About a month ago, I formally presented a research paper in my honors theology course. Last spring, I gave a speech at my high school graduation. A year before that, I had performed on stage in front of a full auditorium. And the year before that? I had sat silently in an English class during a classroom discussion and opted to take a zero for the discussion instead of speak up.
So what changed? It’s not as if I suddenly conquered my fear of public speaking in one day. No amount of motivational talk could convince me to open my mouth when I simply did not feel comfortable.
As cliched as it sounds, public speaking is a muscle. If you don’t practice it fairly regularly, it becomes weak. Your mouth goes dry and your mind blanks out. And while some people are natural speakers and thrive when presenting, the rest of us have to practice consistently in order to feel comfortable. Make sure you do these 5 things to improve your own public speaking skills.
1. Increase exposure to public speaking.
I really began doing this my junior year of high school, when my English teacher assigned several speeches for each student to prepare and deliver to the class. Because we had to deliver more than one speech, some of the pressure was lifted off my shoulders. If I stumbled badly on my first one, I could improve my second one, and so on. Because there was more than one opportunity to practice speaking in public, I could improve myself. This applies to speaking outside of school as well. The more opportunities you seek out, whether it be performing on stage, doing improv or even trying out karaoke, you’ll find that it really does get easier, simply because you’ve done it before. Committing yourself in advance to a public speaking experience also helps you to not back out simply because you are afraid.
2. Know your audience.
Coming from a small high school, I knew everyone in my classes fairly well — except my teachers. Making an effort to talk to your teachers makes a huge difference in how comfortable you feel speaking up in class. Going to a professor’s office hours if you’re in college or speaking to your teachers after class in high school will boost your self-esteem and makes you realize that your teachers want you to succeed. No one wants to see you stumble and stutter through your speech or even through your answer as you raise your hand.
One of the most important aspects of gaining confidence in your voice is preparation. If you’re nervous about a classroom discussion, make notes on the reading or points that you would like to bring up. If you’re nervous about a speech, practice will be your saving grace. If you’re nervous about a presentation, know your material better than anyone else in the room. Because if all else fails, if your nerves get to you and make it hard to think, you will have that muscle-memory to fall back on. Plus, preparing adequately will always shine through in whatever you do. Not everyone is a natural public speaker, but everyone can be a practiced one.
We all know how difficult it can be to loosen up and be natural when standing in front of a large group of people who are all looking at and listening to you. Conversely, we all know how boring it is to sit in a classroom and listen to presentation after presentation while people read directly from PowerPoint slides. Try to shake things up a bit. Make yourself and your material relatable through humor. This doesn’t mean you have to turn your presentation into a stand-up comedy routine, but rather make a joke or a comment here and there that might get a chuckle. Why? Humor has three positive effects on your public speaking skills. First, a little humor will get your audience’s attention and will be much-appreciated, especially if the material you are covering can be a bit dry. Second, it will give an illusion of confidence that will quickly turn into real confidence. Nothing is more reassuring during a presentation than seeing someone laugh or smile at something you say. Lastly, it will help you to relax and remind you that the people listening to you are people. It’s okay to be a little not-so-serious sometimes.
5. Be first.
Whenever possible, be the first one to give that speech or presentation in the class. Some teachers or professors will assign an order for presenting beforehand, whereas others will accept volunteers to present first. Here’s what I’ve learned from public speaking first: there’s no reason to wait. Everyone knows that the longer you wait, the more anxious you become for your own presentation. Chances are, you’ll be so engrossed in your own worrying thoughts that you don’t even pay attention to the people presenting. And what’s the benefit to waiting anyway? You know that you still have to present eventually. Volunteering to speak first will not only reflect eagerness and enthusiasm to your professor, but it will also likely elicit sighs of relief from fellow classmates who did not want to speak. When you speak first, you get to set the precedent for the rest of your peers to follow, which alleviates some of the stress you may experience when mentally comparing yourself to others. And we all know the best part of being first: you get it out the way.
Public speaking is not a one-and-done deal. It is a skill that many people struggle to develop simply because they are afraid of it. But the best way to improve your skills at speaking are to conquer this fear. So, speak up more in classroom discussions. Talk to your teachers and get to know them so you don’t feel quite so anxious when presenting. Practice and practice and practice. And when the time comes to open your mouth, remember to smile and get comfortable, show your enthusiasm through speaking first, and ace that presentation. You got this.
Lead Image Credit: Unsplash