How I Got Better At Public Speaking

“I’m so awful at talking in public. I’m dreading this…”

I smiled in empathy, taking another sip of weak coffee as the woman standing next to me let out another self-conscious giggle. 

“I’ve spent ages putting my presentation together. It’s not very good, but I hope they like it.”

We were both about to speak at a local event. One of those nice afternoon gatherings where you talk politely about what you do, then hope some of the people listening will want to pay you for it.

When I started my freelance writing business three years ago, my biggest block was the idea of having to speak up in public. It made me shiver. I don’t do audiences. I do writing in silence, and before that I did HR, in a tiny office I mostly had all to myself.  

But as I listened to this woman fretting away beside me, I realised I’d finally beaten my own dreaded ‘public speaking nerves’ into submission.

I can track the steps of my journey from terrified mumbler to casual speaker. If you’re interested, they went something like this.

I wanted to stop annoying myself

In my corporate life, I’d push any speaking opportunities onto a colleague whenever I could. When I first started my business, I’d shy away from having to stand up and speak, unless I absolutely had to. 

If I did have to, I’d giggle nervously, telling everyone who’d listen just how terrified I was of the whole thing.

In short, I was really, really annoying.

I couldn’t stand myself going on about it all the time, so I decided to try and beat the fear instead. I wanted to stop getting on my own nerves (which, for the record, is always a good place to start when you want to make a change).

I set a series of personal speaking challenges

I started by recording a live ‘writing tips’ video on Facebook.

Then I volunteered to give a three-minute speech to a packed room on International Women’s Day. I booked an ‘open mic’ slot to talk about the book I’d just published. I signed up to run a free writing workshop, and I started recording my own podcast.

Then I dialled it up

I ran a series of paid-for writing workshops, and I joined an improv class. 

(Trust me when I say that once you’ve stood in a circle of grown-up strangers and you’ve made your fingers ‘talk’ to each-other in a funny voice, you’ll feel like you can do absolutely anything).

Here’s what I learned in the process of all that terrifying public speaking.

Fear stops being scary, if you scream right into its face

If you ever want to freeze a fear, you have to actually do what you’re scared of, then keep on doing it.

You might not love it. I still don’t enjoy standing up and speaking in public, and I’m never going to. But I’ve got to a point where I can just do it if I need to, without worry or fear. That’s the Holy Grail for me, plus it’s great for business. 

Stop making it about you

I learned a great mantra during my improv lessons.

“Serve the show, not your ego”. 

This works just as well when you’re giving a speech for work. It’s not about you, it’s about the subject. You’re passing on valuable information and insight (if you’re not, why are you speaking at all?) Make that your focus.

Public speaking is easier, if you make your audience feel safe

This is as easy as you believing you know what you’re talking about (so you sound confident), and not relying too much on visual aids like PowerPoint (so you can relax naturally into your talk).

You don’t have to be Brené Brown or Simon Sinek to be effective

How many times have you come away from a local talk or workshop thinking wow…that person really blew me away! 

If you’re anything like me, not often.

But you probably still came away with at least one valuable piece of information, or some tips you’ll use in future – which means that talk or workshop worked.

I never aim to be a brilliant speaker (which is just as well). I just aim to give people some information they might find interesting and useful.

So there it is…my journey from terrified mumbler to casual speaker. I hope it helps, and if you’d like me to come and talk to you about it in person…well, you know where I am.