They say it's America's number one fear...
January 19, 2011 10:52 AM   Subscribe

What are some good ways to get over my fear of public speaking?

I host a monthly event with a friend of mine, where people tell stories live on stage. I've told stories a couple times and they've been OK -- but listening to the recordings my nervousness is really apparent. I get tongue-tied, giggle, make inappropriate jokes...

Does anyone have advice on how to be more comfortable or at ease in front of a crowd, in front of a mic situation? I'd like to be a nice, funny, engaging host and not seem like I'm shaking in my boots.
posted by custard heart to Human Relations (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Toastmasters This has come up many, many, many times here.
posted by fixedgear at 10:53 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could join Toastmasters; that's pretty much what they do.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:54 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Prepare what you're going to say ahead of time as much as possible. Practice in private if necessary. I always find that the surer I am of what I'm saying now and what I'm going to say next, the better my delivery/comfort with the crowd.
posted by litnerd at 10:56 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Probably the biggest insight I took from my public speaking class last semester was that you shouldn't treat nervousness while on stage as your body revolting against you. In fact, you get nervous because your body is trying to tell you, this is important and worth doing right. That really changed my attitude while giving speeches.

In line with that, rehearsal makes a huge difference. Rehearse, out loud, standing up. It's quite important to be standing up while you rehearse if you expect you'll be standing in front of the crowd. It will get you in the right mindset and get you familiar with how you will feel in front of the crowd. If you can rehearse once or twice in front of a trusted friend or family member, even better. Get an idea of the right rhythm and get a feel for the "beats" in your speech. Rehearsal is SO important, and will help you feel more at ease as it comes time for you to get up in front of the crowd and deliver your speech; you'll feel more prepared, more like you're supposed to be there.

Good luck!
posted by malapropist at 11:03 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Be sure that the time you're on stage speaking is the twelfth time you've given the speech/presentation. Not just ran through it in your head, but actually given it. Stood up and said it aloud in an empty room if you have to.

By the twelfth time you'll know it off hand and so you can forget about what line's coming next, or how your tone should rise and fall etc. You just deliver.
posted by dougrayrankin at 11:15 AM on January 19, 2011

Wait, you have an opportunity to practice live every month?? That's awesome! The best way to get good at something is to do it, so go out there and do, do, do!
My professional public speaking skills, for example, stem from being in a band, and the transition from backup singer to occasioanl soloist and the person who chatters while the guitar player fixes his broken strings. My consolation at the beginning: those people in the audience have a lot of things to entertain them on any given night, and whether my stuff is shaky or not isn't going to ruin their evening.
Because the band totally took the fear out of standing in front of a microphone, my academic talks are a zillion times better. I can't recommend that anybody who wants to improve their public speaking skills go join a pub band, but to get this question from someone who actually does have performance opportunites?? go! go! perform! It's not supposed to be fantastic right now, it's supposed to get better as you go, that's the point of open-mics and local entertainment venues.
posted by aimedwander at 11:20 AM on January 19, 2011

I just saw this yesterday: 5 Presentation Lessons From The King's Speech
posted by leigh1 at 11:22 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

One thing that I think has made a difference for me is to focus on the person who is the farthest away from me. If I'm concentrating on that person, and making sure that they can hear me and understand what I'm saying, it helps me project my voice and not mumble so much. When you need to project your voice, you naturally have to make it a little louder and clearer, and then you also tend to sound more confident. And sounding more confident helps you feel more confident.

You might have to practice holding your mic at different distances from your mouth, so that you don't blow out everybody's eardrums. Or, try not using a mic.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:30 AM on January 19, 2011

What worked for me was writing it down, every word, as if it were an essay or article I had to present for publication. And then just read it. Only not just read it, refer to it as often as you have to but have it in front of you as you speak. Rehearse first of course. And keep track of where you are with a finger as you go, so you won't find yourself unexpectedly lost. All this is so reassuring that after a time or two, it'll start to get easier. I still do that if I have to give a talk. And I'm a guy who literally burst into tears--in college!--when he had to give a speech the first time. Man, if I can get from there to here, so can you! After a while, after people laugh at your jokes and nod wisely at your aphorisms, you'll even start to feel confident, and proud, and believe you're good at it. I admire your courage doing it.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:59 AM on January 19, 2011

I make sure to take an over the counter sleeping pill the night before so I am sure I will be rested. Also, that I am hydrated and caffienated so I feel really energetic going in to the talk. If you can use some sort of visual cues that will help you remember key points, it's very useful. For example, I used to demonstrate painting techniques to large crowds of retailers. I had the points I wanted to cover on the back of the display board written in big easy to read letters that I could see from really far away and the audience could not see I had these reminders since they were looking at the face of the board.

