Public speaking is hard, guys. It takes practice, and work, and it can be really scary, especially if you’re new at it. When you research public speaking, you get a lot of results that encourage you to picture the audience in their underwear (uh, creepy), or memorize your notes, or pause two seconds at each period. Which is all well and good, but that’s more like second tier advice for people wanting to polish their public speaking game. So, I’ve put together some first tier advice—advice I wish I’d had when I first started doing author events, but advice that I think is relevant to all forms of public speaking. Here goes:
1. Practice your speech. And do so standing up, wearing the shoes you’ll be wearing when you give it. This is particularly important if you’ll be wearing heels of any variety. When you’re nervous, you tend to be a bit more wobbly on your feet. Combine that with unpracticed heels and it can all get tricky.
2. Everyone is on your side. This is the most important point of this entire post. I have seen a lot of people speak to a large audience. A lot of those people have been very, very nervous about doing so. And I promise: I was always cheering for them. If they slipped up on a word, or lost their place, or dropped their papers, I was never snickering—I was always thinking “You’ve got this! Don’t worry about it!”. So was everyone else in the audience. No one watching you speak wants you to fail. Because seriously, if I wanted to see someone fail, I’d go to YouTube. It’s easier and you can replay it over and over.
3. Don’t worry if they laugh when you mess up. They’re not laughing at you. They’re laughing because it’s just funny when someone accidentally says “breast” instead of “best” (I’ve done it). Or when someone tries to combine the word “cities” and “towns” and winds up saying “titties” (Male Counterpart did that in front of his class). But they’re not laughing AT you. They’re laughing because it’s funny. You can laugh too.
4. Tell the audience what you need. Feel free to say “I totally lost my place” or “This is my cheat sheet.” I am super distractible, so whenever I’m giving a new presentation, I have my laptop or iPad nearby to refer to. I always tell the audience “I’m basically like your cat, and get distracted by shiny things, so I brought this to help me find my place again.” No one has ever been bothered or alarmed by that. Sometimes, I talk too fast and lose my breath. Sometimes, even with a familiar presentation, I lose my place because something throws me—people talking loudly, a bell ringing, or, in one memorable case, a man covered in mud running by in the background. If I don’t have a cheat sheet with me, I literally just ask the audience what I was talking about. They’re always happy to remind me because SEE POINT 2.
5. Focus on what you’re saying. There are all sorts of websites that tell you to keep your eyes up! Don’t sway! Look people in the eye! And that’s all well and good if you’re at the point where you’re comfortable with public speaking. But if you’re not, just keep your eyes on your paper (assuming you have one). Focus on the words, not the people in the room. One word at a time—slowly.
6. Take a breath. Especially if you’re about to fall apart. Take a breath in through your nose, out through your mouth, and let go. Use that breath as your “restart”. If you’re trying to give your speech and think about how badly you’re screwing up and wonder if people are laughing at you and dwell on if you’re speaking too fast, your brain is going to ignite. Take a breath, and SEE POINT 5.
7. Put your paper on something. This is a pretty basic trick, but makes a big difference. If your hands are shaking, it’ll be way less noticeable if you’ve got the paper on a podium or desk or something. If you won’t have a podium, use notecards rather than a piece of paper—they’ll wobble less and thus be less noticeable.
8. It wasn’t as bad as you thought. Ok, let’s say you’ve already given a speech and OH MY GOD IT WAS THE WORST YOU MESSED UP EVERYTHING.
You didn’t. Seriously. It was just one speech, and unless you’re the President and you accidentally just said “titties” on camera, no one’s going to remember in the end. Sometimes I catch myself sitting around and dwelling on all the embarrassing things I’ve done in my life. I would bet cash money that no one who witnessed those things remembers them—or if they do, they remember them as sort of a passing story rather than THAT TIME JACKSON RUINED EVERYTHING.
9. Everyone is on your side. Yes, it’s important enough that I’m saying it twice—and because you should know that everyone is on your side after you’ve given a speech. If you screwed up, you’re almost certainly beating yourself up way more than anyone else is—because guess what? Public speaking is probably scary for them too.
10. Don’t let one bad speech ruin you. While I was writing SISTERS RED, I got a terrible migraine in Borders moments after drinking one of those Naked brand smoothies. That smoothie had nothing whatsoever to do with why I got a migraine, but I will never ever ever drink one again. Don’t let public speaking become your Naked smoothie. Just because you screwed up once back in 4th grade and the whole class saw you turn bright red doesn’t mean you are bad at public speaking. It means that in 4th grade, you messed up a single speech.
11. Public speaking takes practice. And I’m not talking about practicing for a single speech. I’m talking about practicing public speaking, period. The more often you speak in public, the better you’ll be at it. If you’re truly terrified, start small and join a book club—one that’s not stacked with your BFFs. I also know a lot of people who have taken improv comedy classes to help them with their confidence in front of a crowd. And there are various organizations that focus on public speaking that are a quick Google away.
For what it’s worth, I also think performing arts—even if it’s not drama, where you’re speaking on stage—are hugely helpful for this, because you get used to eyes being on you. I could go on for hours about the various benefits of arts education, but I’ll be brief and say that the confidence I got from years of dance and winterguard has been invaluable.
And there you have it! Good luck, go forth, speak publicly. And do so without ever needing to picture the audience in their underwear like some kind of creeper.