One of the main benefits of building presentation skills is enhanced confidence, which in turn enhances your effectiveness as a speaker. The confident speaker is considered trustworthy, believable, and persuasive.
Confidence is expressed through the tone of a speaker’s voice, its intensity – not too soft; its pitch – not too high; its speed – not too slow; and its variation – a voice that is not monotonous but varied and interesting. Confident speakers avoid excessive hesitation or use of fillers. Confidence is also expressed through word choice – “certainly” instead of “perhaps.” Conversely, speakers who appear anxious are not perceived as confident or knowledgeable.
Does speaking in public make you nervous? Fear of public speaking is oft claimed to be the #1 fear, worse than the fear of death, but is that a reliable statement?
Although the fear of public speaking is common, it is not #1 according to a 2017 survey of the top fears of Americans.1 Out of 80 choices, death was ranked #48 and public speaking was ranked #52. However, it does make for a good joke, as comedian Jerry Seinfeld puts it:
“I saw a thing, actually a study that said speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing - number two was death. Death was number two. This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”2
Regardless of the current accuracy of the fear of public speaking statistic, the fearful speaker is not as effective as the confident speaker. To gain confidence, a speaker needs two attributes: (1) confidence in their knowledge of the speech content and (2) confidence in their presentation skills. Choose to speak on topics in which you have #1 – because competence breeds confidence. Add to competence, knowledge to build #2 – confidence in your presentation skills. Once you acquire the knowledge it is up to you to put it into practice.
Edward R. Murrow said, “Stage fright is the sweat of perfection.” This is a perfection that is inward focused – focused on “looking good” rather than excelling to benefit the audience. When you focus on your audience and not on yourself, you will be much less nervous. There’s no need to imagine your audience naked – that is silly advice. Instead, prior to your speech, visualize your audience engaged and interested. After all, your audience wants you to succeed. That’s what they came for. During your speech make eye contact and smile – it not only involves your audience, it calms your nerves.
The founder of Toastmasters, Dr. Ralph C. Smedley, said “The unprepared speaker has a right to be scared.” Second to maintaining an audience focus, the best prevention for nervousness is preparation. Know your audience. Know your topic and your message. Know your speech and practice. If you aren’t finishing your speech at the last minute and have allowed yourself plenty of time to go over it, rehearse it, refine it, and rehearse it some more. You will be much more relaxed and deliver a much more effective presentation.
On the day of a presentation, don’t be rushed – arrive early to get set up. Get to know the room, stage, podium, equipment, and check all tech equipment to ensure everything works. As the audience arrives, if you’re prepared, you can meet, greet, and get acquainted with the early arrivers. Throughout the speech, continue to connect with the audience as if you’re having a conversation one-on-one. You will be much more relaxed if you feel like you know your audience. Find a friendly face and make eye contact when nerves strike.
Create a pre-speech routine that helps you relax. Choose what works for you. Do stretching exercises. Take a walk. Do progressive relaxation exercises to loosen up tense muscles by tensing each muscle group for 5-7 seconds then quickly releasing, one muscle group at a time. If your face feels tense, try making funny faces (in a private spot, not in front of your audience.) Do a vocal warm up. Hum or sing to warm up your voice. Practice deep breathing - your abdomen should move, not your shoulders. Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated. Although a common recommendation by many voice and speech coaches includes reducing caffeine intake, recent research has shown that caffeine does not adversely affect voice production.3 Tolerance levels for caffeine vary among individuals and consumption should be evaluated on an individual basis.
During your speech stand confidently but relaxed, with an open, expansive posture. Place your feet shoulder width or hip width apart, placing one foot slightly in front of the other, with your weight balanced on the balls of your feet, your body leaning forward ever so slightly, your knees unlocked. This should prevent you from rocking and encourage you to move and gesture without appearing frozen in place.
If you often feel nervous at the start of a speech, it may calm your nerves to do something early on that involves the audience. An activity takes the focus off of you and on to them, which is where your focus belongs.
Adopt a “can-do” attitude. Have a good time! Decide there’s nothing you’d rather be doing more and demonstrate that attitude to your audience. Redefine stage fright as a negative term for excitement. Control the physical symptoms of nervousness with all of these suggestions – but realize some nervous anticipation can work to your advantage. Channel your adrenaline into enthusiasm. Have fun presenting!
This blog is an excerpt from the draft chapter on presentation skill-building for the upcoming Academy book about Nutrition Communication.
Wilkinson College of Arts Humanities and Social Science. America’s Top Fears 2017 Chapman University Survey of American Fears.
ExplainItStudios. Jerry Seinfeld’s: “I’m Telling You for the Last Time.” 2014.
Erickson-Levendoski E, Sivasankar M. Investigating the effects of caffeine on phonation. J Voice. 2011:25(5):e215-e219.