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The art of public speaking: How to give great speeches

We explore one of the most common human fears: public speaking. What steps can you take to become an effective public speaker and feel confident in the spotlight?

Public Speaking Tips

Does the idea of public speaking fill you with dread? If it does, you’re not alone. As much as 77% of the population have some kind of anxiety surrounding public speaking, although this ranges from feeling slightly scared to having full-on Glossophobia (a phobia of public speaking).

In this article, we’ll try to alleviate some of your anxiety around speaking to a large audience. We’ll look at why public speaking is an important skill, what the history of public speaking is, how to build confidence, and the components of a great speech. 

What is public speaking and why does it matter?

Public speaking is the act of presenting an idea to the public, using your voice. The ‘public’ can range from a very small group of people to a huge audience. For most people, a bigger audience equates to more fear, but some people are just as terrified as presenting to a small group.

When we think about public speaking, the first thing that comes to mind is someone giving an inspirational or educational speech, TED-talk style, but the definition isn’t actually as narrow as that. Public speaking can take the form of giving a work presentation, pitching an idea to an investor, leading a school assembly, or even taking part in a job interview.

Now we’ve thought about the wide scope of public speaking, we can start to see why it’s such an important skill. The reality is, everyone will have to speak in front of an audience at multiple points in their lives. Therefore, it’s important to work on these skills so you don’t feel restricted by anxiety, and are able to thrive in different circumstances.

Taking a wider perspective, public speaking is important because we can use our voices as forces for good. Talking about diverse and interesting topics is an educational tool, and a good speech can be very powerful. If you want to learn more about how to use your voice, you can try our Become a Better Presenter: Improve Your Public Speaking Skills course. 

A brief history of public speaking

As you can probably imagine, public speaking is hardly a new thing. It dates back to the ancient Greeks, who used public speaking as a political tool in debates and assemblies. The main purpose of their speeches was to persuade people, known as rhetoric. Famous public speakers included Plato and Aristotle, and we still remember their words today.

This use of rhetoric continued in ancient Rome, where famous orators such as Marcus Tullius Cicero used their voices to persuade people in the law courts and political spheres. Techniques used by the ancient Greeks and Romans can still be found in modern speeches, for example, in Barack Obama’s speeches as president of the United States.

However, the art of public speaking is certainly evolving, even if some things remain the same. Persuading isn’t the only objective of speeches today – instead, they can be used to educate, inspire, express feelings, or just provide a creative outlet for people.

Why do I have a fear of public speaking?

In order to face your fears head-on, it’s important to understand why you feel anxious about public speaking. There could be many reasons why, but the reasons we’re going to talk about below are pretty universal. 

1. You feel self-conscious as the centre of attention

This is definitely one of the most common reasons why people are scared of public speaking. It’s easy to become really awkward and overly self-aware in front of an audience because we’re wondering how we’re being perceived by others. 

If you try to view the talk as a conversation between people, rather than a presentation to an unknown audience, you may be able to rise above your self-consciousness. 

2. You’re having a physiological response

For most people, the fear they experience is a result of a physiological response to a perceived threat. A large audience or intense situation might trigger the arousal of the autonomic nervous system, which could lead to your body having a fight or flight response

This can cause rapid breathing, shaking, and an increased heart rate, all of which make it harder to talk confidently. You may even be tempted to run away and exit the scary situation completely. Not to worry though, as later we’ll explore some strategies you can use to slow down this physiological response.

3. You’re worried about appearing nervous

This is related to feeling self-conscious, but often, we get more scared when we’re aware that we’re exhibiting symptoms of anxiety. It can be pretty hard to feel confident if we’re showing signs that we’re not – ‘fake it til you make it’ seems like an impossible feat.

The hard truth is, that the audience will not notice or remember a lot of the things that you’re concerned about. Gary Genard, public speaking expert, suggests that you should place the spotlight on your audience instead, and think about how you can impact them.

4. You’re comparing yourself to others

It’s easy to compare yourself to great speakers, whether that’s professionals or one of your friends who has bucket loads of confidence. However, if all speakers were the same, speeches wouldn’t be interesting at all. Besides, your purpose isn’t to be an amazing speaker, it’s to provide something for your audience, whether that’s inspiration or something else.

5. You’ve failed or experienced difficulties in the past

Gary Genard explains that public speaking anxiety is often a learned behaviour. If you’ve ever experienced an issue with public speaking before, where you felt like you failed, you’ll carry this feeling with you next time.

