Your knees are soft, your palms are sweaty, your heart pounds like mad, and you have this weird feeling in your stomach.
Only a few more minutes before it’s your turn to get on stage.
You try to calm yourself down while nervously rehearsing your speech in your mind.
It’s time to get on stage.
Your nervousness increases and you start to worry that everybody will notice how scared you are. At this point your mind is so preoccupied with your anxiety that you nervously mumble away, holding on to your notes and not actually focusing on giving a great presentation. You’re just trying to get it over with.
Finally you’re done; you get off stage and sigh in relief hoping this will never happen again.
At least this is how most people feel about giving a talk or presentation.
However, being able to deliver a good presentation is an incredibly useful and often crucial skill. Regardless of whether it’s a presentation at University that determines your grade, a small update in front of your department at work, a pitch in front of investors, the best man speech at your buddy’s wedding, or presenting your work at a conference – being a good public speaker is a very helpful skill that can often leverage other efforts. Alternatively, if the idea of “being a skilled public speaker” is still so far away from you, then perhaps simply being able to deliver a talk without being a nervous wreck, tossing and turning the night before the talk, can already be an attractive goal.
In this article I will give you four tips that, if followed, will not only rid you of the fear of public speaking, but can even turn you into a reasonably good public speaker within a couple of weeks.
How I learned this
For the last four years, I have earned a large portion of my income through public speaking and giving workshops. For a while I said ‘yes’ to every public speaking gig I could get, trying to gain as much as experience as possible. This means I gave intimate workshops for 3 people but also talked in front of hundreds of people, and literally everything in between. During that time I held TEDx Talks (here and here), University guest lectures, spoke at the European Congress of Psychology and in front of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, I got hired by charities and billion dollar companies. I spoke to kids and teenager, as well as CEOs and blue-collar workers.
At this point I know a thing or two about public speaking.
I first started giving talks when I was 19 (if you want to know how I got this chance watch my second TEDx Talk). But even before then, I was always drawn towards public speaking and giving talks, but I also remember how nervous and terrified I was before my first real talk. Over the years, I have learned from some great public speakers and was trained by even greater speaker coaches, such as Niki Ernst, the TEDx Ambassador of Europe. Through this training, I was able to become a fairly good public speaker myself and demand higher and higher fees for my speaking. During this process I learned a ton about the things you need to do in order to improve and hone this craft, and also about the usual stumble blocks that slow most people down. Over time I figured out four specific points that will help you get to the next level within lighting speed.
This is a long article. However I am using these approaches since years so they will probably not change in the near future. Therefore I would recommend you to bookmark this article so you can go back to it once in a while when you feel like your skills are plateauing or you want to refresh your memory. Whenever I am learning something new I will update this article. So you can see this article as your base camp for becoming a better public speaker. And now let’s dive right into it:
1. Desensitization – Kill Your Nervousness
The problem is not that you are afraid to get on stage. The problem is, what this fear does to you. Fear shuts down your prefrontal cortex, which prevents you from thinking straight. It also impairs performance, inhibits intelligence and kills your creativity; it basically blocks all the crucial skills that you need on stage.
This relationship between fear and performance is easily understood through the Yerkes–Dodson-Law. It shows that slight tension and a little nervousness boosts performance through an increase in attention, so a little arousal brought about by fear actually makes you perform better. However, at a certain point this arousal reaches a threshold, and too much arousal makes your performance slump.Take a look at the graph below to see the relationship between fear and performance.
Arousal levels can be understood as a faster heartbeat, sweaty hands and all the other signs of physical activation – caused through fear or excitement.
Due to this relationship between fear and performance, the first step should always be to reduce this level of fear and arousal. You can have the best speech in the world, if you are too scared all this doesn’t help and you won’t be able to perform. However, you can overcome your fear, or at least reduce it, by learning techniques to control your arousal and committing to something called exposure therapy.
Fear is nothing other than anticipated pain. This possible pain ranges from real physical pain over negative social evaluation to embarrassment. And this is the reason why getting up on stage and giving a talk means a lot of fear for many people because they envision the possible embarrassment or negative judgment of other people. So when you get on stage you body will fire a fear response, meaning your sympathetic nervous system gets activated, your arousal increases, and your body is put into a state that enables it to escape the situation as fast as possible. This is called the fight-or-flight response. During this process all the blood shoots to your arms and legs so you can run faster; your heart rate increases, you start to sweat allowing your body to cool, and your brain shuts down everything that doesn’t immediately help you to escape the anticipated pain. Yet most people still have enough self-control to not completely run off the stage and thereby get out of the situation (even though a lot of people would like to do this). Instead, they engage in something that is called subtle avoidance behavior like mumbling, holding on tightly to their paper, staring at their slides, or not looking at the audience. All these are attempts at avoiding the discomfort experienced while being the center of attention.
