Public Speaking – OUCH!

Whether you are a manager in a multi-national company, or a student in graduate school, public speaking is a very common part of your job (yes, being a student is a job!). You may have to present to your class, your staff, your team, or to clients. Public speaking is a part of your routine. And it is absolutely terrifying to many of us.


Native English speakers list fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, as one of their top fears, sometimes more than fear of snakes, flying, and death. Some of the reasons for that fear include:

  1. Lack of preparation
  2. Fear of being judged
  3. Past failures
  4. Self-consciousness
  5. Fear of not being able to speak well

There are several ways to become better at public speaking. Some of the most effective techniques are:

  1. Know your stuff
  2. Write an effective presentation
  3. Turning your fear into excitement
  4. DON’T memorize – DO practice, practice, practice

Know Your Stuff

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it yourself.” ― attributed to Albert Einstein

The better you know your material, the better you are able to talk about it, and the more confident you will be when talking about it. Even if you’re talking with your classmates who are all studying the same thing, try to avoid jargon (special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand). Instead, use everyday language. If you’re in a professional setting, the same rule applies – you never know who’s new to the profession.

Try to rephrase your presentation in a way that your mother or grandmother would understand (my mother has a PhD in nursing, so this isn’t about education level!)

Write an Effective Presentation

What’s the purpose of your presentation? Is this a question-and-answer session? Are you teaching something to your audience? (Actually, you’re always teaching when you are speaking, otherwise there’s no point!) Remember, your presentation is about the audience, not you. Always keep their needs and wants in mind.

An old formula for writing and speaking success: tell them what you’re gonna tell them, tell, then tell them what you told them. In other words, have an introduction to the material, a body of the material, and a conclusion summarizing the material.

It takes about 120-150 words to fill one minute of talk time. You don’t want to overwhelm your audience with information or with words. If you have 5 minutes to speak, be prepared to say about 750 words.

If you can, avoid memorizing your speech. Even if you decide to write it out completely beforehand, do not recite it from memory. Have an outline or notes handy.

Pause. Make sure you have pauses built into your presentation. Give your audience time to absorb and consider your words. And give yourself time to take a sip of water!

Use audio-visuals wisely. They should either enhance what you are saying, or completely captivate your audience. If they don’t add anything to your topic, don’t use them at all. And please, don’t read your slides! Summarize them at most, but do not read them word-for-word. There are few things most excruciatingly boring than having statistics read to you!

Turn Your Fear into Excitement

When you’re afraid, you sweat, your heart pounds, you get short of breath, your eyes open wider. Guess what? Those are the same symptoms of excitement! Changing your perspective on what’s going on will help immensely with getting through the fear of it. Instead of, “What if I fail?”, think “What if I succeed?” Instead of, “What if no one understands what I’m trying to say?”, think “I’m well-prepared and excited to share my knowledge, and I welcome questions about it.” Instead of, “What if no one listens?”, think “People are here to hear what I know, of course they’ll listen!” Keep reminding yourself about how happy and excited you are to share your knowledge!

DON’T Memorize – DO Practice, Practice, Practice

“It’s what you practice in private that you will be rewarded for in public.” – Anthony Robbins 

Please, please, for the love of you listeners, please don’t recite your speech from memory – it comes across as stiff, boring, and like you’re saying someone else’s words. If you feel you need to write it out completely, that’s fine, but DON’T take that speech with you! Instead, take an outline of your speech, or jot down a few notes, so that you have something to refer to in case you lose your place, but speak from your heart and mind.

However, you DO want to practice your speech a few times. If you can, practice your speech with someone listening – they can give you feedback on any points that are not clear, or if you’re speaking too quickly or too slowly. Second-best way to practice – record yourself and play it back. We ALL hate the way we sound when we’re recorded, but it’s a great way to hear for yourself where you need to rewrite or rethink what you want to say. It also gives you a chance to listen to your cadence as you speak, and see if you need to speed up, slow down, speak more loudly, more softly, etc. You may want to consider speaking more slowly on purpose, since most of us speak very quickly when we are nervous. Practicing speaking slowly before your speech will actually help you to speak at a normal pace during your speech.


Bonus Tip: Don’t Aim for Perfect

“Perfection is a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death.” Elizabeth Gilbert 

Last thing – don’t try to be perfect.

Perfectionism is a trap, and it will make you miserable. Your speech will never be perfect – no one makes a perfect speech. In the most famous, well-known, well-regarded speeches in history, there is at least one mistake, and probably more. The best speakers in the world make mistakes in their speeches all the time. Expect to make mistakes, and strive to get better.

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