12 Ways I Conquered Public Speaking
I used to be a minister, but I’m also an introvert — here’s how I stayed sane
There are moments in life which are pregnant, laden with silent potential, burdened with the question of how they will be broken.
Life starts with one such moment. A baby is born, and collective breath stills in anticipation of that singular breath, silence anticipating its own destruction in piercing cry.
Such a moment follows when someone you love says, “Listen, we need to talk.” You can feel your heart squeeze within your chest, your mind race to anticipate what’s coming, your hands chill with worry.
And such a moment happens when you’re called upon to speak in public. An introduction is made, the applause hoists you to your place of prominence and then recedes like surf, and silence ensues which demands of you: How will you fill it?
We’ve been speaking in front of one another for as long as we’ve lived in proximity to one another as a species, but we haven’t quite boiled it down to a science yet. Why? Because doing so fires even more primal neurons.
Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fight or flight.
Public speaking is what happens when you rise above those fears in a space in which you can neither fight nor flee.
I made my living navigating these waters. As a minister in a small Midwestern town, I spoke in front of crowds ranging from a handful to dozens to hundreds on occasion. It was an odd fit for me, a natural introvert who isn’t prone to jumping on a stump in any other context. While my strengths were and remain elsewhere besides the actual oration, I applied myself to the art and science of it, made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot along the way. As I look back on my tenure behind the pulpit, here are my top twelve tips for breaking that silence:
1. Remind yourself continually that you are supposed to be there
From the first thought in your head, the first scratch of your pencil, the first stroke of your keyboard you make in crafting whatever you’re speaking about, and all the way through the conclusion of your speech, remember that you belong there.
Unless you’re crashing an event (in which case, I’m afraid you’re on your own), you’ve been invited to speak to a congregated group of people. You belong. That applies whether someone thrusts a mic into your hands at a wedding reception or you’ve been tapped to deliver a keynote to 10,000 people. Take that confidence and project it through your speech.
2. Know what type of notes suit your style and strengths
Written notes fall on a continuum from the barest of outlines all the way up to full manuscripts with prompts on how to gesticulate and emote. If you haven’t spoken enough to know where you fall, you’ve got a bit of extra homework to do.
Work your speech up as a full manuscript and save it. Then pare your notes down to nested bullet points and save them. Then pare that down to the most spartan form that still makes sense to you. Now give your speech from each version and see what seems and sounds most natural. That’s probably what needs to go to the podium with you.
Understand the promise and peril of each end of the continuum. Sparse notes encourage a conversational style, but make it more likely you’ll gloss over something you intended to say or lose your place; manuscripts ensure everything you want to say gets said, but introduce the danger of simply reading your speech, which is just painful to watch.
I’d encourage you, whatever notes you end up using, to still begin your process writing your speech as a full manuscript. Reading it through aloud gives you a good sense of flow, and I think the general flow of a speech is a better mnemonic than trying to memorize blocks of text. Plus, manuscripts age better. I was looking at a sermon recently I wrote years ago, and there was a bracketed note saying [TELL HIPPO STORY HERE].
I have not the faintest idea what the hippo story was.
If you have a good hippo story, please let me know.
3. Know your content intimately
I don’t mean read your speech until you memorize the words. That’s machine learning done by a human. I mean engage your ideas with intimacy. Press them, manipulate them, take in their tastes and scents as you would a lover. How do you want your listeners to feel at hearing these words? What emotions do you want to stir within yourself while you’re speaking so that your listeners might feel the same?
There needs to be an emotional appeal to your speech. If it was just about transmitting information, they’d have Alexa or Siri do it and save the fuss. And that goes for any kind of speech. Even when I was hawking shoes over the PA system at the Wal-Mart I worked in during college, I wanted to stir something in people — even if it was merely disdain for the shoes they were wearing.
Think about the emotional cadence of your speech. Is there a lighthearted introduction that gets down to business? Is there an emotional story that puts a human face on a point you’re trying to get across? Think about how you’re going to capitalize on that movement. What words do you need to emphasize? How do you need to vary your tempo and volume? These considerations can only be made when you’re intimately, emotionally engaged with your content. If you’re not inflamed with passion about what you’re saying, do you really think anyone else would be?
4. Assume you’ll be forced to give your speech by candlelight
Got a fancy PowerPoint presentation? Not if the venue’s projector goes out. Giving your speech from an electronic device? Not when it suddenly informs you that you’ve got more speech left than battery life. Prepare yourself such that even if a solar flare fried every piece of technology in the building, you could still give a quality speech — and backup everything you’re able to, from equipment to power supplies to files, for the smaller failures along the way.
5. Make it easy to find your place in your notes midstream
It’s inevitably going to happen — you’re going to riff on something, make a nice organic point that came to your mind in the middle of your speech, and then go back to your notes and realize you destroyed your mnemonic trigger to fire off your next point. If you’re looking at a wall of text, you’ll probably be consigned to scanning through it while your audience sits and blinks.
Doing this will look different for different people — using various colors of highlighters for alternating paragraphs, using numbered points, alternating bold and italics, or something else. Make the text of your speech an atlas you can easily follow to your destination.
6. Invest time in crafting your introduction
The maxim about never getting a second chance to make a first impression couldn’t be more true here. How you intrude upon that pregnant silence when you begin your speech will likely be how you’re perceived throughout. While it’s possible to win people back in the body of a speech, don’t make it so you have to make up ground.
