I was sitting in the front row of a large conference room with 150+ colleagues behind me. I felt a wave of nervousness wash over me while I was waiting for my turn to get on stage and speak. I’m an introvert and hated public speaking.
Butterflies in my stomach. Sweaty palms. Why do I have so much saliva right now? I’m swallowing too much. It’s too cold in here and is going to make my hands shakier.
I had prepared but I still had a problem with the speech…my boss picked the topic. It was something popular five years ago and I wasn’t interested in talking about it. What if everyone else feels the same way? My boss knew my reservations…but there I was about to go on stage.
Getting Out of Your Head
There are ways to overcome this dreadful scenario. Your introverted mind is racing, trying to prepare, but doing a very poor job of it. Getting stuck in your head only makes it worse!
Introverts often deal with situational anxiety just like this. I’d been up in front of people and confidently sharing ideas before, but this felt different. I was most comfortable in casual situations, like small groups of people sitting around a table. I did better in conversations than in stand-up, official presentations. My most relaxed is when I’m passionate about the topic.
But how can you get out of your head and more comfortable in the situation?
Some speakers lighten the mood by telling an ice-breaker joke. Jokes haven’t worked well for me, but if I use one it needs to be perfectly aligned to the topic of the speech.
Sahil Bloom, an investor and motivational speaker, recently tweeted how he likes to lighten the mood before speaking. He asked the event organizers to play “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys as he walked on stage. The event planners laughed but Sahil explained that this song was his one-year-old son’s favorite song. It gets the crowd laughing and allows him to poke fun at himself. He can then segue that intro to tell a cute story about his son and put himself at ease.
Learn from Yourself
I’m a reader and a writer, not so much a talker. That’s who I am, and it is unlikely to change. But I’m also one for continual improvement and growth. I have read many articles that give speaking tips, but the problem is that most of their advice didn’t work for me.
You’ve heard that you should picture the audience naked – doesn’t work. They say to use note cards – made it worse for me. Some recommend looking over the top of the audience at the back wall – did not help me. They’ll tell you to focus on your breathing – this only helps a little bit. There are suggestions for vocal exercises or to jump up and down before going on stage – minimal benefit for me. Some speakers start with, “How’s everyone doing today?” followed with “Oh, come on, you can do better than that!” – I don’t like doing it. I’ve heard people say you need to drink alcohol before going on – sorry, but I don’t drink!
Your mileage may vary. Everyone is different.
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In the rest of this article, I’ll tell you what works for me. Maybe some of it will work for you, but you’ll need to spend some time reflecting on how you feel before and during your speeches. Learn what makes you anxious and what makes you feel comfortable.
What I Learned About Myself
I’m most confident if I’m the subject matter expert (SME) and I can play the teacher role. I now avoid speaking about things that I’m not truly excited about.
I have a double whammy: I’m a stoic person and a monotone speaker. To counter that, I put in areas where I plan to vary my tone, volume, speed, or add in emotion.
When the audience smiles, nods in agreement, or interacts in some way, I get more comfortable. So, I try to plan for areas where that can happen, especially near the beginning of a speech. But I do it in a way that if the audience doesn’t respond, it won’t be obvious and embarrassing. I might tell a personal quip so I can at least laugh at myself. I might ask the audience a rhetorical question or to raise their hands if they’ve experienced the same.
I had to suffer through discomfort before I started to learn when my anxiety kicks in and when it doesn’t. I’d reflect afterwards and try to understand it better. It’s painful to learn but it’s worth it.
I could have avoided public speaking entirely, but I knew I didn’t want to do that.
Leadership always came naturally to me. Public speaking did not. Leaders don’t have to be great public speakers – just watch some U.S. Presidential speeches – but leaders who speak well seem to have an extra boost and I wanted that.
A co-worker years ago hounded me to join a company-sponsored Toastmasters club. I did not want to go, so I avoided it as long as possible. He was persistent. I went to a meeting as a guest because I didn’t want to commit to it. I was surprised that as a visitor I was still asked to stand up and say something, unprepared! Why would I want to put myself through that?
For career growth, I eventually decided to use the “face your fears” approach, so I joined the club. No matter how painful, I planned to give it full effort to improve.
The meetings were fun! Once a month I’d get to hear a few short speeches that felt like listening to TED Talks. They use games throughout the meetings where everyone can participate and work on their focus areas. Some of the members were VERY good, while others were beginners like me. Everyone in the group was supportive and helped others on their path. Each meeting had report-outs on how everyone did, including how many times filler words like “um” and “ah” were used. It was cool to see people who spoke English as a second or third language aiming to improve their fluency.
I even took on leadership roles within the group. I’m proud to have followed their path to earn the “Competent Communicator” award.
Practice Makes Perfect
You can’t learn without doing the very thing you are trying to improve. Toastmasters increased how quickly I could do that. Instead of giving a speech once a year, I was giving one once a month. It’s a lot easier to reflect and learn when you’re speaking frequently.
In 2013, musician Amanda Palmer gave an amazing TED Talk called “The Art of Asking.” It is well worth the watch. She is strong, confident, poised, and entertaining. Her speech had been polished to perfection. I can’t find a link any longer, but at one point I was fortunate enough to see a recording of the first time she ever gave that speech. I wish that comparison was available for all who are learning to speak in public. It was encouraging to see a first-round version and it perfectly illustrated how much refinement goes into a world-class speech.
Public Speaking Tips that Work for Me (an Introvert)
Below are some of the things that work for me. I do best when I have at least two weeks to prepare before giving a big speech on stage.
- Create an outline of the key themes or sections.
- Write out the entire speech like a blog post.
- Remember Winston Churchill’s quote: “Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”
- Read and refine it many times over.
- Memorize the intro and conclusion. I recite these verbatim in the final speech because I want a strong start and finish.
- Repeat the other parts of the speech singularly. This helps me get comfortable with the subject matter and talking points, but I don’t perfectly memorize them because I want the middle of the speech to sound natural.
- Use the original outline as a guide during practice. I do this silently at first and then vocally, so my enunciation gets practice too.
- Practice alone. A lot. I practice in the shower, lying in bed at night, or while driving in the car.
- Remove the need for the outline. I don’t like having notes during my speeches.
- Practice with trusted people. My wife and kids have listened to speeches several times while I’m preparing, and I’ve asked a co-worker to be a one-person audience. Of course, I’ve practiced in front of my Toastmasters club too! These opportunities help tremendously.
- Use a visual presentation when possible. For introverts, this diverts eyes to your slides instead of always looking at you. It is better to have visual slides rather than text that you plan to read out loud. Consider the only text being the titles of your speech sections. Less is more. If you like memes, those can lighten the mood too.
- Record yourself. I know…this is painful. Dreadful at first. Excruciating. But I get so much from it, and it increased the speed to becoming a better speaker.
Public speaking is nerve wracking and more so if you are introverted. I set speaking skills as a personal growth area and faced my fears. What I found was that public speaking is a learnable skill. You’ve read the things that work for me, but you’ll need to learn from yourself as you give speeches. Record yourself, reflect on what works and doesn’t work for you, and then find ways to highlight your strengths and work around your weaker areas.
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