“Even the greatest was once a beginner.”
“All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In this section, you will find some practical steps for becoming an effective public speaker, based on the principle that no matter how much of a novice or an expert you are, there’s always something to learn and room to improve. If you feel anxious about speaking in front of others—and, admittedly, most people do—then the steps, information, and additional resources provided here will help build your confidence, give you some stage tools to work with, and direct you to resources to further solidify your learning.
Before you begin the process of building skills, watch the video below, How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking (2017) by Danish Dhamani, then consider the preliminary steps that follow.
1. Acknowledge the Challenge: The first thing to acknowledge up front is that, aside from extroverts (a minority of the population), most people dislike, if not actively shudder at, the idea of public speaking. For many people, even those who have to speak as part of their job, the mere thought of speaking in front of a crowd can evoke feelings of doom and gloom: furrowed brows, shaking hands, trembling voice, and palpitations.
Figures from a range of sources show you’re in good company:
- From a 2015 Canadian Cancer Society survey: 33% of the 1500 people surveyed feared public speaking the most.
- From a Statistic Brain survey quoted in Forbes: 74% of people suffer from a fear of public speaking (Zimmerman, 2017).
Hence, if you’d like to become an effective public speaker but feel anxious at the prospect of actually doing public speaking, you’re not alone. Your fear of public speaking isn’t a personal failing; it’s a common human response.
The good news, of course, is that fear of public speaking can be overcome. Some of the most famous voices we know initially struggled as speakers: James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars, overcame tremendous personal and social anxieties to “find his voice” and in doing so, got to the point where he could comfortably and confidently speak up and speak out (Jones & Niven, 1993). You can too.
2. Recognize the Costs and Benefits: Acknowledge the personal and professional costs of remaining stuck and not tackling the challenge that speaking before others can pose. Unfortunately, even if employees have strong technical skills, an admirable work ethic, and intelligent, innovative ideas, if they struggle to speak confidently and coherently in a public or workplace setting, they may find it difficult to make a strong positive impact. For example, fear of public speaking can
- lead people to believe they’re less competent and worthy than they are,
- keep their ideas from being heard and acted on, and
- become a glass ceiling in their own career and thwarting advancement.
Being unable to persuasively communicate your ideas in front of a group or audience means that, more likely than not, your ideas, skills, and potential—qualities that could have helped solve a problem and made a positive impact—don’t get heard.
All these negatives stand in sharp contrast to what can be achieved with a strong, persuasive, confident voice. Once you commit to developing your voice as a presenter, you’ll find that speaking up is both liberating and empowering: It not only allows your ideas to be heard, it enables you to accomplish the goals you set. Putting effort into developing your professional speaking skills will pay off in the long run, maximizing your potential as a professional.
3. Commit to Learning: Whether public speaking makes you anxious or whether you enjoy taking center stage, everyone can learn how to become a better public speaker. Regardless of where you are on the public speaking spectrum, you can always develop your skills by learning about and practicing the tips, techniques, and strategies that successful public speakers use to inform, persuade, and even inspire their audiences.
4. Commit to Thorough Preparation: Whether you are presenting to a small group at a workplace meeting or to a larger crowd at a conference, completing a thorough preparation will help to build your confidence in the material you will be presenting. Knowing your materials will help to lessen your anxiety and allow you to take some pleasure in the speaking experience.
You may be interested in reading more about overcoming presentation anxiety. Michael J. Gelb, in Mastering the Art of Public Speaking (2020), offers a lively, straightforward “how-to” approach to public speaking, paying special attention to how to overcome your fears and feel more confident. In short, it’s all about preparation.
Canadian Cancer Society. (2015, June 8). Snakes and ladders top list of Canadians’ fears, just don’t ask them to speak publicly about it. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/snakes-and-ladders-top-list-of-canadians-fears-just-dont-ask-them-to-speak-publicly-about-it-517896421
Dhamani, D. (2017, December 15). How I overcame my fear of public speaking. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/80UVjkcxGmA
Gelb, M.J. (2020). Mastering the art of public speaking: 8 secrets to transform fear and supercharge your career. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Jones, J. E. & Niven, P. (1993). James Earl Jones: Voices of silence. New York: Scribner Book Co.
TED Masterclass. (n.d.). “The #1 rule for improving your presentation slides” TED.com, https://www.ted.com/about/programs-initiatives/ted-masterclass
Zimmerman, K. (2017, February 8). 4 reasons all millennials should develop their public speaking skills. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kaytiezimmerman/2017/02/08/4-reasons-all-millennials-should-develop-their-public-speaking-skills/?sh=62ba80f5200e