Many people believe that a fear of public speaking can be overcome with an effort to “increase confidence.” That is, if you just felt more confident about yourself, public speaking would come more easily or naturally to you.
This is incorrect. An increase in confidence does not make you a better public speaker. It may make it easier for you to get up on stage in the first place, but there is little causation between the two.
This is because of a fundamental error in thinking about public speaking: we treat it like a sport. Many trace this to a diving board analogy: if you don’t climb that ladder in the first place, you have no chance of being able to dive off the board.
But I think the better way of thinking about it is as an art form – like singing, painting or playing an instrument. Sure, there are sports-related similarities there too (practice, practice, practice) and a 10,000 hour rule to consider, but the difference between a sport and an art is stark.
Most art practice happens in a safe space. Often, this is just you, or you and an instructor, or you and other artists. Unlike a sport, with its constant public trials and frequent team-based sprints, an artist generally gets to decide when they are ready to face the crowd – when they are good enough to be heard/seen/felt publicly.
In sport (and I have personal experience here), you are often first exposed to something in a group setting, where you’re cajoled, ridiculed and laughed at unless you climb that board. Yes, you’re up on the board, but unless you generally enjoy what you’re doing, you’re highly unlikely to get good at it.
So this is why I cringe everytime I see people try to push themselves onto a more public stage than they are ready for as speakers, pitchers or meeting leaders with some unfounded – and counterproductive – belief that exposure therapy is somehow the right cure here. It may be for some, but definitely not for all.
This “dive head first” approach leads people to make several mistakes that ultimately frustrate their ability to thrive as professional communicators. Here are a few of my least favorite examples:
Relying on Gimmicks
All gimmicks are bad in public speaking, unless they are categorically your own and part of your brand. Trying to be funny to deflect attention from your mediocre content and delivery doesn’t work. Using video clips may help give you a minute or two of breathing room, but audiences remember it if you rely too much on the video. Even fancy slides, graphics and animations only work briefly – a lesson most executives need to learn. In some cases these elements can be good, but no matter how fancy your visuals are, if your spoken presentation doesn’t kill, slides, jokes, etc, won’t help you.
Just Do It
You may be able to persuade, guilt, cajole or even bribe your way onto a stage to give a presentation, and many speaking coaches will advise you to do this as much and as often as you can. But whether you’re trying to establish yourself as an investable startup CEO, a leader of tomorrow or a thoughtful exponent of misunderstood truths, the more often you screw up as a speaker in front of influencers, the fewer opportunities you will receive. This will only make you less likely to want to do more speaking, and others less likely to “book” you to do it. It’s essential to nail your pacing for when you finally step out on the stage – and in the meantime you need professional help in a lower-stakes environment.
Being Overly Rehearsed
Many speakers believe that the greatest risk they have is they’ll forget their “lines”, and they believe that overcoming this will enable them to succeed in communications. But the biggest risk you have as a speaker is that the audience won’t pay attention to you sufficiently to understand what you have to say. And if your speech is overly rehearsed, and preoccupied with slavishly following every word you write down, you are likely to seem inauthentic. You become a monotonal, droning teacher – like the one from Peanuts – much faster than you realize. The crucial thing is to convey fewer ideas, better. That usually means less focus on memorizing specific words, and more attention on how to structure and communicate your ideas in a compelling way. The A-Ha! Method for memorization is designed to solve this problem while maintaining authenticity.
Imagining People Naked, etc.
The intent of this kind of gimmick is clear – change the narrative for potential embarrassment and lower the “temperature” of the challenge. However, the audience isn’t naked, and you really should spend the time prior to your talk getting in the zone. Once your talk has started, you shouldn’t be thinking about anything other than your talk itself. Adding cognitive load during these phases is precisely the wrong thing to do, and I advise working to calm/silence those extraneous thoughts. Some concepts from mindfulness and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) find their way into my coaching/training work, and the idea is to reframe the problem without adding distraction.
