How to Speak in Public Without FearS

Even if you're not, say, the President of the United States, you may well be called upon at some point to give a speech or presentation before an audience. This can be super-stressful! Luckily, we've assembled some tips to help you wow anyone and everyone.

Know your audience.

I talked to Prof. Elizabeth Natalle, author of The Woman's Public Speaking Handbook, says that as soon as she's invited to speak somewhere, she asks whoever invited her a few questions about the audience. Then she does some further research about their interests online — this is easy if the group you're speaking to has a website. Even if you're familiar with the group you're talking to, though — say, if they're your coworkers — it's a good idea to tailor your presentation to your audience. Cyndi Maxey, speaker, speaker coach, and author of Speak Up!: A Woman's Guide to Presenting Like a Pro, told me that when you're presenting to a group of very high-powered people (executives, say, or judges), they'll want you to get to the meat of your presentation very quickly, rather than lingering on the details. She says that when speaking to people like that,

I would put myself in their shoes. What is it that they need to know to look good? Who will they talk to after my presentation?

These are good questions to ask yourself no matter who your audience is. Thinking about how they'll use whatever information you give them can help you keep your presentation focused and relevant.

Prep your body.

Maxey likes to go for a jog before she speaks — it's a way to "give your body a chance to rev up and cool down." But she says anything that makes you feel good physically can be good preparation — even just having a nice breakfast beforehand can help. Basically, doing whatever makes your body feel good will give your brain the best shot at impressing people.

Get there early.

Maxey says if you're giving a speech or presentation, it's good to show up at the venue a little bit early. That way you have time to check things out and set up any audiovisual aids, but you also have time to greet people as they come in. Maxey explains that this helps take the focus off you a bit — if you're already standing around chatting with people, you don't have to face an unforgiving wall of eyes the way you do if you enter when they're already assembled. Plus, talking to people and asking them questions can help distract you and make you less nervous.

Practice the beginning of your speech.

Ideally you'd be able to run through the whole thing beforehand, but according to Maxey, the most important part of your presentation to practice is the first four minutes. If you don't have the opening down, she says, "you're stuck with adrenaline rushing and nowhere to put it." But knowing your first few minutes cold will help you get over the hump of your nervousness, and into the body of your speech — then if you need to pause or ad lib for a second, you'll be relaxed enough to do so confidently. Also, a polished beginning makes a good first impression on your audience, and as long as you don't face-plant into the conference table later on, you have a good shot at maintaining that impression throughout.

If you can't prepare, pre-prepare.

Sometimes you might have to talk to an audience without much time to prep beforehand. Maybe your boss pulled you in to discuss your work in front of the board; maybe you have an unexpected interview; maybe you just remembered you have to talk to your kid's class and Career Day starts in ten minutes. Natalle says you can minimize panic in such situations by keeping a file of quick speeches that you know you're really good at delivering. These may not fit the occasion at hand perfectly, but sometimes it's better to sound polished on a semi-related issue than to mumble randomly about the specific question being addressed. You can add to your speech file at any time — if, for instance someone asks a question that inspires you to do further research. But having some stock speeches on hand can help you look cool even if you've been called to speak on the spot.

If you don't know the answer to a question, follow up.

Odds are, if you give presentations or speeches with any regularity, someone's going to ask you a question you don't know the answer to. Natalle says if you try to bullshit, it'll probably be obvious. Instead, she says, "You need to be honest and say, 'I don't know the answer but I will get back to you,' and then you have to actually follow up and get back to them." The person may come up to you after you're done — if not, make sure you have contact info for them so you can follow up with the answer (which may help you do a better job next time you have to speak on the topic). Maxey adds another tip — after you admit that you don't know the answer, add "something that makes you look good." Maybe you can say that although you don't know the velocity of an unladen swallow, you do know a lot about the diving speed of peregrine falcons. Point being, do something to reestablish your general credibility after you've copped to a hole in your knowledge.

Get rid of tentative language.

Maxey told me that many of the female speakers she works with have a problem with tentative phrasing — kind of, sort of, I think, etc. Girls often get socialized early on to be less than firm about their opinion, which can cause a lot of problems — one of them being a less convincing speech. In the grand scheme of things, we should be teaching girls and boys that girls' opinions are equally valid and don't need to be couched in a lot of conciliatory language. But on the small scale, you can help yourself by cutting this kind of language from your presentations. Another tip I try to remember is to end my sentences on a falling inflection, so it doesn't sound like I'm asking a question. Remember, when you're giving a speech or presentation, you are telling your audience about something. You're important, and you get to act like it. And if you do, they'll be more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Speak Up!: A Woman's Guide to Presenting Like a Pro
The Woman's Public Speaking Handbook