In 2015, researchers at Chapman University conducted a nationwide poll to see what strikes the most fear in Americans. Coming in as the 26th most common fear in America – behind bio-warfare and the corruption of public officials but before heights, hurricanes and death – was public speaking. That’s right, Americans would literally rather die than give a speech in front of their peers.
Unfortunately, public speaking isn’t something we can avoid; from freshman Oral Communication classes to ordering in a restaurant, we will all have to speak in public at some time or another. But, lucky for us, public speaking doesn’t have to be scary. I spent my high school career speaking competitively at both statewide and national tournaments.
Here are a few of the tricks I used for taking the pain out of public speaking:
Pick a topic that interests you.
I’m a firm believer that the success of your speech is determined the second you select your topic. Pick something that you will enjoy spending hours researching and that you will be excited to share with your audience. For me, those topics have included coffee, "Star Wars," sex education and mental health. If you are bored by your topic, your audience will definitely be bored by your speech; however, if you care about what you’re saying, your audience will be likely to care, too.
Start with a solid outline.
When you get up to speak, you will have a million questions running through your head: What if nobody laughs at my jokes? What if I go over my time limit? What if my fly is down? One thing that you should never have to question is your content. Once you have selected your topic and conducted your research, it is important that you organize it into a clear, detailed outline. Every outline should include your introduction and conclusion, as well as a topic sentence and supporting evidence for each of your body paragraphs. But no two speeches are exactly the same and the way in which you choose to order your body paragraphs – cause-effect, problem-solution, logical, spatial, chronological or advantage-disadvantage – should depend on your topic.
Read more about developing an effective outline here.
Practice, practice, practice – but not too much.
Unless your assignment is an impromptu speech, do not try to improvise. Practice in front of your friends, roommates, or family so you can get used to speaking in front of an audience. Record yourself practicing so you can pick up on any mistakes or weird nervous tics. Practice until you feel comfortable and then don’t practice anymore. This is the advice that I, a professional perfectionist, have the hardest time following. I rehearse until I have all 8 minutes perfectly memorized, and when I stand up to perform I go into "speech mode": robotic, artificial, impersonal. It is always better to make a few mistakes and remain authentic than to be over-rehearsed.
It is always better to make a few mistakes and remain authentic than to be over-rehearsed. – Katie Beedy '18
Have a pre-speech ritual.
Like an athlete before a big game, you can benefit from a pre-speech pump-up ritual. For some, this can be superstitious, like wearing a pair of lucky socks. For some, it is soothing, like a few minutes of yoga. For me, it is jamming out to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” Your ritual can be anything that helps you relax your muscles, clear your mind and prepare to take on the room.
Use the bathroom before your speech.
Just trust me on this one.
Accept your own fallibility.
Public speaking becomes a lot easier when you accept that you will make mistakes. You will forget the name of a source or you will stumble over your words. In the worst-case scenario, your mind will go completely blank and you will stare at the back wall for a few seconds. But here’s the thing: so will everyone else. So when you do inevitably make a mistake, do not panic; just pause, take as many deep breaths as you need, and pick up where you left off.
Connect with your audience.
A speech is not just about the words you are saying; if it were, you could shout it to an empty room and it would make no difference. Rather, a speech is about the influence that your words have on the people who listen. Your words have the power to bring joy, provoke conversation, change minds and open hearts – but only if you establish a meaningful connection with your audience. Make prolonged, intentional eye contact with every person in the room. Tell a story that relates the topic to your own life. Emote with your face. Forget about picturing your audience in their underwear; picture them as humans with whom you are having a conversation.
Sure, right now giving a speech might sound less appealing than being kidnapped, contracting the measles or getting stuck in a zombie apocalypse. But with enough preparation, some positive self-talk and a little bit of trust, I promise you can make it through.
Katie Beedy '18 is a communication studies and multimedia journalism double major.