There are, of course, many other gimmicks speakers use to try and master their craft. Some may work for you, and others not. But if you’re hoping to improve your professional communication skills, you need to follow an approach (method) that looks holistically at all the moving parts. Mastery of your material, voice and tone are crucial, and comprehensive techniques like the A-Ha! Method can help you improve your communications across the board by building substantive – not gimmicky – confidence.
Great artists generally develop their own, highly-personalized approaches to creation – but the best always begin by learning a craft from an expert and using a system to approach their subjects. The same is true of professional public speaking, and while your best slide decks may never hang on the wall of the Louvre, Youtube is forever.
Over the past 7 years, I have been working to overcome my gripping and limiting fear of public speaking. After pushing myself out of my comfort zone and making public speaking improvement a priority, I have found that the benefits of liking and, dare I say, even loving public speaking instead of hating and fearing it are ABSOLUTELY LIFE CHANGING! Here is my story.
Face turning bright red like a tomato.
Mind going blank and having no idea what I am saying.
All I want to do is get the presentation over with and sit back down where no one can see me.
That is how I felt during every presentation and speech before I conquered my fear of public speaking.
I always knew I wasn’t a good speaker and presenter – throughout middle school, high school, college, grad school. It just wasn’t my thing. I always struggled with it anytime I had to get in front of a room, and therefore, I hated it and always got nervous anytime a presentation project was mentioned in one of my classes. I had so many theories as to why I wasn’t good at it. For example: I thought I just wasn’t born with this natural ability to speak in front of a crowd like others were. I also thought maybe I would suddenly find this magical confidence at age 35. Why 35? I don’t know, but in my mid-20’s it seemed like an age where I hoped I would stop caring what others thought and be comfortable in my skin. No matter what I did, this fear and anxiety followed me from school projects to my professional life, and I finally had enough.
Where this fear all started
D.A.R.E. Graduation in 5th grade
The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program involved police officers going to schools and teaching students about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and violence. Their main message, at least in 1998, was to just say “NO!” to all these substances, especially marijuana – a gateway drug to all the other drugs out there. (I’ll save my commentary on that line of thinking for another time.)
After students completed the D.A.R.E. graduation curriculum, they would hold a Graduation Ceremony where students had to say “NO!” to Drugs in front of their parents and family members. I gave it everything I had when I auditioned for the emcee role for the Graduation Ceremony, and I got it! I was probably the only one who tried out for the role, but I was still so excited!
Then the day came for the event. Armed with my index cards in hand, I got up to the microphone in front of the audience, and I froze! I could feel all the eyes on me, the silence was killer, and my hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably. I got terrible, awful stage fright, and I was so upset! This is my first memory of feeling this debilitating stage fright and anxiousness.
I blame D.A.R.E. for all my public speaking woes — not really, but it feels good to have someone else to blame for this problem. Because of the D.A.R.E. program, I struggled for 15 years with addiction. I was addicted… to saying “NO!” to public speaking. That’s my terrible joke, and I am sticking to it.
Since that terrifying time up on stage in 5th grade, I STRUGGLED with public speaking. Middle school, high school, college, grad school – every time I had to give a presentation, I hated it. Even doing introductions on the first day of class had my heart feeling like it was going to pump out of my chest. “Hi, my name is Dayna LeBlanc, and I am taking this course…because it’s required.” Why was that so hard to say??
I dreaded Speech 101 in college, but I luckily made it through that class with an A because only a percentage of the grade was actually based on your speaking ability. My ability to write outlines, complete projects, and study for tests was just fine. My first speech in Speech 101 class was a 4-minute speech on something that has influenced you. I decided to talk about my experience as a senior in high school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit — a topic I could for sure find four minutes worth of material to talk about. Four minutes seemed like an eternity to me, but when I got up to speak, I ignored my whole outline, went off script (aka rambled), and I ended up talking for 11.5 minutes. There were no timing lights to tell me I was way over time, only the slowly dropping faces of my classmates, who were shocked and overwhelmed at this long, run-on sentence of a story. I got a B+ on the assignment, most likely because the instructor either felt bad for the subject matter of my speech or me as the speaker or both.
