Four years ago I gave a speech in Japanese in front of over a hundred people, completely forgot my words, started to sweat profusely, and ended up skipping half of the topics I wanted to talk about. I don’t want Thinking in English followers to have the same experience as I did, so today I’m going to give you tips and advice on how to become a better public speaker!
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Why is Public Speaking so Scary?
Public speaking is apparently one of the most common fears that people have – apparently up to 75% of all people are scared of talking in front of crowds. Glossophobia (the scientific word for being scared of public speaking) can affect people in very different ways. Some people get slightly nervous; others fall into complete and terrified panic. I remember a junior high school student of mine 5 years literally shaking when he was asked to talk in front of his class.
And it can be even more difficult and fear-inducing for English learners and non-native speakers to speak publicly in their foreign language. I know this from personal experience. I have so many stories about public speaking, and in particular about public speaking in Japanese. I’m not going to tell you all the stories today (if you’d like to hear them let me know), but they involve me dressing as Santa Claus in front of 200 4 year olds and completely freezing, forgetting my words during a speech contest in a theatre, and appearing on a TV show about sewage.
Public speaking can be scary, but it is also an incredibly important and useful skill. Learning to speak confidently, clearly, and in a way that is enjoyable for your audience is something that you should all be interested in doing. We need to speak publicly all the time: university presentations, business meetings, giving a speech at a wedding, or simply talking in front of a large group of people.
Moreover, even if you are not scared of speaking publicly, it doesn’t mean you are good at public speaking. I have attended hundreds of presentations and meetings over the past 8 years, and the amount of terrible presentations is incredible. I’ve listened to presenters who mumbled, who got confused and didn’t make sense, who sounded incredibly boring, and much more.
So today I want to give you all some tips on public speaking. I want to provide some advice on how to be a more confident public speaker and how to be a better public speaker. In fact, this is something I have been trying to improve myself (both in English and in Japanese). I’m currently taking a Japanese public speaking and presentation class, and it has inspired me to help everyone listening be better at public speaking!
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8 Ways to Improve Your Public Speaking
Don’t Worry About Being Nervous
Don’t worry about being nervous. Everyone, or at least most people, get nervous at the thought of talking in front of people. However, being nervous is not the same as performing badly – and you need to remember this.
In fact, some nerves can be helpful and make you perform better. Your brain works a little faster and you are more alert when nervous.
How to get over your nerves? Practice and prepare. Make sure you know what you are going to talk about, you’ve made notes, and you’ve practised delivering the actual presentation! Preparation is the key to getting over nerves – if you are prepared there is much less to fear.
Know Your Audience
Who are you talking to? Are you speaking in front of a room of specialists? A business meeting with your colleagues? Your best friend’s birthday party? A room of children at a school?
You need to know your audience. The more information you know about your audience, the easier it is to choose the best vocabulary, difficulty of information, the organisation of the presentation, and the design.
For example, imagine you were giving a speech about your job. If you were talking to a group of 6 year old children, what would you say? If you were talking to your colleagues, what would you say? Knowing the audience is the key to improving your public speaking.
Organise, Plan, and Signpost
You should organise your content and information in a logical and effective way. Rather than just speaking randomly, think about what you want to say before you say it. What is the topic? What is the purpose of the speech? What is your argument? What are your main points?
A good way to keep your audience interested and make sure they understand the speech is signposting and asking questions. By asking questions or telling people what will happen later in the speech, the audience is prepared and engaged in the topic.
I know I just said to organise and plan… but don’t be too planned and organised. If something is going wrong, don’t be afraid to change and adjust your style. You need to pay attention to the audience, understand how they are reacting to your speech, and adjust what you are saying.
Flexibility could involve changing focus slightly, speeding up or slowing down your pace, giving extra explanations and definitions if people look confused, and countless other things. If you have no flexibility and only deliver the speech that you pre-prepared, you are risking boring your audience and maybe even confusing your listeners. Don’t be scared of changing things.
This is something I have learned from personal experience: be yourself! Don’t hide your personality. At the beginning of Thinking in English, for example, I tried to be very professional and distant. But over the past year or so I have realised that my audience prefers it when I am myself, and when I involve slightly more personal feelings and content.
If you are a real person, the people listening to you will feel more confident listening to you speak! A great way to show your personality is to use humour and tell stories.
Saying something funny, making people laugh, giving an interesting anecdote are all great ways to keep your audience interested. Audiences like personal stories, so use them! But make sure they are appropriate, relevant, and used effectively!
Do NOT Read
If I see someone reading a presentation, or reading from a piece of paper while publicly speaking, I’m always a little disappointed. Reading out a pre planned speech from a screen or from notes makes it really hard to have a connection with your audience.
Of course you can use notes if you need, but treat your notes as an outline to help you remember and stay focused – don’t write every single thing down you want to say. By speaking from memory or improvising, you are able to keep eye contact with the audience, focus on your message, and be flexible!
Use Nonverbal Communication
Did you know that over 70% of communication is nonverbal? So when you are speaking publicly, you need to also think about your nonverbal communication. Stand calm and confident, keep your voice powerful and clear, and try to smile (if appropriate)!
More directly, don’t cross your arms. Keep your head up and your eyes open. Try to stand naturally and don’t shake your legs. Try to limit the use of utterances ‘like’ or ‘um’ or ‘you know’… once a person notices you use these too much it can become really distracting!
Start Strong and End Strong
And finally, start strong and end strong. Starting a speech or presentation powerfully (maybe by using a personal story, a fact, or a statistic that shocks the crowd) is a great way to make sure people are interested in listening to you. I have attended guest lectures by professors from around the world, and the best speakers usually start with a joke or funny comment to get the audience engaged. If you start boring, the audience probably assumes everything else you say will be boring.
You should also end strong. Endings can be really difficult (I know this from Thinking in English). Try to summarise everything you said in a few short sentences, and finish with a strong statement that everyone will remember!
On today’s episode of Thinking in English I have tried to give you all a few tips and pieces of advice to improve your public speaking. Speaking publicly in a foreign language is terrifying (I know from personal experience) but it is a really useful skill to master and improve!
Have you ever given a speech or made a presentation in English? How did it go? Do you have any advice for Thinking in English listeners?
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