Getting sweaty comes with the territory of being a public speaker. But when the deluge starts, how do you keep yourself in a state of flow? On this episode, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan talk about the tricks, tips and hacks for making yourself less self-conscious and more in charge of your sweatiness.
Weddings, Bachelor/Bachelorette Parties, Holiday Gatherings and Funerals are all situations in which we may find ourselves needing (or wanting) to give a speech. For many people, this is the first time they are prompted to improve their public speaking skills. For others, it is merely a nail-biting event at which we desperately want to succeed.
Speaking professionals refer to these kinds of talks as “Social Speeches,” or Special Occasion Speeches, to differentiate them from business or political ones. The important distinction is in the name: speeches in this milieu are meant to evoke a particular kind of closeness or connection. Generally if you’re asked to speak at these events, the organizer will be less concerned with your polish and perfection, and more with your delivery of appropriately funny and/or touching anecdotes in a good spirited way.
Whether this is the one and only time you’ll get up in front of people to speak, or just another step in your journey to become a better communicator, there are several key lessons you should observe when planning and executing a social speech.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Yes, social speeches are somewhat lower stress than professional keynotes. They are usually unpaid, often unsupervised, and – because the organizer is not usually an event professional – they are given minimal attention until the big day. Don’t let this lackadaisical and freewheeling environment fool you: to do a great job at public speaking – regardless of the context – you need to practice your heart out. If you use the approach described in the A-Ha! Method, you can save significant time and may find it easier to memorize and nail those points.
You Don’t Have to Be Funny
Film and TV tend to represent these social speeches as comedic moments. But if you don’t have the halcyon delivery of Owen Wilson or the hipster gravitas of Vince Vaughn, you may not be perfectly suited to hitting those jokes repeatedly. This is not to say that you couldn’t or shouldn’t be funny, but the suggestion is to know your voice and to embrace it. If you’re more serious, be more serious and heartfelt. If you’ve got a light touch, do that. Either way, you’ll be more successful if you embrace your own POV than trying to fit into someone else’s mold.
Shorter is Better
Most social speeches should be kept under 5 minutes. Just think about the typical wedding: if 6 people/groups need to speak, and each takes 10 minutes, you’ll be sitting there for a solid hour listening to family members and friends drone on. Take a cue from what you would enjoy and keep it to a nice tight 2-3 minutes. The shorter timeframe will help you focus and give you clarity. After all, it’s better to say one thing really well than 5 things poorly.
Grab The A-Ha! Moment
In every social speech there is typically one line: an anecdote, observation, expression of love or broader social issue, that is the memorable moment from the speaker. Much as we do when giving a keynote or conference talk using the A-Ha! Method, our process begins by thinking about those moments of connection with the audience, and then building a talk around it. This emotional high-point is the thing that will have the biggest impact, so it needs to be strong. In most social speeches, there is time for one A-Ha! Moment in the middle, and a strong tag at the end that wraps everything up and brings it together.
Strong Openings and Closings
There is a tendency for most speakers to “fill” time as the stage or mic is being transitioned to them. “Hi everyone, how’s it going?” is a great example, or mentioning the previous speaker(s) to then ease into your speech. It makes the speaker feel better, but increases the time from the switch over until your first point of brilliance is expressed. If you can, take a deep breath and launch directly into your speech without any transitional phrases. The same goes for the end: as you create the last line of the talk, make sure to clearly differentiate between the end of your talk and the start of a toast (for example). Toasts or blessings are not endings, and should be treated as separate from your core talk.
Many professional speakers, when asked to talk about their most important talks, refer to these social speeches. You may spend your life on a keynote stage, traveling around the world – but perhaps the most important memories you’ll make will be much closer to home. So no matter where you are in your journey of improving your communications skills, now’s the right time to lean in.
Here’s a toast to your upcoming social speeches – may you give them and give them well, and may you regale all your family and friends with your stories and talks at your next special occasion event. Cheers!
Getting and keeping people’s attention is harder than ever as a public speaker. In this episode, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan explore the techniques that public speakers use to practice and develop their work, and how this helps build confidence.