My Last Straw Moment
I thought this was a problem that would just plague me in school — maybe I just got nervous in front of my peers, despite the many pep talks I would give myself. “I don’t care what they think about me. I am going to get up and give this presentation and not care at all what they think,” I would tell myself before my presentations. Maybe I didn’t really care what they thought of me, but when I got up in front of them, I sure worried if they could tell how nervous I was. I thought when I got out into the real world that I would be fine — completely poised and professional. But this theory was quickly proven wrong.
Three months into getting my dream job as an Employee Wellness Coordinator at a well-known insurance company in South Carolina, I had to give a wellness presentation to our HR department. The presentation was about Stress Management, and I worked for many days on prepping the slides and my talking points. The day of the presentation, I ran into my manager beforehand, and he told me the HR manager for the group I was presenting to was a Distinguished Toastmaster. I had no idea what that was, but I was 100x more intimidated after that. The pre-speech “I’m not nervous at all” pep talk went out the window, and I became overwhelmed with nerves.
During the presentation, I committed all the big public speaking blunders:
I didn’t introduce myself or my co-worker who came with me, and we were both new to the company,
I talked about how nervous I was — how fitting for a stress management presentation,
And I went way over time – about 15-20 minutes over.
In hindsight, no one died and probably no one who attended that presentation, except for me, remembers how bad it was, but that was the last straw.
After the presentation, I went back to my office, ran to the bathroom and cried. I was so upset that this fear and anxiety of public speaking had followed me from school to my professional life. I was so tired of not getting my message across when presenting and feeling terrible about my performance afterwards. I decided something had to change. I had to get over this crippling fear, for the sake of my career and my well-being.
How I Conquered My Fear
I thought about the Distinguished Toastmaster title — whatever that meant — and I decided to look up Toastmasters. Fortunately, my company had a corporate Toastmasters club that met every Thursday during lunchtime, so I decided to check it out. I visited as a guest for a month or so, and then in October 2014, I made it official and joined as a member. My department paid for my membership, which was nice and supportive. I gave my Icebreaker speech a few weeks after joining. I talked about 2 things that influenced me throughout my life — no, not Hurricane Katrina this time, that was my 2nd speech topic — I talked about my love for volleyball and running. I had nine umms and uhhhs, relied fully on my notes, used lots of unnecessary hand gestures, had a red blotchy face and neck afterwards, and I had to rush my conclusion to stay within timeframe, but I got through it. And no crying in the bathroom afterwards at least!
I gave at least one speech a month, and in June 2015, I had given 10 speeches to reach my Competent Communicator designation. By that 10th speech, I had ZERO filler words, index cards that I didn’t end up using, purposeful movements, and a polished, effective conclusion. I had really pushed myself to get up there and give these speeches, and I found that I enjoyed it, even though I still struggled with it. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was a whole lot better than when I started.
My Public Speaking Journey
Six and a half years later, I am still in Toastmasters, and I am enjoying getting to share my stories and practice my content. I also really enjoy hearing others share their stories. In this time, I have accomplished so many goals I NEVER thought I would reach. I got my Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) designation, meaning I gave over 50 speeches and served in leadership roles, and it took me about five years to do that.
I also competed in contests, which is something I never thought I would do. When I watched the World Championship of Public Speaking Finals as a new Toastmaster, I would think, “I could never do that!” Although I haven’t reached the Finals (yet), I have competed in smaller level contests and won! I won 2nd place in the District 58 Evaluation Contest in 2017, which meant I had to give a 2-3-minute evaluation of a speech. The fact that I am competing and putting myself through these contests is such a win in itself, I don’t really care what place I get, although it is nice to win every now and then.
