Big Yourself Up

How to master the art of public speaking once and for all

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Moya Crockett
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Big Yourself Up is a regular column exploring the ways women can increase their visibility in the workplace. Here, a voice coach explains how to tackle nerves around public speaking. 

Hands up if you’d rather swim 50 laps in a freezing swimming pool than deliver a presentation in front of 50 people? Thought so. The fear of public speaking – also known, in extreme cases, as glossophobia – is something that affects many of us to varying degrees, with symptoms including nausea, increased perspiration, uncontrollable shaking and feelings of panic.

Often, we deal with anxiety around public speaking by simply… not dealing with it at all. We keep our heads down when our boss asks if anyone wants to speak at the next all-staff meeting, and we never nominate ourselves to pitch to important clients. But, as any expert on phobias can tell you, avoidance is not the way to get over a fear. 

Neither is it a particularly useful long-term strategy. While you might be able to get out of public speaking for a few weeks, months or even years, eventually the time will come when you have to step up to the mic.

Perhaps most importantly, feeling self-assured about speaking up could actually help you move forward in your career. Delivering a killer internal presentation is a sure-fire way to increase your visibility in the workplace, while taking speaking opportunities outside of the office will heighten your professional profile – leave you in a stronger position when negotiating promotions, pay rises or going for another job.

To help us learn how to feel more comfortable about public speaking, we consulted vocal coach Sylvie Lui, who has taught at institutions including the College of Public Speaking and the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama. 

Lui has years of experience teaching professionals and performers how to use their voices confidently and effectively – and below, she shares her advice for how to master the art of public speaking once and for all. 

Remember that you have a right to speak 

She’d only practised this 1,721 times 

If you’re not entirely confident about your status at work, this can translate into anxiety about public speaking. Many women experience professional impostor syndrome, but Lui warns we should try to overcome those thoughts if we want to deliver a solid presentation.

“Unless you’re really good at manipulating how you sound, all emotions will come through in your voice – however you’re feeling,” she says. “Remember that you’re a specialist at your job. If you focus on that, your confidence will build up and it will show in your voice.”

Before you begin preparing for a public speaking engagement, remind yourself that there’s a reason you were asked to do it. Even if you’re not completely self-assured in your own abilities or expertise, someone else obviously believes in you – and chances are, they can see your strengths more clearly than you can. 

Know your story

Make notes, but don’t obsess over them 

No matter how accomplished you are, you’re not going to feel truly secure about speaking in public unless you know your material back to front. As a starting point, Lui recommends pulling together all of your material into a Word document or notebook – but don’t fixate on remembering every tiny detail.

“If you’ve done your homework properly, that information should just be in your body,” she says. “There needs to be an emotional connection to your story, and during the presentation the most important thing you can do is take your audience on that journey with you.”

Put simply, if you’re preoccupied with trying to regurgitate your notes word-for-word, you’re likely to come across as robotic and disengaged. Instead of attempting to memorise entire sentences, print out shorthand cues that you can glance at during your speech or presentation to nudge your narrative along, such as images, individual words or key facts. Then… 

Practise, practise, practise

Rehearse your presentation in front of a mirror, wearing the shoes you’ll wear on the day 

Once you’re sure you know the content of your presentation, it’s time to start rehearsing your delivery. But don’t simply stand in your bedroom reciting your presentation at the wall, as this won’t simulate the sensation of being watched by a crowd. 

“It doesn’t give you that live feeling of someone looking at you,” Lui explains. Lui recommends practising in front of non-judgemental people who will give you constructive, candid feedback, such a a trusted colleague or honest friend, or delivering your speech to a mirror. “Even just looking into your own eyes will help create the feeling of an audience.”

You could also try filming yourself using your phone and watching the video back. However, this shouldn’t be a first port of call, because most of us have a tendency to be overtly critical of how we look and sound on camera. “Filming yourself should really be like a dress rehearsal,” Lui says. “You should only do it when your presentation is already very refined.”

Most importantly, promise yourself that you won’t mentally tear yourself apart when you watch the video back. “Try and see it from an unbiased, neutral point of view,” Lui says. “Ask yourself: OK, if I was watching a speaker like this, what would I want to change?”

Breathe 

It sounds obvious, but learning to breathe properly is key to reducing nerves. “I would say practise breathing before anything else,” says Lui.

For a simple stress-busting breathing exercise, place both feet flat on the ground, roughly hip-width apart. Let your breath flow as deeply into your belly as possible (without forcing it), then breathe in gently and regularly in through your nose and out through your mouth. You may find it helpful to count steadily from one to five when breathing in, then again while breathing out – but don’t worry if you can’t reach five.

Do this for around three minutes before beginning your public speaking, and you’ll likely feel significantly calmer and steadier. 

Ground yourself 

Body posture is essential when it comes to good public speaking. Not only can it affect the sound of your voice, but it can also influence how you feel – and how you’re perceived by the audience.

“When we see people who are really flighty on stage or hiding behind a podium, our gut instinct is not to trust them entirely,” says Lui. “We feel more comfortable watching people who seem rooted and confident in their stance.”

While practising your speech, try and keep both feet in more or less the same position, flat on the floor with your weight evenly distributed between the two (it’s also worth rehearsing in the same shoes you’ll wear on the day, so you can get used to standing in them). Even if you hate being the centre of attention, fight the urge to shrink into yourself. Stand up straight, with your shoulders pulled back, your head up and your hands out of your pockets.

It might feel unnatural at first, but the phrase “fake it ’til you make it” really applies here. One 2011 study found a direct link between good posture and feelings of confidence, while Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has written an entire book about the psychological benefits of “power-posing”. Watch her iconic TED Talk about body language above.

Remember that people are on your side 

They’re not your enemies, even if it feels like it at times 

The fear of being judged is one of the main reasons why so many of us dread public speaking. However, it’s important to remember that most people will be rooting for you to do well (or they’ll be staring out of the window wondering what to make for dinner, which takes the pressure off a little bit). 

Also consider that most people won’t have seen your speech before – so they’re unlikely to spot if you fluff a line or forget to mention a minor point.

“Most of your audience will feel for you if you’re in the middle of a speech and you suddenly get crazy nerves,” says Lui. “But most of the time, they won’t even notice that you’re anxious.”

If you’re midway through a speech and feel panicky, take a moment to stop and breathe. “It’s highly unlikely that anyone’s going to kick you off the stage,” says Lui. “So just pause, collect your thoughts, focus on your breath and take your time.” You’ve got this. 

The Big Yourself Up column is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, a year-long initiative to celebrate women’s success and inspire others to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Getty Images / Andrew Neel / Fabian Moller / Unsplash 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women's Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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