I remember my grandfather – whose BMI was much lower than mine – carrying a handkerchief in the dead of winter to mop his ever-sweaty brow. My larger frame (thicc by today’s standards) has made me even more sweaty in every aspect of my life.
In general, I’ve come to terms with it. But when you’re watching your TED talk and see your arms lifted with sweat stains clearly visible through your dress shirt, it feels like too much. Being sweaty at the gym or beach poses minimal professional risk, but – even if people won’t tell you to your face – a super sweaty body or handshake isn’t great when you’re trying to bill $10,000/hour.
Over my 20 years of paid, professional speaking I’ve tried almost everything to ameliorate this problem, from potions to just giving up and embracing my body’s quirks. Eventually I settled on a few tricks and strategies that have served me well. If you’re not a super-sweater, you might still find these useful – because even Zoom doesn’t hide those pits. And as any sweaty person knows, once you’re conscious of your sweat, it makes it almost impossible to focus on anything else (e.g. the speech you’re supposed to give).
Antiperspirant is the first way most people try to solve this problem. But because adrenaline and increased blood pressure tend to increase sweating, speeches are more likely than most situations to “break through” supermarket brands. I recommend switching to a clinical-strength antiperspirant that you carry with you for talks (live or online). Asking your doctor for a recommendation is a great way to start. Don’t use the stuff regularly, or you’ll develop a tolerance for it (and potential other health complications) – so keep it for the “special” occasions of your speaking. If you don’t wear any antiperspirant on most occasions or days, you’ll find that the selective application of the stuff will help you on the days you need it most.
Adding layers of undergarments can be a good go-to, but there’s a delicate balance between stopping your sweat from showing and raising your basal body temperature through excessive clothing. If you are an undershirt kind of person, a brand I’ve found to be highly effective is Eji’s. They make a line of “sweat proof” items that have a special liner to prevent your pits – and other parts – from showing. Whatever you do, don’t double up on undershirts or underwear – it will only make you hotter, and definitely won’t help.
The big secret of professional public speakers is the use of a strategic blazer. Men, women and non-binary speakers can find a range of great blazers that look good, project the right image, and help you keep from showing your sweat. The key is to not take the blazer off after your talk until the situation has calmed down, so to speak. This can be especially difficult in venues with inadequate air conditioning, but it’s a low price to pay for protection. And pro tip: black is both slimming and hides sweat the best.
While your hands being sweaty during your talk is normal and really no big deal, sweaty hands after a talk – particularly when shaking them with prospective clients or event bookers – can be a major no-no. Take a minute after you’re done pitching or speaking from the stage to go to the restroom, wash your hands, dry them thoroughly, and return to the action in the venue. If that is impossible, a small amount of hand sanitizer (which you probably have at all times nowadays) and a handkerchief in your pocket can give your palms a quick refresh. Of course, you can also always use the pandemic as an excuse to elbow bump instead.
Body Temperature Regulation
There’s a reason that most TV studios are freezing cold. This serves two purposes: to keep the equipment and the hosts from overheating. Sweat ruins clothes, makeup and a 4K high-def close up, and the same will be true for you as a speaker. Now, you may not have control of the venue’s temperature – and particularly if you’re in Europe, the venue will most likely be on the warm side – but there are things you can do. First, dress for the venue prior to your talk. If it’s warm (and you’ll know because you followed my advice to scope it out beforehand), keep your blazer off and/or wear lighter clothes prior to the start of your talk. Don’t shower, work out or otherwise over-exert yourself in the hour before your speech or pitch begins, and do what you can to keep yourself calm. If you’re broadcasting from home – turn down the AC as low as it will go and freeze your room before the talk starts – you can set it back to a normal/cool temperature once you’re finished. And remember to drink lots of water…but not so much that you can’t time your bathroom breaks.
Excessive sweating can become a clinical condition called Hyperhidrosis. Even if you don’t have this rare but often-debilitating issue, you can suffer from sweating that is “excessive” (a social, not medical construct) during and after important talks. The critical thing to remember, of course, is that this is perfectly normal. You should feel sweaty during and after a talk because you put your heart and soul into it, and that nervous reaction is absolutely natural. However, if you don’t feel confident and comfortable in your body under those circumstances, it will affect your performance. And the most critical thing is to ensure that your talk goes well, that you land your points, and that the audience is changed by what you have to say. Anything that gets in the way of that – and it’s usually something in your head – is detrimental to success. That’s why we teach the importance of practice, confidence and content-centricity in our self-directed online course, The A-Ha! Method.