I also served in leadership roles within my clubs, and I have now served as Club President and other roles for three different clubs. When I was Club President for the first time in 2017-2018, I could see my newfound leadership skills and confidence slowly start to transfer from my Toastmaster meetings to my professional work. I started speaking up in meetings more and advocating for myself and my needs as an employee and also the needs of the department. I started to be viewed as a leader within my department, even though I didn’t have the manager or supervisor title.
It truly is life changing to not be afraid of public speaking or being put on the spot. I don’t second-guess myself (as much) anymore, and I am no longer surprised by this confident person (me!) speaking up and leading meetings. I have embraced this confidence level I never thought I would have, and I have allowed it to take me to new heights — all before the age of 35 too! Another one of my why-I’m-so-bad-at-public-speaking theories now disproven. I have now tried things I never thought I would be able to do, such as lead conference calls and now video calls effectively, give speeches at weddings and funerals, take improv classes, take sketch writing classes, and much more!
I wish I could say the nerves are completely gone and exterminated, but they still show up every now and again. I get upset when the nerves creep into my speeches, but I am much more in control now of my speaking abilities.
I have lots of dreams and goals — I am going to start giving paid presentations as a side business, and I want to continue getting better at improv and sketch writing. It’s absolutely mind boggling how the girl who got so nervous at any mention of a speech or having to speak in front of a crowd now wants to do it as a career. And the fun comedy outlets would never have happened without my firm public speaking foundation and confidence to throw myself into a challenge and try something new. The sky is the limit here, and the only person who can hold me back from achieving my goals is me.
Does public speaking make you nervous?
I often don’t believe it when someone else says it, but it’s so true in this instance – “If I can conquer my fear of public speaking, you can too!” It takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and make public speaking improvement a priority, but when you do, you will find more than just growth. You will find life-changing confidence that you never thought you would have in your wildest dreams. This new confidence can take you to new heights in your job, your business, and your life if you let it. And this newfound confidence can come at any age too!
There are many ways to overcome your fears of public speaking, and the most important thing is to find the way that works best for you. Toastmasters helped me a ton, but there is a certain level of commitment that takes a lot of time to see results, so it doesn’t work for everyone. If you need quick help overcoming your fears and improving your public speaking skills, check out the online course “Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction: The A-Ha! Method” by award-winning instructor Gabe Zichermann.
We will soon start offering community sessions for course participants to practice their presentations and receive feedback – both helping to overcome those fears and make their presentations and pitches more effective. You can take the course at your leisure and put the included resources to use when you need them the most. Sign up for this helpful professional speaking course today!
Online meetings are part of the new normal. Even as businesses welcome back employees and desks are filling up again, the majority of businesses will continue to utilize online meeting platforms to connect teams remotely. Online meetings and presentations can be tough though, and many people find them much more difficult than in-person meetings.
Why? It comes down to interaction. When you are holding an online meeting presentation, many participants are multitasking and not giving you their full attention. It’s your job, as the presenter, to overcome that distraction by being as effective and engaging as possible. Here are five tips you can take to your next meeting to capture their attention and increase engagement.
5 Tips to Make Your Next Online Meeting More Engaging
1. Break up screen sharing with face-to-face engagement.
When you start a presentation or a meeting, the instinct is to start sharing your screen. As soon as you start sharing your screen, though, meeting participants will take that as an opportunity to multi-task. They’ll end up checking email, sending a quick text, or browsing through a report. If you want to get feedback or increase engagement, you need to turn screen sharing off occasionally.
Turn your camera back on and address your participants directly. They are more likely to stay engaged and respond when prompted if there is a human face on the screen. Otherwise, like you, they will be using screen sharing to hide.
2. Keep your sentences (and your slides) short.
No matter what you do during a virtual meeting, people will be tempted to multitask. Email, calendar reminders, and even distractions at home will pull their attention away from what you are saying. You need to overcome those distractions with your content.
That starts with keeping your sentences short and concise. Don’t launch into a monologue and expect people to follow along. Make sure every sentence you say has a purpose. Avoid rambling and end your sentences with a period instead of trailing off. This will help you keep your audience’s attention.
