For many people, public speaking instills a dreaded, irrational fear. Just the thought of it makes their blood pressure rise. But public speaking is no different than playing an instrument at a concert. If we didn’t know how play it and hadn’t practiced the music, it would be a disaster. So, when people tell me they have a fear of public speaking, I always ask – have you practiced?
My first time in front of an audience, I was on panel discussion. It was a blistering hot day in July, and it felt like it was 50 degrees Celsius backstage. I peeked out, and the room was packed. I felt very, very unprepared, and I was a trembling, nervous mess. To make matters worse, I had sweat stains under my arms – super embarrassing, right? I survived the experience but vowed to never be unprepared again.
After thinking about the event, my main take away was the need to practice. I started telling personal stories in front of my friends as if I was speaking in public and asked for their feedback, which I took in stride. I also embraced my nervousness and accepted my speaking cadence. While I’m never going to be a professional speaker, I can get up in front of a room and that is ok. I’m also never going to play in an orchestra. So set realistic expectations.
In terms of what to say while speaking in the public, I am a big believer in positive body language and being polite, even if am disagreeing with someone when on a panel. A lot of public speaking is about understanding your audience, reacting to the audience, and being confident.
Avoid looking at your notes and make eye contact with as many people in the audience as possible. Looking at the folks in the back of the room helps to project your voice. Most importantly, being friendly and positive helps create a connection with the audience and gives an air of confidence.
I also like to include personal anecdotes because I know the stories inside out. Before going on stage, I always write a couple of words in my notes to remind me of different stories I could tell, depending on the how the audience is reacting. An amusing story or two can be extremely helpful when you see the audience starting to get restless and a little pizzaz is needed to reaffirm the connection.
Finally, expect the unexpected. For my second public speaking event, the room was super air conditioned, and I was freezing. It felt like I walked out on to the stage as stiff as a board because I was so cold. But I did way better than the first time.