Truths About Public Speaking

In my former career as a minister, I used to speak every week to hundreds of people. In the past decade as an executive coach, I’ve helped leaders prepare for mission-critical presentations with billions of dollars at stake.

Through these experiences, a few crucial truths have emerged about public speaking.

First, it’s important for every public speaker to realize that anxiety is part of the equation. Make friends with it. Many people believe that the ideal is to get to a point where you are no longer nervous at all. Maybe that happens for some people, but not many in my experience. Probably a better goal is to embrace the nerves, get comfortable with them, reduce them, and see your confidence rise. You can use a variety of strategies to manage nerves. But there’s value in reframing: it’s actually good to be nervous. As my own speaking coach recently quoted of broadway actors, “If I don’t throw up, I know it’s not going to be a good show.” Now that’s a seasoned professional!

Another basic truth is that preparation helps enormously. While I was in the ministry, even after doing it for years, I often spent 8-10 hours putting together a good 20 minute talk. I don’t think that’s unusual. A seasoned speaker may put together a talk more quickly, especially when speaking on familiar topics. But for most of us, creating a new talk just takes time. So if you’re investing in your own speaking skills, carve out time to prepare.

Surprisingly, there is a crucial aspect of preparation that often gets missed even by seasoned executives: Preparing for Q&A. Yes, you can prepare for Q & A, and you should. Many of my clients spend a lot of time preparing their presentation, but very little time preparing for Q & A. That’s wrong headed, especially for a speaking engagement (like a board meeting) where Q & A can be make or break. The way to prepare for Q & A is ask yourself, “What are the most likely questions this group will ask me? What are the questions I’m most afraid of?” Then prepare answers for those starting with a key message. That is, the first words out of your mouth should be the most important words you want them to hear that addresses main concern in their question.

Another not so secret truth is that the more speeches the give, the better you’ll get. So sign up for a bunch of speaking engagements. It will expose you to a variety of audiences, venues, and probably different content to speak on. That’s all good; it’s just what you need. Most likely you’ll also see your nerves become more manageable through experience.

Finally, a speech coach can really help. A good presentation coach can make a huge difference and save you a great deal of time and pain. She can hold your hand, help with your writing, make your rehearsal time more effective, and boost your confidence. She can even be there in the audience in some cases. When I was recently asked to speak to a large group of managers, at first I had a pang of fear. But then I thought, “Hey, my coach can help me. I’ve got this!” Having a coach means you’re never alone in the whole speaking journey. And it means your talk will be better, clearer, more polished, more “you”.

The rewards are huge

In the height of my ministry career, where public speaking was a daily part of my life, I remember the great joy I took from it. I might still have had nerves before an important talk. But public speaking is a wonderful way to be creative, express yourself, connect and serve others. I have rarely felt so alive, so present, and so useful as when I stood before an audience and worked to inspire and help them. And I’ve rarely felt so satisfied as immediately after delivering a great talk. If you’re struggling with public speaking, keep at it–good things await!

One final tip If you’re worried about public speaking. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” You’ll bomb. You’ll forget what to say. You’ll look dumb for a few minutes. And after that? Life will go on. Everyone will forget about it, almost immediately. No one is perfect.

For more on public speaking see our post on speaking with authenticity as well as the Harvard Business Review’s How to Cure Your Dread of Public Speaking and 5 Ways to Get Over Your Fear of Public Speaking.