Practice the same technique with your slides. Only show the most important slides and keep the main point front and center on each one. If you end up using too many slides or showing them too much data, you’ll lose your audience.
3. Don’t be afraid of a little silence.
Silence will scare inexperienced presenters. They will end up trying to fill it or talk through it. However, professional presenters know that a little silence is a good thing. Learn to get comfortable with periods of silence in your presentations. Silence will encourage discussion and participation. It also gives your audience some time to think before they start speaking.
Your instinct to jump in and keep talking will be strong, so practice counting silently in your head while you wait. This helps you fill the time in your own mind, but it will also clue you in to how short those silences really are. Many presenters find that even three seconds of silence is enough to encourage discussion, but don’t be afraid to wait longer.
4. Be mindful of busy schedules.
You probably aren’t the first meeting on their list today. You probably aren’t the last, either. Make sure you are mindful of people’s time. We all know how too many meetings can end up eating away the day and cutting into actual productivity. That can make your participants frustrated from the beginning, as well as more likely to try to multitask while they listen to you. Keep it short and sweet when you can.
Along with that, make sure you know what you are doing in the meeting. That includes understanding how to put the technology to work. There is nothing worse than sitting through a meeting when the presenter doesn’t know how to use the platform. Practice if you need to so you know how to start videos, advance slides, and turn screen sharing on and off.
5. Make sure the takeaways are clear.
By the end of the meeting, make sure participants have clear goals or takeaways. If you need to make decisions, make them in the meeting or leave the attendees with action points about what will happen next. This makes the meeting feel like it was worth their time and gives them something to act on afterward.
A final slide at the end of your presentation with the main points written out is helpful and/or a follow-up email with action points, which will ensure everyone is on the same page, too.
Bonus Tip: Learn the art of interruption.
If you have a participant who is rambling or who has gone off-topic, learn how to politely interrupt them and get things back on track. For those who don’t like to interrupt, it may feel more difficult to do. However, if you don’t, you risk losing the attention of the rest of your participants while one person overruns your meeting. Plus, the meeting can end up being a waste of time when important topics aren’t discussed. A simple, “Okay, let’s redirect our attention…” will usually do the trick.
Still Struggling to Get Your Message Across in Virtual Meetings?
Are your Zoom, Teams, or other virtual meetings and presentations as effective and engaging as they could be? If you are looking for more tips and advice on how to increase audience engagement in your next virtual meeting, check out the online course “Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction: The A-Ha! Method.” Award-winning instructor Gabe Zichermann offers plenty of tips and tricks on public speaking, including:
Crafting engaging openings and conclusions
Using effective slides to capture attention
Understanding the best methods to get your message across
And so much more. Each tip will help you level up your professional communications so you can capture attention and get your point across in a meaningful way. You can take the course at your leisure and put the included resources to use when you need them the most. Sign up for this professional speaking course today!
When someone says the phrase “public speaking,” most of us feel a pang of anxiety and visualize an expert holding forth from the middle of TED’s red circle.
But public speaking in the 21st century has evolved to be so much more than what we imagine – though no less frightening. And the pandemic’s effect on professional life has only increased its importance.
It’s believed that in the future of work, people will be more independent and “gig-oriented,” bringing the skill of Pitching from the sales floor to every corner of the enterprise. Moreover workers will increasingly need to run Meetings that take place in the semi-remote workplace of the future, partly over Zoom and partly live. Additionally, Persuasive Communications will become more important as increasing automation makes strategy the primary focus of workers. And as startups continue to out-innovate established companies, Fundraising (or financial communication) will be more and more in-demand. This says nothing of the importance of influencer culture on marketing, and the continued ascent of professional spokespeople on the corporate ladder.
In short, it’s more important than ever to be a good public speaker, and for companies to put professional communications front and center in Learning and Development (L&D) strategies. Let’s take a closer look at how these skills have changed for today’s workplace and the implications for professionals.
