeting, and I reminded myself that the worst thing that could happen was that I would have to walk over to my seat and retrieve my notes. Of course, that didn't happen.
5- Have realistic expectations
Public speaking is a skill that anyone can learn. But like any skill, it takes time. You will likely see rapid progress if you do everything else I have suggested. But six weeks won't turn you into a professional speaker.
It is not unusual to have a setback somewhere along the way too. Perhaps you are happy with your first presentation, but your second one doesn't go as well. Don't be discouraged – try to figure out why and keep going. I can guarantee that you will be better at the end of the course than at the start.
I encourage participants in my courses to be realistic about what they can achieve in 6 weeks but ambitious about how good they could eventually become.
6- Keep it up after the course
You won't stay fit by going to the gym for six weeks and then stopping. The same applies to public speaking. You need to keep speaking to maintain the gains that you have made and make progress. If you do a lot of public speaking as part of your job, this might be enough – as long as you keep focused on how to improve. But many people have irregular opportunities and will need something else. You might consider Toastmasters or a more advanced course if your provider offers one.
Make the course a priority, don't stress about your speech topics, focus on your own progress, take risks and set realistic short-term expectations. If you follow these tips and treat the course as a great first step, you should get a huge amount out of your public speaking course and beyond!
Article written by Catherine Syme
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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.