The phrase “Never let them see you sweat” was coined by advertising guru Phil Slott in his 1980s commercials for the antiperspirant Dry Idea. It caught on precisely because of its broader meaning: that you need to project confidence and calm, no matter how you’re feeling inside, if you want to conquer the highest peaks of your profession. Public speaking, pitching and meeting management are types of performance, and good performers invest in managing their sweat to create the right impression.
The content comes first. But staying high and dry is always a good idea.
Practice, practice, practice! That is the best way to become a better public speaker.
Each week the Speakers Alliance runs a FREE Speech Practice Clinic for people looking to improve their public speaking skills. Gabe and Dayna will discuss issues of importance, answer questions about professional and personal public speaking skills/techniques, and listen to/critique as many short-form talks as possible. The sessions take place Wednesdays at 6pm Pacific Time, and all are welcome. You can attend as many Wednesday sessions as you would like.
Talks can be 5-6 minutes long. The panel will provide up to 3 minutes of feedback. Speeches must be on a professional topic. If you do not have a speech prepared, you can still attend and listen to others practice and ask questions during the Q&A period.
Each week The Speakers Alliance runs a free Speech Clinic for people looking to improve their public speaking skills. We discuss issues of importance, answer questions about professional and personal public speaking skills/techniques, and listen to/critique as many short-form talks as possible. The sessions take place Wednesdays at 6pm Pacific Time, and all are welcome.
In our session last week one of the first questions the participants asked was, “Why is it so much harder to do Zoom speeches than in-person?”
There are several reasons why Zoom talks are objectively harder to give, and each one of these requires some adjustment to your practice in order to overcome.
You’ve probably noticed people nodding their heads when listening to someone else speaking, and if you pay attention, you’ll probably notice yourself doing the same thing. In most societies, this kind of passive nodding is a gesture that means “I’m listening to you.” It may also mean “I agree/disagree with you,” but that is much more gender and culture-specific. Over time, as we communicate to others in groups, we observe this behavior and model it. Then we may unconsciously seek the nod as affirmation, and become uncomfortable or disturbed when we don’t get it. If you’ve ever pitched to a completely stone-faced venture capitalist, you’ll know what I mean.
Virtual meetings (e.g. Zoom) make it very difficult to see if people are nodding their heads for a variety of reasons, including the size of video feed, whether the video feed is even on, the changing order of avatars and the need to focus on the camera itself (more on this later). All together, it is nearly impossible to see if people are listening to you, and if you’re empathetic/experienced in live speaking, this can cause you to slip out of flow.
Being able to overcome your zero-feedback unease is a critical skill that will serve you well both for online and live talks. To do this, I recommend a few techniques to those I train:
Attach a photo of someone you love just above the camera of your device. Focus your attention on that picture, and imagine you’re speaking directly to them as you deliver your lines. If you find it difficult to love, or are going through a big breakup, I suggest placing a picture of an attractive celebrity there, along with the encouragement to “look here”. This will help you both maintain camera focus and reduce your need for affirmation.
Practice your presentations staring at a wall. Get around 6 inches from a wall, and practice giving your whole presentation in that state. Keep your eyes open and in soft focus. Repeating this process will make it easier for you to disconnect your visual reinforcement system from your speaking system.
For major presentations, I would go so far as to suggest having someone from your family stand behind the camera and listen to your speech. You can look at them, get the nods you need, and stay focused/engaged. Just make sure, as with all suggestions, that you align the external item with the camera so it appears that you’re looking directly at the audience.
In live speeches, we’re often taught to scan the room so that we’re able to make eye contact with everyone at one time or another. This can also be accomplished in some settings by pacing on the stage (e.g. Apple Keynotes). However, when doing a presentation direct to camera, it is actually detrimental for you to dart your eyes around as you’re speaking, especially if you’re looking at little participant avatars in a strip.
