Public speaking has always made me nervous. And yet, I am in a field that requires me to stand up in front of people and speak for several minutes at a time in class presentations, board meetings, conference presentations, and sermons. So you might wonder: how do I do it?
If you know the discomfort of having a room/auditorium full of eyes on you at once, and want to stop wishing for the floor to swallow you whole, keep reading.
It’s one thing to write blog posts for the internet and papers for my professors, but another thing to stand up in front of others alone and speak. While there is real vulnerability (and anxiety!) in expressing oneself through writing and having it be evaluated, writing lacks a crucial in-person component. Writers have the luxury of being able to sift through their thoughts while behind a screen. In fact, many grad students (such as myself) chose academia for this purpose. Research requires solitude, and there is real appeal in being a professional bookworm.
However, we aren’t called to hide away in our ivory towers, storing information away. We must share what we learn. And be as it may, most people on a day-to-day basis don’t learn through reading, even though many of us can and do read. We’re busy with going to work, spending time with family and friends, and just keeping up with daily responsibilities. From birth to death, unless we purposely devote time to reading and researching, we learn through engaging face-to-face. We can’t help the world be more educated unless we teach.
But teaching, most of the time, does require actually speaking. In front of people. Big gulp, right?
When I would get up in front of people as a teen, my mouth got so dry. I would start to sweat. My brain felt as if a giant fence blocked off 90% of my thoughts, and the remaining 10% felt useless. I remember in grade 11 chemistry a presentation about polymers, and I could feel my pulse through my body.
And guess what? This experience is no longer my norm. Sure, I still feel nerves, but they don’t control my ability to speak in front of people anymore. So, what changed? In some ways, not much. I am still the same person. But my mindset changed, and I had to learn these 4 things in order to get there, some of which through trial and error, which I gladly share here.
- Accept the fact that you will be nervous, and do what you can to prepare for it.
Don’t try to convince yourself to not be scared. You probably will be. That doesn’t mean you need to cower in fear, but it’s just something to be aware of. One of the most common fears of people is public speaking, and it’s scary because you’re putting yourself out there.
Frankly, it is nearly impossible to calm down your physical body once its fight-or-flight response is triggered, without removing the trigger. Which means that in order to calm down from anxiety due to a presentation, you’d have to remove yourself from the presentation. Which doesn’t bode well for the actual presentation.
So, prepare beforehand. Bring a water for dry mouth. Breath mints and floss in case you eat beforehand. Your favourite lip balm for comfort. Deodorant for sweat. A comb for unruly hair. And, of course, a snack (or two) for afterwards when your nerves settle and hunger overwhelms you. Make note of where the nearest bathrooms are. If you can, check out the venue before the event. Make backup copies of your presentation.
On that note, if you can’t think on your feet while people stare at you, bring a manuscript. Write down what you want to say! Make it double-spaced so that you can add things or change it around while still being legible. Print two copies (in case you lose one). Email it to yourself. If you have a PowerPoint, email that too, put it on a USB drive, and email it to an event coordinator in case your email goes down.
And practice. Practice until you don’t need your notes or the PowerPoint anymore. Much of our nerves comes from “what if I don’t know what I’m talking about?”, so know what you’re talking about. You will still likely want the aids once you’re in front of people, but if you know the content well beforehand, you will be much more engaged with your audience instead of reading off the page.
Though preparation is helpful, it can’t always prepare you for every unexpected scenario. Regardless of how well I prepare, there is always some element of “winging it.” Think about things like figuring out public transit/traffic, navigating parking lots, unexpected tech issues (your phone dies, you forgot your printed handout, and there’s no internet access). It rains. There’s a hurricane. You dropped your USB in the sewer, or is for some reason not compatible with the tech provided. You get COVID right before the conference. Your plane is delayed. Your scheduled speaking time gets shifted. You spill your coffee on your shirt on the way. A piano falls from the sky on your car.
Needless to say, there are a lot of things outside of your control. When it comes right down to it, you need prayer in this life. Something and someone to trust in. Connecting with our Divine Creator through prayer reminds us that we are not alone, and that though things are outside of our control, that’s actually a good thing—because God’s hands are far more capable. And this frees you up to think about what you are called to share.
Prayer also helps you to slow down, and embody God’s patience. With yourself, and with others. With yourself because you are blinded by your own shortcomings. And because you don’t need to pressure yourself. Know life will still go on even if you stumble. And with others, you will also need patience because sometimes it takes time for people to get on the same page as you, before arriving at the conclusion you want to share.
- Know that: the reason you’re speaking is bigger than your fear.
I understand that this one can sound cheesy, but it’s still true. When the public speaking you need to do is part of your God-given calling, God has placed you in that moment for a reason. Knowing that your voice has purpose, even if you falter, is a real confidence booster.
You don’t have to be in ministry to know that this speaking moment is part of your calling. You could be inspiring a team, teaching a class, or training a new crew of workers. Regardless of field, you are teaching and you are leading. You are meant to do this. But that doesn’t make it any less scary.
In these moments I like to think of Moses. God approached him (and only him) to free His people from slavery, but Moses was scared, saying, “I’m not very good with words…I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled” (Exod. 4:10). Yet, would any of us say that Moses wasn’t meant to set God’s people free? I doubt it.
Many of us may also not want to speak in public. “Lord, please, I’m no good at this.” Moses pleaded with God five times to get out of the task. But how does God respond? He asks, “Who gave human beings their mouths?” in verse 11. God calls Moses to focus on God’s power rather than Moses’ shortcomings.
God, Creator of the universe, also created you and your mouth, and your speaking abilities. You experience anxiety because you’re a deep feeler, which God knows and Jesus is familiar with. He knows what fear and distress feel like.
You were called to share because you have something to say. If someone has asked you to speak, it’s because they think you can inspire them and provide insight. That means that, to whoever asked you to speak, you’ve shown yourself capable. More importantly than that, God knows you’re capable. So lean into that. But don’t overthink it, which leads me to…
- Speak to your audience as if they’re your friends, and be who you are.
Have you ever listened to someone present who sounded wooden and flat, but afterwards talked to them one-on-one and found them extremely enthusiastic and engaging with the same material? That’s probably because they were nervous, and were trying to be who they thought you wanted them to be as a teacher. Sometimes, it’s because they think a speaker has to be like some serious, otherworldly being who will bestow glorious wisdom.
But that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. You’re just a human being, who sleeps, breathes, eats, burps, and picks your nose (I saw you) just like everyone else. You’re not perfect, nor glorious. And you know it. And being self-aware of our flaws can and does lend itself to imposter syndrome. It also makes us more nervous than we need to be, because why should our imperfect selves be in front of people as an example for others to follow?
Instead of falling down that rabbit hole, think of your most favourite speakers. I bet a good number of them come across as relaxed when they talk, aren’t afraid to crack a joke, and make you feel like you’re in dialogue with them even though they’re the only ones talking. In other words, they talk to you as a person, on your level, regardless of the environment. You feel like they’re your friend, or you at least want them to be.
Likewise, when you’re practicing, imagine everyone you’ll be talking to is standing with you in conversation. Imagine that they asked you why you like the topic you’re talking about. Imagine that you’re at a party, and someone asks you, “So, what do you do, and why is this important?” What would you tell them? What makes this talk relevant? Remember to slow down, wait for your listener to get on board with you. Knowing why you’re there and the value you bring should settle your nerves, and that’ll translate into your speaking.
And it should, because you got this. You weren’t chosen by mistake. Deep breath. You’ll do fine. I believe in you.
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