Public speaking never came naturally to me. I’m shy, I generally avoid large groups, and I have struggled with anxiety my entire life. If I ever had to speak in front of groups in school, my voice and hands quivered while my mind raced with thoughts like, Shit, I’m shaking, everyone can see I’m shaking, now I’m shaking more. I’m also a rambler. And then this year, I got a job where I had to present in front of large crowds multiple times a week.
I received training and practiced a lot, and both made a huge difference. Still, I feel like people who teach public speaking seem preternaturally confident, and I never found it easy to take their advice. It’s one thing if you only get nervous in front of crowds, but what if you already feel nervous all the time? So, here’s a guide to public speaking by a particularly anxious speaker, focused not just on engaging your audience but on calming your nerves. If I can do it, so can you!
First of all, be prepaaaaared. You will feel 1000% better going up there if you’ve spent time with these three steps in advance.
1. Write an outline. Everyone has a different relationship to scripts–some people love to write out every word, while others fear it will make them come across as rigid or rehearsed. I find it most helpful to write an outline of my key points. That way, I have a clear road map that will get me on track at a glance, and I don’t get glued to the page reading every word. (If you don’t get to have a paper with you onstage, I find an outline is also easier to memorize than a complete essay.) You can still script any points that you struggle to express off the top of your head. I also recommend scripting and memorizing your first three lines. The scariest part is getting started, so knowing exactly what to do at the top will alleviate some of that stress.
2. Practice. If you have enough time to prepare, practicing your speech a few times over a few days will be more effective than trying to marathon it just before you get in front of people. Watch yourself in front of a mirror, or take a video or voice memo that you can play back. Practice under the conditions you’ll have on the day; e.g., if you need to memorize your speech, practice without your notes. Doing it over and over will make it easier to identify parts you struggle with and need to write out, where you should slow down, etc.
3. Test it on a friend or family member. This can feel excruciating but most closely mimics the conditions of the real thing! You’ll feel much more prepared making the leap from one audience member to a group, than from no one to a group.