Public speaking survival tips

For me, public speaking is up there with spiders and heights for causing undue anxiety. My armpits and palms start sweating, I get nauseous and want to stick my head in the toilet, my breathing speeds up and becomes more shallow, and I get a nervous bladder. I’d rather be anywhere other than at the front of a room with everyone’s attention focussed on me.

My last two uni assessments for the semester (excluding exams) have been group oral presentations. So yeah, I was feeling all of the anxiety things. I got through though, and I actually think I did alright, at least my tutor from my first presentation said so, and a friend from my class for my second presentation told me I spoke well and she couldn’t tell I was nervous. Winning! So as someone who HATES public speaking, but seems to have alright despite my anxiety, I thought I’d share my top tips for making it through.

1. Be prepared. Research your topic as early as possible, and write your notes. This way you have plenty of time to edit what you have written, time the length of your speech, and make any necessary changes so that you run pretty close to your allowed time. Know your topic. You want your audience to believe that you know what you’re talking about.

2. Rehearse. This means that on the day, you will spend less time reading from your notes, and more time making eye contact with your audience. Tutors/teachers love eye contact! Audiences are more engaged if you spend time making eye contact rather than reading from your notes the whole time. Rehearsing also means you are less likely to stumble over words that are a bit of a tongue twister.

3. Get a good night’s sleep. I think this speaks for itself. If you’ve had a decent sleep, you’re going to be in a better frame of mind, and in a better position to put your coping/stress-relief strategies into place.

4. Break the ice. Find a way to speak to your audience and give them a bit of a giggle, if it fits in with your presentation. It’s a bit of a pressure relief, and lightens the mood. The topic of my first group presentation was breastfeeding, and so I mention to my fellow students at the start that while I had been rehearsing at home, I had been subconsciously demonstrating on myself how to massage a blocked milk duct during feeding, and I apologised in advanced incase I started massaging myself during the presentation. It worked well to break the ice, and I didn’t end up feeling myself up during the presentation. Win-win!

5. Remember that everyone in the room with you wants you to do well. This was a tip from a friend on Facebook. Your tutor/teacher (if you’re a student) wants you to do well, they want you to pass. And your audience has probably felt similar anxiety, especially if they are also presenting.

6. Involve your audience in your presentation. Involving your audience in some way, e.g., asking them questions or asking them to volunteer for some aspect of your presentation, takes some of the focus off you, and also asks as an ice breaker. I find I am much more comfortable interacting with audience members as I am not so focused on reading my notes, and someone else is sharing the attention.

7. Fake it until you make it. Even if you don’t feel confident talking to a bunch of people, try to act like you are. It feels like my heart is beating a million miles an hour when I’m up the front of the room speaking. I make a point of slowing down my speech, making eye contact with audience members, and smiling. The more you deliberately do things to improve your presentation, the more natural they will feel.

8. Breathe. Take some slow deep breaths before you begin your presentation to centre yourself and focus. During your presentation, if you find  yourself stumbling, or talking too fast, take a moment to pause and breathe. Everyone would prefer you to take a moment to refocus and collect your thoughts than to keep stumbling through. I also find it helpful to pause and breathe after each section of my presentation. This allows me to close that section in my mind, and focus on the next bit of information I am going to share.

9. Congratulate yourself. Make sure you acknowledge the work you put in, even if you don’t think you did very well. Getting through a presentation when you’d much rather be anywhere else, doing anything else, is a huge achievement and deserves congratulations. If you presented in a group, congratulate and thank each other for each person’s efforts.

10. Learn from your presentation. Run a mental debrief in your mind and work out what areas you need to work on for next time. I know that in both my presentations I said ‘um’ a lot, and so in the future I’m going to work on not saying ‘um’ quite so much. Take on board any feedback from your audience and tutors/teachers, or anyone else. So far I haven’t received any marks for my presentations, but I did get lots of positive feedback from my tutor for my first presentation. Feedback for my second presentation comes with my marks. Feedback I received from previous presentations included talking too fast, too much reading from my notes, and not enough eye contact. These were points I made a deliberate effort to improve on with these two presentations, and I think it paid off.

Hopefully these tips will be of use to someone, and I’d love to read other people’s tips for public speaking – I’m always looking for ways to improve. Right now I am so glad that I don’t need to worry about any oral presentations until at least February next year.