Pitching usually conjures up scenes from Mad Men or Glengarry Glen Ross of salespeople relentlessly making cold calls to close business. But as corporate strategy has shifted from top-down and multi-year investment to decentralized, democratized and more agile, the need for good pitching skills becomes crucial for employees at every level. If you want to make yourself heard and ideas adopted, you must be good at pitching.
Good 21st century pitches are short and to-the-point so that they combat device distraction. They leverage the power of “A-Ha! Moments” to get the audience to yes as quickly as possible. And most importantly, they convey the importance of the project through emotional appeals, with numbers supporting the idea rather than leading it.
Even as the number of meetings has exploded in corporate life, the way we run meetings has changed little. Sure, sometimes we stand and others we sit. Sometimes it’s 45 minutes instead of 60. Or, sometimes you’re on back-to-back Zoom calls for 7 straight hours without a bathroom or lunch break.
To adapt to this modern melee, leaders need to be able to control the crowd, marshall resources and ensure everyone is engaged while juggling distractions and tech requirements. This will be even more complex as we start to return to work and meetings become permanently local-remote hybrids. To succeed, you’ll need to up your ZoomQ.
It’s always been true that great leaders are masters of persuasion. Obviously, landing a phenomenal deal, speaking to press/customers, convincing investors to lay down their cash, or getting key employees out of a competitor are all actions that get someone noticed – and promoted.
But the way we persuade has changed as a result of social media-induced cynicism and device distraction. No matter how compelling you might be, it’s hard to convince someone to follow your lead if they are multi-tasking on Instagram or find you inauthentic/overly rehearsed. To succeed professionally going forward, we must be able to persuade sincerely and effectively, keeping attention spans in mind.
As entrepreneurship increases its appeal and share of the economic landscape, so too does the need for good fundraising skills. Fundraising pitches are similar to sales pitches and general public speaking, but follow some different rules that must be adhered to. Intrapreneurs, in particular, may need extra support to develop this skill.
Primarily, to excel in today’s fundraising climate, you need to be highly structured, optimized for emotion, and able to condense your ideas into a short timeframe. Investors love to say “no,” so the critical job of any fundraising pitch (internal or external) is to avoid the “no,” and modern techniques of public speaking should enable this skill transfer for professionals.
As the power of social media has grown, so too have the number of people who need basic media training / performance skills. The current moment has spawned an Influencer Culture, where individuals create their persona and brand identity to generate followers (and purchases) online.
But companies and executives also want to be influential. This means being comfortable with the small screen / camera, natural and engaging, and compelling in a way that gets someone to keep watching instead of swiping left. You can see this in the phenomenal social media skills of various CEOs, like Elon Musk and T-Mobile CEO, Mike Sievert – approachable celebrities in the Twittersphere.
Concomitant with the rise of social media and influencers, is the need to effectively interface with the public, including investors, consumers, regulators and other stakeholders. Media training orthodoxy has always held that a select few executives should be held out as spokespeople, and their words carefully chosen at all times.
But this kind of rigid structure is not what the moment demands. People want authenticity and honesty. As we’ve seen in congressional testimony by countless executives this is simply not a skill that most executives possess. If you want to level up your skills and grow your influence internally, one of the best abilities is being able to communicate effectively with the outside (or other side, as with Pete Buttigieg and Fox News).
In Summary The future of work has always been somewhat uncertain, vacillating between inertia (everyone works 9-5) and outrageous disruption (everyone works remote). As our workplaces and personal lives continue their inexorable merging, and technology increases exponentially, things will change again.
Primarily, the ability to communicate effectively in the changing world should be a skill possessed by a wide swath of current and aspiring professionals. The future demands that everyone is able to pitch, run a meeting, persuade, fundraise, influence and speak on behalf of their employer.
Public speaking today is so much more than TED talks and hokey elocution lessons. It is the most important skill set for tomorrow’s leaders, and one in which companies and individuals must invest.
To find out more about how to improve your personal or organization’s Public Speaking in the 21st Century, check out our new online Course.