Look just over the audience's head and don't make eye contact. This will help you stay in your energetic narrative groove.

I preferred to give a dense, interesting lecture, and leave the group wishing it would go on a little longer rather than a deliberate, slow paced, a little too much information lecture.

Good luck!
posted by effluvia at 12:18 PM on January 19, 2011

It gets better with time. I also have a bit of a fright here back in the day, but I just kept doing it - you are already doing it - and it gets better with time! I still get anxious, however I just try to suck it down, and go with the flow :)

All the best!
posted by TrinsicWS at 12:37 PM on January 19, 2011

It definitely gets better with practice, so the more you do it, the more you will improve. You may want to volunteer for low-key speaking things before your monthly gig (say, doing informal presentations at work or with organizations to participate in), even if you are speaking to a much smaller crowd. It'll help.

Quick tip: if you are the type who is unnerved by the sea of eye contact in front of you when presenting to a crowd, start off by focusing on an inanimate point or object right behind your audience. It's not quite as effective and warm as making real eye contact, but it'll help you ease into speaking comfortably and fairly naturally if all the eyeballs are making you want to flee.
posted by vivid postcard at 12:47 PM on January 19, 2011

I joined toastmasters. It has helped immensely.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 1:59 PM on January 19, 2011

Fourth-ing Toastmasters. I've nearly completed the first level after joining almost two years ago, and I've noticed a considerable improvement in my public speaking skills. Don't be afraid to shop around at different TM groups, they all have their own kind of flavor. It's very normal for people to attend a few meetings before deciding to join. MeMail me if you want to know more about how it works.
posted by mostly vowels at 3:25 PM on January 19, 2011

People often say "don't over-prepare," but for me that's one of the most helpful techniques. I write my speech far in advance (think 2 weeks or more), and then practice it daily until I can give it without even glancing at my notes. The key is not to memorize it word-for-word and not to speak stiffly, as though you are reading off of a page. Try to write it out in a colloquial style, and then just practice many times.

Once I've gotten my points memorized fairly well, I force myself to say the speech once or twice a day, like in the shower for instance (and it really does feel forced, it gets so familiar that it's tedious to go through). But when the speech is memorized to that degree, you are freed up to focus on the things that will make your speech really great, like relaxing your body movements, projecting your voice and enunciating, etc. You won't be worrying about whether you'll forget what you wanted to say, because you could say the thing in your sleep at that point.

And yes, of course Toastmasters and other organizations that have you give many different speeches over and over will help, because the pure exposure to the task will make you less anxious about it in the future.
posted by Bebo at 5:25 PM on January 19, 2011

The advice for "practice a lot" is only helpful if you know which skills to practice. Otherwise it's like putting a beginner on a ski slope with no instructions and telling them, "You'll get less nervous after you try a lot".

I'm speaking from my experience as a previous "Area Governor" of Toastmasters with two certifications, and having received 10+ hours of group and 1:1 executive coaching for public speaking.

Here are the most important skills:

1. Speak twice as loudly as you think you need to. It's almost impossible to speak too loudly, whereas it's very common to speak too quietly, so keep speaking louder. If you know how, drop your voice so that you are using chest voice, not head voice. This will make your voice strong instead of reedy.

2. Pause every 5 to 10 words. In public speaking, you need to pause far more often than in regular speech. If you listen to Martin Luther King's speeches, you'll notice the long pauses. I have a dream... [pause] ... that one day... [pause] ... this nation will rise up ... [pause]" Pausing prevents your voice from shaking.

Any time you feel confused, nervous, or catch yourself saying "um", you need to pause more.

3. Look out into the audience. At a minimum, make sure you look into the audience and not your shoes or podium or notes. As a bonus, space out your attention across the quadrants of the audience so that everyone feels included, not just one section.

If you do these three things, your speaking will become drastically better. Once you have the capability, the true confidence will follow.
posted by cheesecake at 1:15 AM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Read this chapter from The Evolution of Psychotherapy (Zeig, 1997) called The Evolution of Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (p. 69 onwards). Albert Ellis himself had a major fear of public speaking and talks about overcoming it in this chapter (as well as how he used the same technique to overcome his fear of talking to women).
posted by KLF at 1:59 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

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