Scared of Public Speaking? Build Confidence with these 3 Pro Tips.

Friday Night, 8pm. Scared and shaking, I wait backstage at Kenny’s Castaway’s on Bleeker Street in Manhattan before my first solo gig as a singer/songwriter. I am about to go on stage in front of a hundred friends, family and strangers to play an hour’s worth of untested original songs. I stand facing a beat up old mirror in the harsh light of a naked bulb and look myself in the eyes. I see the wide-eyed fear there. I also know with absolute certainty that there is no way out. In a minute I will be walking out in to the lights, guitar slung over my shoulder. I take a deep, ragged breath, steady myself and with great intensity say to my reflection “You got yourself in to this. You wanted this. There is no way out. Now, you go out there and you rock this thing!!”

In the hundreds of performances and presentations I’ve given since that night, I’ve learned important lessons about how to succeed on stage that may not be intuitive to someone who is new to or fearful of public speaking.

Speaking or presenting to an audience can be terrifying, but it can also be vastly rewarding.

So, since you got yourself in to this, here are 3 Pro Tips to help you take the stage with confidence, inspire your audience and have a rewarding and fulfilling experience that will propel you onward in your career.

Good luck!!

1) It’s not about you.

Sorry to be so blunt, but really it’s not about YOU, it’s about THEM (the audience.) What I mean is when you think about a presentation don’t frame outcomes in terms of yourself:

  • I’ll be embarrassed
  • I’ll fail
  • They’ll think I’m a hack

Realize that you are only on that stage because the audience wants you to be there. Because you have something important to say. BELIEVE IT.

Now ask yourself, why are they here? They have chosen to see me, and I’ve given them the opportunity. Why?

  • What is your purpose in being there?
  • What do you want them to feel and experience?
  • What single, transformative idea do you want them to walk away with and remember?

You have the power to positively influence their lives. Focus on the impact you hope to make. This sense of purpose will power you through the experience and help you blow through doubts, fears and the unexpected.

2) The audience doesn’t know you are nervous.

I would be willing to wager that the number one reason people hate public speaking is the nerves. Nerves feel terrible — like experiencing the full bodily terror of a fight or flight response with no ability to flee. Only the beast that has you cornered won’t tear off your arms and legs and steal away with them. It will rip out your soul and make you feel like a worthless, shameful POS. And worse still than feeling the nerves is imagining the audience seeing you feeling your nerves.

BUT, amazingly, the audience doesn’t know you are nervous! If you display confidence and focus, they will actually feel more at ease. SO, if you don’t feel confident, fake it! This is one case when you should not act how you feel. My personal rule here is that I never acknowledge my nerves or talk about them openly during a performance or presentation.

HOWEVER, don’t try not to feel your nerves or to deny that you feel them. Nerves are the energy of excitement. You are taking a risk, exposing yourself, taking a shot at your dreams and you are pumped about it! Embrace your nerves, feel them, welcome them, accept them, but keep them to yourself. This will actually make you feel less nervous.

3) Practice!!

You may or may not be an obsessive preparer like I am, but you need to take this part seriously. Trying to form an advanced idea (or even a simple one for that matter) in spoken words is hard enough, but doing it on stage for the first time when you are nervous is almost impossible.

Make time to practice speaking through your topic or reading your script or notes. Do this over and over and over and over and over and over as many times as you can. Do it until you can do it without your notes. Try reforming the idea in different ways as if you were having a conversation. The goal is to get to a place where you are crystal clear about what your core message is and what points you will use to support it. Practice enables you to let go of thinking about what comes next and instead to be in the moment and connect with your audience.

If you have limited time for preparation let that free you up. Practice as much as you have time for, but take the urgency as permission to let go and to trust your expertise (which you have!), to speak from experience (which you have!) and to conversationally share your hard-earned wisdom (which you have!) I actually find that when things happen on short notice — ie: Can you speak next instead of tomorrow? — my level of nerves is reduced because I know that I have no choice but to step out there and go for it.

If time is on your side, ask one to three trusted friends/advisers to be an audience for a rough “stumble through” — essentially a practice run of your presentation. You need to go through these stumbles to learn where your logic breaks down and also where your message really connects. It’s a scary thing to do. You will feel vulnerable, but having trusted friends there will help you work through this important exercise, receive valuable feedback and build upon what you’ve learned.

***BONUS TIP***

4) Warm up your body.

This tip may sound like a Justin Timberlake song title, but make no mistake — this is serious business. Your body is your instrument. And given the nerves and the time you’ve no doubt spent on your laptop preparing, your body is probably tight. Time to loosen up.

The best thing you can do right before a presentation is to go find your self some private space for 5 minutes to stretch, warm up and get centered. This is not formal intense workout style stretching. Stretch like a cat. Imagine you just woke up from a luscious midday nap and stretch cause it feels good. Yawn a bunch of times — big, open-mouthed yawns. Make the Brrrrrr sound with your lips — as if to say, wow it’s cold in here! Pronounce the long rolling “R” sound that gets your tongue vibrating. Lick your teeth in a circle pattern in each direction. Do a few deep knee bends. Touch your toes. Strike a power pose. Shake it out. Get funky. Rock your body. All of this will ground you and help the energy flow so you can focus on your purpose and not on your fears.

(I think JT would approve.)