In fifth grade my classroom project on artist Mary Engelbreit was chosen for a special after-school presentation. Parents came to listen to a handful of “bright young leaders” stand behind a podium in the auditorium and talk about influential people. I was so honored. I wore a special dress and used one of those presentation sticks to point to my poster. I felt calm and confident.
A week ago I gave a speech as the Maid of Honor at my cousin’s wedding. In an orange dress with the microphone in my hand, I felt calm and confident in front of the 230 guests. It was like being that 10-year-old all over again when I spoke.
Public speaking is a funny thing. Usually when we speak, we want people to listen, and often we fight to be the voice in the room that is heard. But when you’re the only one talking and all eyes and ears are on you, suddenly you may not be so self-assured. Or at the very least, you won’t know how you’ll feel until you get up there. In other words, an extrovert, so used to feeling comfortable when around other people, might balk at speaking in public. An introvert, on the other hand, might actually feel more at ease in front of a listening crowd.
For a shy girl who often got swallowed alive by the social kids with lots of friends, public speaking was one domain where I could shine. And so I’ve come to realize that some introverts, like me, find it a safe way to stand out from the pack for even just a moment. Here, we don’t need to mingle and work our way through the crowd, we just need to tell our story once, make our point, share the information, and be done. Mission accomplished.
But that doesn’t mean public speaking is a walk in the park! It comes with a slew of intimidating factors, and even the most confident speakers can naturally feel intimidated. But since public speaking is something we’re confronted with many times in life, and often in unexpected places (speaking out in a meeting, giving a tour of your department to the intern, training a group of volunteers, teaching fitness classes to 20 participants, giving a toast at a formal event, etc.), it behooves you to establish esteem-boosting strategies. Here’s what’s worked for me.
Focus in on one. Despite what they say about imagining people in their underwear when nerves hit you, this vision has never crossed my mind when speaking in public. And thank goodness it hasn’t, because I would no doubt burst into laughter. To put myself at ease when all those eyes are on me, I pretend I’m talking to one person, whether it be the bride and groom, your boss, the guy in the third row with the fancy tie. My college broadcast journalism classes taught me that the most natural, genuine, and effective way to talk in public is to speak as if you’re casually telling your story to a friend.
Know your stuff. Ever notice how your true confidence comes in areas that you can speak to like an expert? Perhaps you know everything there is to know about wines, or you can discuss the planets and constellations in your sleep. Whatever it is, we feel we are successful when we can speak to the material like it’s, quite literally, our job. Share what you know, and you won’t fail. More so, a question from the audience, an interruption from a student – these will throw you off your train of thought. But if you know the information inside and out you’ll be able to serve it up in various ways no matter how many times you get side-stepped.
Slow and steady. A lack of confidence comes through in hurried, quiet, and mumbled speech. Or the opposite: lots of breaks and vocal fillers like “uh” and “um.” When you open your mouth, plan to use it wisely to control the room at that moment. Even if you’re more frightened than you’ve been in your whole life, you won’t show it if you physically keep your chin up, talk slow, talk clearly, project your words from your belly and let them fill the space. Allow your brain to keep up with your mouth. You won’t just sound more confident, you’ll feel more confident too.
Seize every public speaking opportunity. Start small and find every opportunity to practice your skills, whether it be practicing via a Skype call with a pal or standing up at Thanksgiving dinner to give thanks. If you don’t like hearing your own voice, if you don’t like commanding attention, these small steps can help you feel more comfortable in your own skin and help you believe you have something important to say. Because you do! Hey, you’re a walking, talking representation of your own personal brand, you might as well express it proudly!
A few random tidbits.
Smile – It puts you and your audience at ease
Stand tall – Reach your hands above your head as far as you can (if you can do so in a private place) right before your public speaking. It will help you feel larger than life. Maintain this tall posture throughout the duration of your moment in the spotlight.
Wear red – Red typically is the color of confidence and boldness, but wear any color or outfit that makes you feel on fire.