We’ve all been there. Hearts beating, palms sweating, voices trembling. Welcome to the dreaded event of public speaking.
Very few of us actually look forward to public speaking. Despite appearances of poise and confidence, even the most talented presenters battle their inner demons underneath their smiles and well-timed hand gestures. The fear of judgement, of failure, of looking ridiculous, of speaking incoherently. The list goes on.
Beyond inner fears, external forces are equally challenging. Every presenter, even those who are gifted public speakers, has experienced many instances where things went awry. Spilled coffee, uncontrollable nervous laughter, technological catastrophes, and even more embarrassing situations that shall be left to the imagination.
There is something that is true, however, about all great public speakers. They practice, and they keep practicing. Those who we admire for their oratory skills are often the product of hundreds and thousands of speeches, presentations, and on-stage appearances. Along the way, they’ve put themselves out there, they’ve stumbled, and they’ve learned. With time, they’ve developed a system of managing their anxiety and boosting their confidence that works for them.
I was not born a gifted public speaker. But through years of practice and participating in public speaking opportunities through my career, student government, Model United Nations, and community leadership roles, I’ve learned how to prepare in a way that makes me feel confident. So today, I’d like to share a few tips and research findings that have made all of the difference in improving my presentation skills, and hopefully yours too.
Give yourself time to prepare. Some presentations require a couple run throughs. Others can take hours to figure out what you want to say, how you want to say it, and to get to the point where you know the material so well that you don’t need notes or a memorized script. When you don’t rush the process, you give yourself time to ask, “Who is my audience? What do they care about? How can I connect with them and present information to them in a way that will resonate?” Even an extra half hour of thinking and practicing can make you feel prepared, knowledgeable, and confident.
Give your body the fuel it needs. It seems obvious, but when the nerves kick in, proper food and hydration are easy to overlook. When you want to be your best, most focused self, your body needs nutrients. On the day of a presentation, make sure to drink enough water, avoid sugar, and have food on hand that can support cognitive functioning, for example oatmeal, blueberries, spinach, bananas, salmon, walnuts, and eggs (see more concentration-boosting foods at Health.com). Coffee in moderation can be beneficial, but check in with your body to make sure the caffeine isn’t augmenting your anxiety. You can also supplement with alternatives such as yerba mate and guayusa teas, which give a more focused energy boost.
Envision a positive outcome. Studies have found that visualizing a successful performance can make you happier and less anxious, which is exactly what you want to bring to your next presentation. Research has also found that positive self-talk can enhance performance, so don’t hesitate to write yourself an encouraging note where you can see it right before you give your speech.
Get in the zone. Have you ever seen professional athletes before a big race? They’re often by themselves, headphones on, and breathing deeply. Experiment with what works best for you, whether it’s certain exercises to warm up your voice, music that gives you confidence, specific breathing exercising (studies have found that deep breathing increases mental function and decreases anxiety), focusing on a mantra, or movements like running in place that can burn off nervous energy and increase circulation to the brain for heightened alertness.
Project confident body language. Psychology researcher Robert Körner said, “Body language is not just about expressing feelings, it can also shape how a person feels.” Studies have found that even when you’re feeling insecure, certain poses can actually increase your confidence over time. Uncrossing your arms, rolling back your shoulders, and holding your head high can make you feel strong and can positively influence your body on a chemical level, according to this TED Talk.
And remember, no one is perfect. We are all human. Those who are in your audience also get nervous public speaking, they empathize with the challenges of being in the spotlight, and they’re cheering for you to do your best. Also take comfort in the fact that humans have very limited attention spans, and so if you do mess up, most people won’t even notice. Know that over time and with practice, you will become a better public speaker.
So rehearse, do your best, and find what works for you for acing your next presentation. As the old saying goes, “There is no glory in practice, but without practice, there is no glory.”