There’s no one way to break the ice. That depends on you and your audience. It’s possible for a joke to fall flat for an audience primed to laugh; it’s also possible to successfully get one over at a funeral. Whatever you do, ensure it dovetails with and contributes to the rest of the speech. When you tell a non-sequitur yuk-yuk joke just to ease your own nerves behind the mic, all you’re doing is wasting my time. When you’re being self-deprecating without larger context in your introduction, all I think you’re trying to do is lower my expectations about how well you’re about to do (and trust me, you’ll succeed).
Craft an introduction that invites your audience to a table of rhetoric, and then serve them each course with pride for your work.
7. You’ll never destroy your nerves — leverage them instead
Even after years in my position, despite the fact I’d been in the living rooms of the majority of the people listening to me, despite the fact I spoke to some of them twice a week every week, I still got some level of butterflies getting on stage. Unless you’re possessed of some kind of confidence I’ve never seen, no amount of deep breathing, visualization techniques, or self-affirmation is going to completely squelch your nerves.
So instead of trying to destroy them, make the problem part of the solution. Let your nerves provide punch to your voice when you need to exude excitement, or a bit of waver when you need to inflect it with emotion. Let that nervous energy flow through you — all your audience will be able to see is energy, and energy is what keeps their interest.
8. Remember as you speak that nobody else knows your script
The fact that nobody in your audience likely knows what you’re about to say to them is a double-edged sword.
First, it means there’s no gist to be gotten beyond what you’re telling them. To you, the speech you wind up giving will be some percentage in tune with the notes you’re familiar with. Your audience doesn’t have that outline, though. So remember that if you would paint a picture in their minds, you must provide every brush stroke.
However, that ignorance of theirs also means nobody is going to know when you mess up. Unless you tell them. If you skip a point, just double back to it and then go on. The second a speaker I’m listening to says, “Oh, wait, I think I skipped something, hold on,” I’m pretty much checked out. It’s completely unnecessary and comes across as amateur hour.
If you need a second to catch up in your notes, just reword the last point you made to buy time. If you’re thoroughly lost, excuse yourself and take a long swig out of that bottle of water you should have nearby and figure it out. Don’t break the fourth wall — keep your audience in the moment and engaged. That’s why you’re there.
9. Don’t lash yourself to the mast
Nothing will trumpet how nervous you are quite like gripping the podium or lectern with white knuckles or slavishly hewing to your notes. Don’t use what you’re standing behind as a shield, because you’ll come off as timid. Be comfortable enough with your content to be able to walk away, expand a point, engage with the audience, and come back. You don’t grab the nearest fixed object or stand behind a barricade when you’re talking to a friend. Don’t do it on stage either.
10 Slow. Down.
Nerves tend to act like pure adrenaline for your speech rate, and without mindfulness, your rate will probably slowly increase over the course of your speech. Now, there will be times when you’ll want a flurry of words to inject energy to create a crescendo in your delivery. Bear in mind, though, that three of the more impactful speeches in modern history — Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, and Obama’s “Yes We Can” — at points were around or under 100 words per minute (versus 140–150 in typical conversation).
Properly pacing your speech can only flow from your knowing your content intimately. Think of it as though you were physically engaging the audience. Where in your speech do you want to stroke and soothe them? Where do you want to nudge them toward a new consideration? Where do you want to slap them with a point? Your tempo is part of what does any of these things.
However, overall, it’s likely you need to slow from your natural inclinations.
11. Learn the power of silence
This relates to my prior point. Somewhere in your speech is a seminal kernel of truth that you need to sink into the consciousness of your audience. Depending on the circumstances, a period of protracted silence might be of assistance in driving that point home.
Once, when I was speaking about how busy and distracting modern life is, I abruptly stopped speaking for thirty seconds without explanation. My intent was to highlight how uncomfortable silence is for most of us. My point was made by observing the audience: Five to ten seconds in, their gazes began shifting and there was a general sense of restlessness. After 30 seconds, I asked whether they’d found the experience uncomfortable and was met with a wave of nods.
That’s an extreme example. As you’d see if you tried it, 30 seconds is an eternity standing silent on stage. But looking your audience in the eye for even a few seconds can be a great way to drive a point home. Good speeches cause some level of discomfort because it’s uncomfortable to be challenged or confronted with your own ignorance. Silence is a barb you can sharpen into that hook.
12. Engage with the engaged
If you watch the full video of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in context, you’ll notice that the crowd isn’t completely engaged. Some are milling around, others are only distractedly listening. If he couldn’t inspire rapt attention from everyone listening, I promise you damn sure won’t.
Scanning around your audience while you’re speaking will yield a host of unsettling sights. Someone checking their watch. A big uncovered yawn. Someone unconvincingly pretending they aren’t on their phone. If you focus on these people, your speech will suffer. You’ll get offended and irritated, and either lose your train of thought or wind up trying too hard in an effort to win their attention.
The solution is to simply engage with the engaged. Nothing you’re going to do, short of lighting yourself on fire, is going to magically win back the watch checkers and yawners and texters. So look elsewhere to find people who are paying attention, making eye contact, nodding agreement. In a crowd of more than five, I assure you they’re there. Talk to them. Ask your questions of them. Make your points to them. Let them give you the confidence you need to speak well.
My bonus thirteenth point is simply to be thankful. When people willingly sit quietly in front of you to listen to something you have to say, they’re collectively giving you two of the most precious gifts in the world we live in: time and attention.
Don’t squander them. Honor them. How do you do that?
By doing the work it takes to break your silence well.