We all logically know that nothing bad will happen to us on stage. Still our body fires a fear response in spite of any logical thinking. Therefore, our body needs to learn that nothing bad will happen. And exposure therapy does exactly this. Exposure simply means you face a scary, but non-dangerous, situation, and stay there until your fear decreases so your body learns nothing bad will happen. However, the most important point to remember while doing an exposure is to not engage in subtle avoidance behavior like looking away, or holding on to our paper. If you do use any subtle avoidance behavior you will get off the stage realising nothing bad has happened, but your brain will go “Oh, of course nothing bad happened because I was hiding behind my notecards”; so the next time you go on stage you are still terrified and even more motivated to use your avoidance behavior again because that’s what protected you last time. The only way that exposure really works is by going all in without any subtle avoidance behavior. If you do this your anxiety will decrease and your body will learn that it doesn’t need to fire a full fear response.
In the best case this exposure would mean to get up on a stage and fully face the situation over and over again. However for many this not possible because you simply don’t have that many chances to do public speaking.
So the other two options of exposure are Comfort Zone Challenges and in-vitro exposure.
Comfort Zone Challenges. One great way to become more comfortable with being scared and feeling anxious is to do Comfort Zone Challenges (if you don’t know what they are, read: This). The results will not completely transfer to public speaking, but you generally become more comfortable with people looking at you, being the center of attention, and you become more accustomed to being afraid; thereby learning to regulate your arousal level.
In-vitro Exposure. The other option is in-vitro exposure, which is to imagine the situation you fear. So simply sit down on your couch and step by step play through the whole speech imagining you are actually standing in front all these people. There is enough scientific evidence to show that in-vitro exposure can be enough to reduce the anxiety.
Techniques to Control Arousal
Your exposures are best supplemented with a technique that allows you to control your level of arousal of which there are many. There are mindfulness exercises, breathing exercises, or other relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, and they all work, but my favorite technique is slow breathing. It’s very straightforward, easy to learn, and effective. Simply breathe in for five seconds, hold your breath, and breathe out for five seconds. If you do this for three minutes you will find you are significantly calmer. The good thing is that when you calm your body, your mind will follow. You can also enhance the relaxation of your mind by simply focussing on your breathing. Practice this before getting on stage and during your exposure.
Conclusion: Overcome your automatic response of avoiding a situation which only keeps the anxiety going. Use exposure to reduce your fear and learn to experience fear without having to use subtle avoidance behavior and instead, use a breathing exercise to reduce your level of arousal.
Doing this will quickly make you a better public speaker because by reducing your level of arousal your performance will increase. You can access your skills to a much higher degree and be more eloquent, spontaneous and creative. Additionally, from then on you are in a position where you can learn new things and hone your skill, since fear is no longer inhibiting new learning.
2. Looking Confident on Stage
We’ve all seen this before: Someone delivers a speech and is so insecure and awkward that it makes you cringe just looking at them. Watching such a speaker can be very painful.The antidote to this is simple, and is more or less the external counterpart to Tip 1, “Killing Your Inner Nervousness.”
There are a million different aspects that determine how the audience perceives you and your level of confidence – It’s perceived in your gestures, the way you stand, how your head moves, and all manner of subtle aspects that your body language presents. Yet, as you learned in the first part of this article, when you are tensed and scared your cognitive functions are reduced which makes it difficult to focus on your speech while simultaneously monitoring your entire body language. This means most advice regarding body language is too complex and overwhelming for the speaker to put into practice effectively. You simply don’t have the cognitive resources left to implement it.
For this reason, I tried to figure out the smallest changes you can make to appear more confident but take as little away from your mental working space as possible.
After a lot of testing, I arrived at two simple rules (I also recorded a short video on this: HERE) that are easy to implement and make you look a lot more confident. These two rules are:
Don’t move your legs
This simple change will calm down your entire body and make you look more confident and in control. Your legs are such a big part of your body and when they are completely still the rest follows. You probably already know that slow movements, or no movements at all, are always a sign of high-status.
If you are nervous, you probably have a strong urge to move and will have a hard time keeping your legs still. The solution? Simply tense your legs and really drive them into the ground. This allows you to get rid of the excess energy while keeping your legs perfectly still.
Let your head follow your eyes
Always move your eyes first. When–and only when–they have come to rest should your head follow. As soon as your head and eyes are back in sync, you can move your eyes again and then your head once again follows. This simple rule makes your eye movements more steady and at the same time keeps your head still and slows down the movements. Just as with your legs, slow movements equate to more confidence.
Conclusion: By following these two simple rules, you will appear much more confident without having to really focus too much on your body language. The good thing about these two rules is that they bring other changes with them. When your legs are still, your upper body is also still. When your head moves slowly, your speech often also slows down. So by just focussing on two simple rules, you can have the greatest effect with the least investment.