The best way to “make eye contact” in a Zoom presentation is to stare into the camera. Each participant will thus feel like you are talking directly to them, whereas if your gaze moves, they will feel the exact opposite.
Doing this well can be hard for several reasons, including the fact that most webcams are actually hidden in the bezel of laptops these days, and only a small green LED indicates where the aperture is located. But also, the lens of a camera is cold and unfeeling, and even experienced and seasoned speakers often have trouble doing this well.
Follow the same advice as given above for nodding, but also consider getting a separate webcam and/or calling greater attention to the one you have. Just having a visual reference to look at that’s bigger than a small dot can do wonders for improving your gaze. Someone I was advising actually put a Gumby doll on their webcam…and it works!
When you’re giving a talk live at your company or a conference, there are typically audio/visual technicians to help ensure all your pieces are running smoothly. For keynotes and other major presentations, you don’t even typically use your own devices to show slides, but rather give those to the AV team who makes everything runs smoothly. Thanks, AV team!
But when you present from your computer, you are the IT team, and even if you’re very computer savvy, even minor tech issues can negatively affect your performance.
Follow this guidance to reduce your anxiety about tech issues (and the risk of having problems):
Create a separate user on your device called “presentations”. In this user account, disable all apps that aren’t directly relevant to your presentation efforts.
30 minutes before starting, reboot your computer into this “Presentations” user. Launch your key apps and make sure they are completely up to date.
Set up your lighting, change your clothes, adjust your mic and test your appearance at the beginning of this 30 minute period. If you do this well, you’ll be able to ensure everything is done with 15 minutes to spare – time you can use to practice mindfulness or to run through your presentation again.
Always logon to the event several minutes before your scheduled start time unless you’re told otherwise. This is your final check on the status of things.
There are plenty of ways to improve your Zoom presentations, and several of those tips, tricks and hacks are in our course, The A-Ha! Method: Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction. It includes hours of breakthrough material you can consume at your own pace, and a world of resources – including live events – that you can join to up your game whether live or online.
Take solace in the fact that presenting direct-to-camera – whether on Zoom or another platform – is hard for even the most experienced speakers. In a subsequent piece, we’ll look at best practices for hybrid (live and online) events, but in the meantime – practice, practice, practice.
For 2021, I set a goal for myself to take a comedy sketch writing class. I have been taking improv classes for over a year now, but sketch writing would be a new challenge for me. Whenever a funny scenario comes up in real life, I always say, “That could be an SNL sketch!,” but I never knew where to even start with writing it. In January, I signed up for the online Sketch Writing 101 Class at Rise Comedy. The class was only 4 weeks long with one class each Sunday for 2.5 hours, so it felt like an achievable goal. The first class we were told there would be homework, and we would be expected to write sketches on our own time.
Each class we’d get a sketch assignment, pitch our ideas, and then pick one or two to write in full. At the next class, we would do a read through, give and get feedback and then punch-up (a comedy writer’s term meaning “to improve upon”) the jokes and concept. It was like our very own online writers’ room, and I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would.
During Sketch 101, I wrote a monologue based on my mom, a parody about anti-vaxxers in LA, and a premise-based sketch about a woman who pretends her stuffed animals are real pets on Zoom calls. My portfolio is ready if anyone is interested.
I enjoyed 101 so much that I signed up for Sketch Writing 201, which started on March 28, 2021 and just wrapped up on April 18, 2021. Sketch 201 involved more collaborative writing with a partner, which was fun to write with different classmates. For 201, I co-wrote with my partners a sketch about 43-year-old ladies who love Disney way too much (this sketch was totally based on my friends and me) and a sketch about 3rd graders on strike at school. Again, my sketch portfolio is ready! SNL, call me! 😃
I really enjoyed 201 as well, and I plan to continue on with 301 when it is offered. I have never taken any creative writing classes before this EVER, and wow, have I been missing out! I loved the creative outlet! I know it will get harder as we start to put together an actual sketch show and cast people for parts, but one step at a time!
Sketch Writing and Public Speaking
As I was going through my sketch classes this year, I couldn’t help but think about how the lessons of sketch comedy apply to public speaking as well. I didn’t take sketch writing to improve my public speaking skills, but I believe some of the key lessons can be helpful to anyone looking to improve their public speaking career, even for non-humorous speeches and presentations.
