Warren Buffet. The world’s most successful investor. A man who can stand up, start speaking and move markets. When he talks the world listens.
So it’s something of a shock – and a relief – to anyone who fears public speaking to hear that he was once a glossophobe too. Glossophobia is a fear of public speaking. A fear that comes second only to arachnophobia amongst Americans. Which means (and this is not my line) that your average American attending a funeral would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy!
Back to Warren Buffet. In his twenties, he realised that his phobia could hinder his career. He enrolled in public speaking classes. Such was his anxiety on his way to the first class, he dropped out.
Suffice to say that he did finally attack the problem at a Dale Carnegie course in 1951. And I regularly use him as an example of everything that is good about communication. He speaks simply, clearly and with passion. He injects energy into a room.
Here are eight public speaking confidence tips that can help you join him in shedding the fear as you step up to the microphone.
1. You’re not alone
“There are only two types of speakers in the world: The nervous and the Liars.”
Mark Twain had a point. The vast majority of us (including professionals) worry about standing up to speak. JFK was notoriously nervous and gripped his hands tightly together to hide the shakes. Winston Churchill, Rowan Atkinson, Julia Roberts and Samuel L Jackson have all admitted to the speech jitters.
I regularly speak at conferences, off-sites and celebrations, and yet I still feel dry in the mouth and ever so slightly nauseous before the next event. I didn’t relax on my own wedding day until after I’d spoken. The key is to understand that what you are feeling is natural, and that it can be defeated. Fear of public speaking is something you share with all sorts of people who have made their names doing it for a living.
2. Anything is possible
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Let’s use Nelson Mandela to put things in perspective. People have overcome much worse, and in our case the solutions are incredibly straightforward. The nerves will never disappear altogether, but we can master them. We just need to go into the process with an open mind and a willingness to confront our demons.
3. Prepare your content
There are all sorts of very well qualified speech coaches who will share practical advise with you. Breathe deeply, get your body language right, do vocal exercises. But these ignore a fundamental truth. If your content is poor, you can never deliver it with confidence. So don’t start worrying about delivery until you have a great speech (or presentation) to work with. There are tips all over this site on how to develop great content, and I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. We receive calls on a daily basis from speakers who declare themselves petrified and unable to imagine standing up to speak. In the vast majority of those cases, with a really well written script to rehearse, they explain how the fear has shifted to nervous anticipation and then to something closer to excitement!
Once you have a great speech (that you have written with the audience in mind) sit back and imagine their reaction. Don’t think about yourself just yet. Visualise their nodding in agreement, clapping at the right moments and smiling at the lighter touches. Feel yourself relax. This won’t stop the nerves in itself, but it will help you recognise that your script is relevant and original, and that all you need to do is say it!
Nerves do funny things. One of them is to encourage us to speak fast. Much too fast. 120 words per minute is a good gauge for the right length of speech. But under pressure that can zoom upwards along with our pulse rate! The best way to slow down is to breathe. Out and long. Slowly. I have developed a habit of breathing in as I am about to walk up to a podium, and then slowly exhaling as I get there. It really does work. Particularly if you practise in advance. Professional golfers stepping up to putt under pressure swear by it too.
6. Use your arms
You will still be nervous. There’s no magical cure for that. And the nervous energy needs to be released somehow. If you stand perfectly still, your voice will bear the brunt and you might sound squeaky or coughy (think Iain Duncan Smith). Even worse, you might start swaying while you speak- a common reaction to nerves that can leave your audience feeling mildly travel sick. But if you can stand still with your feet planted, your arms can release energy. Watch this video of David Cameron (remember him?!) with no sound. Or this clip of Warren Buffet sitting down chatting to a live audience. The arms are crucial – and make the speaker look completely at ease. One word of warning – when you start trying this you will feel odd and completely aware of your arms. Ask someone to video you and take a look to reassure yourself how controlled arm movement can transform you!
With your great script to hand and time to go before speech day, don’t just sit back and worry. Rehearse. It’s not rocket science. Ask the entire acting profession. And rehearsing doesn’t mean reading it in your head on the train or in bed. It means standing up and saying it out loud. Pausing for effect. Emphasising key words and getting to ‘hear’ your speech rather than just looking at it. Even wear the same clothes you’ll be wearing on the day. Develop a sense of routine. Once you feel more in control of your content, you’ll feel the nerves disappearing. So move onto the next step and ask someone to listen to you. Keep going as long as their patience will allow.
8. The worst case
The wonderful thing about public speaking is that it doesn’t hurt! If you really start to feel worried, just ask yourself that crucial question: What’s the worst that can happen? If you are speaking at work, you may not sound as inspirational and energetic as you’d like. At a social event you might not get the laughs you were hoping for. But the speech will end, you’ll go home and you’ll be ready to try again. Each time you speak you’ll get better. Particularly if you’re able to watch yourself on video. To quote Mark Twain one final time, “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain”.
More Public Speaking Confidence Tips
These tips are based on my experience working with clients around the world. Whatever the occasion and whoever the speaker, I am yet to help anyone who’s concerns were not alleviated by working on their content. A client who feels that what they are about to stay is genuinely interesting and amusing will invariably feel a surge of confidence. This site is full of tips on speech content and delivery. We also provide writing, coaching and courses to help transform speaking worriers into warriors! We can’t promise you Warren Buffet’s bank balance, but we can help you emulate his journey from glossophobia to confidence.