However, if fear of failure can impede your ability to speak well, then anticipating success can have an equally positive impact. It’s all about changing your mindset, which we’ll discuss more later.

6. You don’t have the skills to pull it off

Maybe you’re not at all used to public speaking and haven’t learned the appropriate skills. In this case, your anxiety is legitimate, but also easily fixable. All you need to do is prepare well and learn some of the skills. 

We have some great communication skills courses that you could try if you want to become a better communicator in your personal and professional life. If you want something more specific to public speaking, you could try our What Makes an Effective Presentation? course.

How to deal with public speaking anxiety

We’ve already provided some tips and tricks on how to deal with public speaking anxiety, but there are certain things you can work on which will have a lasting impact. With help from experts in our open steps, we’ve put together some information about how to improve your confidence, change your mindset and implement relaxation techniques.

Learning about these things can not only help you with your public speaking anxiety, but might benefit you with other forms of anxiety too, like more general social anxiety. Even if you don’t explicitly suffer with anxiety, learning these things will help you become more self-assured.

How to improve your confidence

In our open step about understanding self-confidence, Helen Kempster from Goldsmiths University discusses how self-confidence is made up of two elements: self-efficacy and locus of control. This comes from psychological research done by Judge, Locke and Durham in 1997, and is referred to as ‘Core Self Evaluation’.

1. Develop self-efficacy

The first part, self-efficacy, is about the belief you have in your ability to succeed in different situations. Three factors affect your self-efficacy, and these are direct experience, observed experience and social persuasion.

Direct experience is about being successful or unsuccessful when you try something new, observed experience is about watching a role model succeed or fail in something, and social persuasion refers to praise or criticisms from other people. 

All of these things can affect your self-efficacy, and therefore your self-confidence. So, if you want to be more confident, you should take these things into account. You should be open to trying new activities and taking on responsibilities, you should find positive role models (in friends and family, or online), and you should ask for feedback and constructive criticisms from others. 

2. Establish your locus of control

The second part, locus of control, is about your belief that you are able to influence situations in your life, internally and externally. If you have an internal locus of control, you will have more self-confidence, because you believe your own decision-making and personal attributes determine how successful you are. People with an external locus of control believe external factors are more influential, such as luck or circumstance.

Therefore, in order to cultivate an internal locus of control, you should focus on the things in life that you have total control over, and create goals that relate to those things. You should seek support from different places, whether that’s a therapist, online community or club. Ultimately, you need to be aware that your choices matter, and that you have responsibility over your life.

This isn’t to say, however, that external factors don’t matter. Discrimination in all forms can impact the way a person views themselves, and it’s not your fault if you’re treated unfairly. This approach merely encourages you to think about what you do have control over, and focus on that.

How to change your mindset

In our open step about changing your mindset by Deakin University, experts provide tips on how to rewire your thoughts into more positive ones. This approach can help you get over public speaking anxiety by challenging your negative thought process, and is also a valuable lesson for all areas of life.

When you’re about to give a presentation or talk and you’re feeling terrified, your inner critic might start saying things like ‘I can’t do it’ and ‘I’m not good enough’. However, rather than listening to your inner critic as unquestionable truth, you should stop and think about the thought you’re having. If you acknowledge that it’s just a thought rather than a fact, you’ll become more self-aware and less anxious.

Rather than completely shutting a thought like this down, it might be beneficial to replace this thought with a more considered statement, like ‘This is difficult right now but it will get easier’. This kind of reframed thought still acknowledges how you’re feeling, but isn’t prepping for failure. 

Learning breathing techniques

When you’re about to deliver a speech or begin an interview and you feel nervous, your breathing is one of the first things that can be affected. This, in turn, can prevent you from being able to talk confidently. If you haven’t got experience or training in proper breathing techniques for speech, it can actually be difficult to breathe properly while you’re talking.

Rather than breathing normally, you need to breathe in enough air to sustain your speech through long sentences. This requires you to breathe using your diaphragm, which also helps relax you. Some techniques to try include lengthening your exhale, breathing through your belly, and meditation exercises. To learn more about how to practise meditation, you can check out our blog.

Mastering the art of public speaking

Now it’s time to get out there and smash that presentation. We looked at a series of our open steps by experts in our Career Credentials course from Deakin University and Effective Presentation course from Coventry University, and created a list of top tips on how to master the art of public speaking. 

Before the speech

The speech itself might be the scary part, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only part you should pay attention to. Preparation is the key to success, and will make you feel so much more relaxed and confident when it’s time to present.