Here are five lessons learned from Sketch Writing Class that can be applied to public speaking:
Don’t judge yourself, just keep writing!
When you are starting out with a sketch or a topic, just get it all out on the page (aka word vomit or for a more pleasant term — free writing). Don’t let your brain filter you and tell you it’s stupid or not worth writing. Fight against your perfectionist tendencies. Just get it all out on the page, coherent or not, and you can edit later! If you keep it inside your head — like I have done for many sketch and speech ideas — then the world will never see it or hear it. The world needs to hear your message, and we want to hear your message after you have crafted it! The first step though is to get all those ideas down and then you will be able to better organize your ideas and message at that point.
Say “Yes, and…” to build on ideas.
Once you have your ideas on paper, whether written or typed, then start building on those ideas instead of shutting them down. Sketch writing uses the principles of “Yes, and…” from improv to create funny scenarios and situations. Another phrase that gets used a lot is “If this is true, then what else is true?” When I was working with my sketch writing partner, I noticed she used the “Yes, and…” principle very well. Whatever idea I had, usually a stupid pun or joke, she would say, “YES! And then we can do this!” Working with her was so easy and fun! I hope to be able to collaborate with her more in the future!
Point of view
Sketch writing and probably most creative writing classes (I assume) teach you to have a clear point of view. What are the characters’ points of view? What are you trying to say in your sketch? What message are you trying to convey here? All these are good questions to ask yourself as you are writing and planning your next presentation. If it is not clear to you what your message and point(s) of view are, then it won’t be clear to your audience.
Keep it simple!
Once you have your point of view in mind, then keep it simple! This goes for your sketch ideas and dialogue. Don’t hide your jokes. Don’t be cute and coy about it. Make your jokes known and make sure your audience knows they are there. The same thing applies to public speaking with your message. Don’t hide your message or make it difficult for the audience to understand your message. At the same time, keep your message and call to action simple. Instead of a 10 bullet point list of things to do after hearing your speech, keep it short—1-3 points maximum so your audience can remember them and actually use what you taught them.
This is the part of sketch I struggle with the most. Ugh! In sketch class, they had a timeline of the drafts, and by Draft 4, the sketch was usually ready to go to production. That means four rewrites, and I don’t mean just fixing grammatical errors. Draft 1 to Draft 2 could involve totally different characters and premises depending on the feedback you got. Drafts 3 and 4 really focused on joke punch-ups and making sure every line was reviewed and a joke was added if it fit.
I really struggle with rewrites and editing. Gabe Zichermann has a fantastic editing and iterative process, which he outlines in the A-Ha Method Course, but I can honestly say this is a part of my public speaking game that I need to improve ASAP. I have created a bad habit of “one speech and done” at my current Toastmasters club—meaning I give the speech, get feedback, and never really look at or think about the speech again. While that has helped me to get over my fear of public speaking, it will not help me much as a paid presenter. This is a top priority of mine right now as a speaker, and I am committed to working on this.
Your speech and presentation may need a lot of edits and time at first. However, it will be absolutely worth all the effort put in when you finally give that amazing presentation, and your audience understands and loves your message.
These lessons from sketch class have served me well, and I hope they will help you too!
Overall, sketch writing class has taught me to not take myself too seriously and to be silly just for the sake of being silly. Sometimes the best sketches (Chopping Broccoli and Spartan Cheerleaders for example) are the most memorable because they are just so silly and fun. I also love the timely political sketches and the sketches that call me out directly (Zillow SNL commercial and Murder Shows SNL song), but the simpler the sketch, the better!
There are so many great lessons to learn from creative writing that can be applied to public speaking. I hope you will take some of these lessons and apply them when preparing your next presentation. And to challenge yourself, I encourage you to try a creative writing class of any sort to generate more ideas for your future speeches. It doesn’t have to be comedy if that’s not your thing, but find a class that works for you and will help you improve your skills. Be creative, and your presentations and your audience will reap the benefits!
Big shout out and thank you to Nick Armstrong and the Rise Comedy Theater for an excellent and inspiring round of sketch writing classes! I am ready and excited for Sketch 301!
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!