Sweaty palms, stuttered speech, and terror blackouts: if you're someone who absolutely despises speaking before audiences, you've probably experienced side effects like these. No matter how well prepared we are, or how familiar our audience is, giving a presentation can be an experience more terrifying than death, according to psychologists. Unfortunately, it's impossible to avoid public speeches, but you can make these events less frightening with a few simple hacks.
In an interview with Forbes, author and Public Words, Inc. president Nick Morgan advises that simplicity is key: your audience doesn't want to hear complex information that's more confusing than enlightening, so leave the detailed data at home. Focus instead on a main theme with clear, easy-to-follow points. Not only will your audience stay engaged, but you'll also have an easier time getting through your material without stressing.
Try to think of one or two points you'd like your listeners to remember. Repeat those points, and your explanations of them, so they stick in your brain before the big event. As long as you can get those important points across, and keep it short and sweet, your speech will be a success.
Sure, it's tough to open your mouth and get everything started while your pulse races and nerves run rampant. According to Stephen E. Lucas in his book The Art of Public Speaking, the introduction of your speech helps you ease into the act of talking before an audience—and that's exactly why you need to memorize those first few lines. After the first minute of your presentation, your anxiety levels decrease, allowing you to relax a bit as you move into the body of your speech.
The better rehearsed your introduction is, the less stressful your opening lines will be before an actual audience. Once you make it through it, though, the rest of your speech should feel like a breeze.
In the same Forbes piece, Morgan discusses how much our audiences read into our body language during speeches. When we fidget, sway back and forth, or even pace, we give off nervous signals. Instead, Morgan suggests using posture and movements that express comfort and confidence. Try to stand up as straight as possible, to help yourself feel in charge of the room, and focus on your message rather than your emotions. If you care about the topic at hand, let the audience know by expressing your excitement or passion through a confident or happy tone.
Rather than clinging to the podium before you for dear life, prep your body a few days before by trying out a few postures that feel comfortable. Do you tend to talk with your hands? Rehearse your speech and find gestures that both hammer home certain points and are engaging rather than distracting. Do you have an uncontrollable tendency to repeatedly touch your hair? Pull your hair away from your face and try clasping your hands together to keep them still.
As Reader's Digest notes, silence doesn't always mean you've lost your place or are overcome by nerves. Instead, utilize silence to your advantage: pause before making an important remark, or before revealing interesting, surprising information. Those few seconds of silence will both intrigue your audience and allow you to take a moment to plan your words.
If you find yourself stumbling at any time, you can also rely on a moment of wordlessness to regroup. Finish up your statement and pause—grab a sip of water, or simply stay silent before speaking again, and you'll be ready to dive back into your presentation.
In the aforementioned Reader's Digest piece, the unexpected is considered something to also prepare for. Whether there are issues with technology, disappearing notes, or even problematic audience members, interruptions and mix-ups are things you should keep in mind while prepping.
Rather than worrying about everything going wrong mid-speech, consider how you'll get around any roadblocks that appear. Panicked that you'll lose you speech and have to speak on the fly? Memorize that introduction and a few key points to ensure you'll stay on track. Worried that your Powerpoint file won't be compatible? Be ready to give your speech without any visual aids. Basically, be prepared for anything.
Remember, even the best orators in history have made mistakes. No matter what you're worried about, reign in your stress by expecting to stumble. As long as you can laugh along with your listeners, you'll survive any presentation.
For more tips on public speaking, check out Yumi's illustrated guide to speaking comfortably in public.