Take a second and imagine another version of yourself; one that speaks up in meetings, that seeks out opportunities to speak in front of groups, that enthusiastically leads meetings and asks thoughtful questions in a room full of people. How would that alter others’ perceptions of you as a leader? How would that alter YOUR perception of what you are capable of? How much more confidence would you have? What would that do for your career?
It’s been said that public speaking is one of the most critical leadership skills because it differentiates you from others.
“The ability for a leader to move people through communications cannot be underestimated. I don’t think there’s anything more important.” Professor Paul Argenti, Dartmouth Tuck Business School
So why don’t we prioritize public speaking more? Because, it’s messy and uncomfortable and we maybe don’t even know where to start.
I know because I do it a lot. The messy part at least.
As high performance coach, a fair amount of my job is speaking in public. So the topic of public speaking comes up in many conversations. Such as the fact that public speaking is feared more than death, or that the person I’m conversing with ‘absolutely hates’ speaking in public. And on occasion, I get positive feedback, sometimes in the vein of ‘wow, you are such a natural public speaker.’
Which always makes me laugh because, while the compliment is nice, I’m here to assure you that I am not at all a ‘natural public speaker.’ Don’t get me wrong, those people exist, I’m just not one of them. My husband, for example, can get up on a stage, any stage, with absolutely no preparation and proceed to effortlessly make everyone in the room laugh.
It’s amazing (and slightly annoying) because for me, it’s work.
But it wasn’t always that way. There was one time that public speaking came easily and naturally for me, and that was in 1st grade when I ran for student body vice president against a 5th grader.
Yes you read that right. My boldness peaked at 7 years old.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to channel my inner first grader who bravely got up in a school wide assembly and told everyone to vote for her.
I’m still working on it. These days, all I do is work, and work and work, to make it look ‘natural.’
All this to say that I thoroughly I appreciate the fear and the disdain and the avoidance probably more than you’d think given my profession. But I also know, first hand, how critical public speaking is for career advancement. Which is why I want to share a few tips that have helped me first learn to hate public speaking a little less and now embrace it as a wonderful and fulfilling challenge.
Tip #1: Don’t wait for the big opportunities, seek out the small ones.
This is critical because once you start telling yourself that you ‘hate public speaking’, or you are ‘bad at public speaking’, and other people are ‘naturals’ at it, guess what happens? You start avoiding it in a big and small ways, sometimes without even realizing it.
And in my experience, the small ways are the most significant. Because the more you avoid it, the scarier it becomes.
Most of us don’t actually have that many big opportunities to speak so you need to start practicing in the myriad small ways available to you: ask questions in big groups, speak up in meetings, volunteer to introduce another speaker, be the lead on a presentation when you could easily just work behind the scenes. The little opportunities are all around you. Take them.
Tip #2: Have a growth mentality.
Our ability to speak in public is not a fixed trait, it’s a learned and practiced skill that anyone can improve. The best speakers I know do it ALL the time and they iterate their presentation and delivery each time. People that aren’t ‘good’ at speaking, avoid it (see tip #1) then remind themselves how bad they are at speaking if they do get an opportunity. Think of speaking as learning the guitar, you actually have to DO it A LOT and learn from mistakes to get better.
One way simple way to get better each time is to write down 3 good things you did and two places you can improve. Don’t expect perfection; focus on growth and getting better each time.
Tip #3: Prepare like a pro
It’s really easy to think that looking at your slides a million times means you are practicing. But that’s only one part of preparation. It’s sort of like acting in a play without rehearsing- you might know the lines but you might not be prepared for the nerves, the lights, the ‘feeling’ of being on stage. And, while you may not be about to actually practice in the venue, with the crowd, you can visualize it.
This is the exact method I teach my Olympic athlete clients because it works:
Close your eyes and pretend like you are giving your speech. But instead of watching yourself talk, imagine that you have a GoPro video camera on your forehead and you are viewing what the experience would look like as if it’s happening now. See what you would see and feel and hear as if you were giving the talk right now. Be as detailed as possible. This is great to do before or after sleep (see tip #4).
Tip #4: Practice while half asleep
As a hypnotist, I know that anytime we can work from our subconscious mind we are more fluid, natural and things seem easier. I also know that the best time to connect with your subconscious mind is before or after sleep, when you are not quite asleep but not quite awake. Go over your talk then and let yourself daydream a bit about what you are going to talk about. Don’t try too hard but rather think of it as mind floating. This is especially helpful after you’ve gotten a good feel for the material and need to work on making it flow naturally or you need to work on telling a story.
Tip #5: Impact 1 person
When I work with my clients on speaking, they often are struggling with one specific thing: trying too hard to impress the audience. They want everyone in the room to like them or they are too focused on selling the client on a product or idea. In other words, they are overly results focused. And it’s distracting.
I know because I used to do the same thing. I’d focus on changing the lives of each and everyone who saw me speak, every single time, without exception.
Which is admirable until you realize that being too focused on results actually works against you. Because inevitably, there will be someone on their phone while you are speaking or otherwise looking like they would rather be at the dentist.
This is true for everyone who speaks in public and if you let it dissuade you or distract you, it will.
Instead, focus on impacting ONE person (even better if you know who that one person is.) Look forward to one person walking out of your talk different than when they walked in and focus on what an honor it is to be able to impact lives, one person at a time. Even if you are selling something, it can still be done in a way that maximizes impact. For example, is there a young woman in the room? What an example you will set for her as you go through your presentation poised and confident. Do you truly think the product you are talking about will positively impact someone’s day to day life? Focus on that and don’t get distracted by trying too hard to impress.
So there you have it, 5 tips to help you learn to love public speaking, or at least hate it a little less. I’ve used these tips myself time and time again because I know firsthand that public speaking can tap into our deepest fears of rejection. Putting yourself out there is scary and in many ways feels unnatural. Know that you are not the only one to feel that and it does get easier with experience and proper preparation. These 5 tips will help you feel confident in the process of working through your fears to a place where the challenge is part of what makes public speaking exhilarating and rewarding for you. Trust me, it can be, and it will be well worth your effort, both personally and professionally.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts! Which of the 5 tips would make the most impact in your life? What would you add to the list?