3. Telling a joke
When I visited Vera F. Birkenbihl, a German speaking star and winner of the German coaching award, she told me that the best way to practice your public speaking skills is by telling jokes. She said jokes are nothing more than very challenging mini-presentations. During a joke, everything needs to be on point to be funny. Your timing, rhetoric, facial expression, pauses, intonation, and the specific words you choose must all combine perfectly to make a person laugh.
She therefore suggested that the most efficient method for training to become more skilled at delivering content is to tell one joke a day. Doing this is equal to giving a small presentation every single day.
Obviously the best results would come from walking up to a stranger and telling them a joke because that would also help you to tackle your nervousness at the same time (so you combine it with exposure therapy aka Comfort Zone Challenges). However, if this is too much for you at the moment, start with telling a joke to your friends, colleagues, classmates, or simply in front of a mirror or a camera. It’s important that you get feedback on your performance, whether it is through a mirror or the laughter of a person.
Conclusion: A joke a day – and you will be surprised how much such a small thing can help you.
4. Instant Feedback
Instant feedback is probably one of the most crucial aspects of fast learning. Why? Because it helps you correct and adjust your behavior so you don’t repeat and thus ingrain mistakes or bad form.
Feedback in regards to public speaking is especially important because we often think that the emotions we want to display (or that we want to hide) are a lot more obvious to others than they actually are (Social Psychologists call this the Illusion of Transparency – I recorded a video on this:HERE).
Everybody who ever recorded a video of himself knows that if you think you are grinning like a moron, it actually looks like a casual smile on camera. And if you think you have a casual smile, it looks more like a frown. On the other hand, you might feel incredibly nervous and think you are blushing, but it’s not visible from the outside. Figuring out the correlation between how it feels on the inside and how it looks on the outside is crucial to being able to portray the right emotions as an effective speaker. Yet figuring out how to transmit emotions is just one aspect where feedback helps. Instant feedback should also address a lot of other aspects beyond this, such as your body language, your voice, intonation, etc. There are three main ways to get feedback, and I would try all of them at least some of the time, as they each have different benefits:
- Mirror: Presenting or telling yourself a joke in front of a mirror is great because it gives you the fastest and most direct form of feedback. You can immediately connect how something feels on the inside with how it looks on the outside. Using a mirror is something everybody should use when they start out because there is such a big difference with how you feel and what you project. Use this to get a better understanding of how you look when you experiment with your facial expressions or gestures. Jim Carrey is a famous example of how to really take your facial expression game to the next level by practicing hours and hours in front of the mirror.
- Record yourself: Recording a video of yourself is a great way to check on your progress and increase your motivation to work on yourself. Like most behavioral changes, your skills as a speaker will increase incrementally and are hard to see on a day-to-day basis. However, comparing videos from day 1 and day 14 of your training should show a considerable difference. Another benefit is that you can fully focus on speaking and then later focus on analyzing yourself. The feedback is not immediate like when using a mirror, but it can show a lot of interesting aspects that you might have missed otherwise. As a bonus, you get to hear yourself speak, which adds another valuable dimension to it.
- Feedback from people: Often there is a considerable difference between our self-image and how others perceive us. For this reason, it is very helpful to get feedback from others so you can better understand how you are perceived. You can do this either directly by asking for feedback, or you can simply pay more attention than usual to how another person reacts to you. In the case of you telling a joke to a stranger, the best feedback is if this person genuinely laughs. I regularly send my YouTube videos to my friends or mentors and ask them for genuine feedback. They often point out things I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
Conclusion: Feedback can be pretty terrifying, especially when it comes from others. For this reason, start off with whatever type of feedback you feel most comfortable with, even if it’s just you standing in front of the mirror telling jokes.
And that’s it. The more you heed this advice, the better. I tried this approach with several clients and we often picked 28 days as a good time frame to stick with it. So the good news is that just 10 minutes a day for 28 days is all it takes to radically improve your speaking skills; you’ll be able to easily surpass most people.
After this training, you will be calmer and look more confident. Your decreased fear will let you access more of your cognitive functions, making you more articulate and eloquent. Additionally, through your joke training, you will be better at using your facial expression and gestures, and getting your timing right. If on top of that you regularly seek for feedback, this will speed up your development even faster.
If you liked this article, please let me know in the comments. I’ll publish a second part where I reveal my process, how I prepare and come up with the content of a talk, as well as how I rehearse for it. Being good at presenting is important to delivering your message, but in the end what really counts is your content and I have some tricks up my sleeve for this too!
Also: What helped you to improve your speaking skills? Comment below.
PS: If you really want to overcome your anxiety and learn more techniques to get in a confident state, check out our 6-week premium course >> MAKE YOURSELF DO ANYTHING