Best practices to speak publicly without freaking out

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Like it or not, more and more people are being asked to communicate in front of large groups, whether it’s in person or virtual, synchronously or asynchronously. That presents a problem, especially considering that as much as 77% of the population has some degree of anxiety around public speaking. 

Thankfully, there are ways to ease that anxiety. Matt Abrahams, a Stanford lecturer, author, and founder of presentation and communication skills company TFTS LLC, points to confidence as the key to reducing speaking-related stress. Of course, “just be confident” is easier said than done, which is why Matt used Prezi (and then imported his presentation into Prezi Video for a virtual audience) to break down several ways to improve your speaking confidence. Watch his video here or read on for his best practices:

Start by managing symptoms

Being nervous before speaking in front of others is only natural, but if you take that nervousness to the stage (virtual or not), you’ll only generate “second-hand anxiety” in your audience. Be sure to take these simple steps to help manage your pre-speech jitters: 

  • If you’re speaking too fast — Take a deep belly breath. Be sure to follow the “rule of lung,” where you make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation. Take two to three of these deep breaths to calm yourself down and slow your speaking rate.
  • If your hands are shaky — Make broader gestures. You’re feeling shaky because of adrenaline, so doing a bit more with your hands will give that adrenaline somewhere to go. 
  • If your mouth is dry — Take some preparatory steps to help before you speak. Try drinking warm water, sucking on a lozenge, or chewing gum to prevent your mouth from drying up. 
  • If you’re blushing or sweating — Hold something cold. Did you know that you have sensitive thermoreceptors in your hands? It’s the same principle as holding a hot cup of tea in the winter, only flipped. By putting something cold in your hands, it’ll help cool your body down and reduce the blushing and sweating.

Then, manage the sources of your anxiety

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Dealing with symptoms is useful right before your speech or presentation, but it’s only a short-term fix. You’ll want to tackle the sources of your anxiety if you want to make future public speaking opportunities more palatable. Here are some of Matt’s top tips: 

  • Greet your anxiety — It’s human tendency to try to ignore or push past nervousness, but that’s not helpful in the long run. Instead of letting anxiety sweep you away, it’s important to give yourself permission to experience the anxiety, which will ultimately make it easier to properly address. 
  • Redirect the audience — Having so many eyes on you is a big reason why so many people hate public speaking, so it’s helpful to give your audience something else to focus on once in a while. Show your audience a video or ask them a question — even if they aren’t expected to answer out loud, it’ll get them to move their attention away from you and into their own heads. Take that beat to collect your thoughts and take a deep breath. 
  • Reframe your speaking — Don’t think of your presentation or speech as a performance. Instead, you should take on a conversational mindset. Instead of referring to your audience members as “employees” or “students,” talk directly to them (“you”). And be sure to ask questions (see above bullet) to get them to participate and feel involved.
  • Be present-oriented — If you focus too much on outcomes or the future, you’ll only stress yourself out. Before you present, Matt recommends doing any activity that will get you to focus on the now, whether it’s going for a walk, counting backward from 100, etc.

Finally, apply the 3 Vs

Once you’ve managed some of your symptoms and sources of anxiety, it’s time to bring some best practices to your communication. Follow Matt’s “3 Vs” to keep up your confidence throughout your talk: 

  • Visual — Be mindful of your posture (pull your shoulder blades down and keep your head straight) and overall body language. Remember to maintain eye contact and use gestures to build trust with your audience.
  • Vocal —  Speak at a clear volume to reduce jitters, and be careful not to let your voice go up like a question or get too quiet at the end of every sentence. 
  • Verbal — Avoid filler words (e.g., “uh,” “like,” “I mean”) and hedging language (e.g., “kind of,” “sort of,” “I think”). Tools such as LikeSo and Poised can help here.

Get even more tips

One of the most important things that Matt mentions in his video is that, in the end, it’s about managing anxiety and not overcoming it. Becoming more confident with public speaking is an ongoing process, which is why Matt recently held a Q&A session to answer common questions. Watch it on demand, or if you’d like to see examples of how other people present online, check out the Prezi Presentation Gallery.

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