Research your topic in detail

Whether you know a lot about the topic you’re talking about or it’s new to you, make sure you do the research. It’s good to have some facts and evidence about the topic in order to make you sound trustworthy and knowledgeable, but don’t overdo it.

 If you truly understand your topic, you won’t need to completely memorise a speech, and you’ll be able to improvise if you need to.

Know your message

In the planning stage, you should ask yourself, why are you giving this presentation? What is the true purpose or message? Your idea should take centre stage, and you are merely the platform presenting that idea to an audience.

 In some cases, you might be making a speech because you want to enact change. If so, have it in your head exactly what you want to happen after people hear your speech, and try to get that across. Whether you want to encourage deep communication in education, or improve public engagement with science, make sure you speak with intention.

Understand your audience

Who are you talking to, or rather, who do you want to reach? If you are talking to a specific audience, make sure you target your speech towards them and make an effort to understand them. Think about how formal or informal you should be, and make sure you consider being inclusive and sensitive to a diverse audience

This means not making inappropriate jokes, speaking clearly and concisely, and trying to avoid things like sarcasm, which can cause misunderstandings. Of course, there may be some exceptions to this – for example, if you’re performing a comedy sketch.

Create a structure

Having a structure to your speech can prevent it from becoming monotonous. Rather than it all being the same tone, you can split it into sections such as an introduction, anecdotes, and a call to action. Even just being aware of a clear beginning, middle and end can help make your speech more interesting.

Practice until you feel confident

It may be the advice for everything, but that’s because it works. Practice really does make perfect, and it prepares you for different scenarios that might happen in the real speech. Once you’ve practiced enough times, it’ll feel so familiar that your nerves will settle quickly when you actually speak in public.

Get constructive feedback

It can be scary to practice in front of other people, but if you can’t do that, then maybe you shouldn’t be performing in front of a larger audience. Asking for feedback prepares you for the idea that you’re being judged, and allows you to correct aspects of your speech and performance.

During the speech

The speech is about to begin. What can you do throughout your speech to make sure it gets a good reception? Here is some of our best advice.

Start and finish on time

This may sound simple, but it’s really important to start and finish on time. If you begin late, the audience might get annoyed before you’ve even started, and if it drags on for too long, the audience might lose interest.

Keep it entertaining

There are numerous ways to make sure your speech is entertaining, and this doesn’t mean it can’t be on a serious topic. Besides trying not to repeat yourself or only reading from your notes or slides, there are a few things you can try.

In this article about public speaking by Forbes, the writer suggests starting your speech with a “grabber”, which is something like a personal story or shocking statistic that will immediately get your audience engaged. It can also be a great tactic to follow a narrative, as an audience member will find it easier to follow and stay interested. Storytelling can also be a great tool to create social change.

Interact with your audience

In our open step from our course on how to become a better presenter, experts explain how to interact with your audience effectively. They suggest that if you want audience members to shout out, make sure you tell them, but perhaps leave it until the last quarter of the session so there aren’t too many interruptions.

If you ask the audience questions, be prepared for jokey, irrelevant or inappropriate answers, and make sure you have the tools to deal with that. Finally, volunteers are a great way to include your audience – just make sure to choose someone who actually wants to join you.

General tips

We’ll finish off with some more general advice on how to be successful when public speaking. For more information, you can enrol on our course Presenting Your Work with Impact: Presentation Skills Training.

Be yourself

Audience members don’t want a perfect speaker with no flaws or mistakes. Instead, they respond well to honesty, and you showing your personality. Even though confidence is powerful, so is vulnerability, so don’t be scared to slip up. The audience don’t want you to fail, in fact, they will probably empathise with any mistakes you make.

Even if you haven’t seen many speeches or presentations by someone like you before, that doesn’t mean you don’t have something valuable to say. 

There is no secret formula

The head of TED, Chris Anderson, makes a very good point about public speaking. There is no secret formula that you must follow to succeed, and there are countless ways to deliver a great presentation. 

You don’t have to follow any of the tips we’ve provided if you don’t want to – these are just things you can consider if it’s useful to you. There are no rules about presenting (unless you’re at work perhaps), so do what feels right to you and feel free to get creative. 

Final thoughts

We hope this advice has helped you to conquer your fear of public speaking, but now it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice. The next time you have a presentation, speech or performance, remember to try out some of these tips. You may even find yourself enjoying it!

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