Public speaking: three ways to avoid the jitters

woman public speaking
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By Jodie Brazier, Comms Consultant at TopLine Comms 

Public speaking is like taking an exam: few of us like it, many of us fear it, but we all have to do it at some point or another.

Whether you’re speaking to a small group or a lecture hall packed to the brim with people, it’s important for many business roles that you can make your case and communicate your ideas to a wide range of audiences.

As a Comms Consultant at TopLine Comms I work across a range of sectors including science PR and engineering PR, all of which involve pitching for new business. That, inevitably, involves public speaking in one form or another, and when I first started out in PR I found it quite daunting. Over time, though, I got more comfortable, and now it’s one of my favourite parts of my job.

So, I’ve put some tips together from my own personal experience for anyone who needs a confidence boost when it comes to public speaking.

Read the room

And read about the room. By which I mean: do your research. This isn’t always going to be necessary. If you’re presenting a results update, for example, you’ll probably know everyone anyway.

But if you don’t know the people you’re talking to, it’s important to find out what you can. I certainly feel more comfortable when I know who will be attending the pitch and who they are: it prevents any surprises on the day when you think you’ll only be talking to two people and then eleven walk in. It also gives you an opportunity to maximise the small talk at the beginning of a pitch.

And small talk, insubstantial though it might be, shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s where the people you’re presenting to will first start scoping you out. By knowing who they are and potentially some of their interests, you can open a conversation more easily. For example, you could mention a blog post they’ve just written that you’ve read and found really interesting or comment on their departments latest product.

But it’s important to not fake this either – only say you found something interesting if you actually did. Fake enthusiasm can be spotted from a mile off. Other than that, just try to mirror the tone of the people you’re presenting to. If they’re jokey and informal you can mirror this in your pitch, and if they’re very serious and straightforward you can do the same.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Perhaps the most important thing when it comes to public speaking is to know what it is that you want to say and practise it. Personally, I like to memorise key bullet points for each slide I’m going to present and have these written down on a flashcard. This allows me to know my main message inside out – but not be tied to an actual script if I start stumbling or want to go off-book.

You don’t want to sound too robotic when presenting, but you also don’t want to wing it, as that’s when you’re more likely to freeze. If you’re presenting in a group, it’s important to have a run through before and be very clear on who is speaking through which sections to avoid the awkward moment when three of you speak over each other at once – so assign out roles and stick to them.

Take a deep breath

When I’m feeling really anxious about presenting something, I will literally stop and focus on breathing – counting to seven as I breathe in and counting to five as I breathe out. This helps calm me down and gives me something to focus on, besides how nervous I feel.

If you’re still feeling nervous after doing this exercise it’s time to change that mindset – nervousness is almost the same as the feeling we get when we’re excited. Keep telling yourself that you’re excited instead of nervous and you can’t wait to get out there and present your amazing ideas. You might not be feeling confident, but you’ve got to seem confident.

Public speaking may seem scary at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will get. Who knows? You might even end up enjoying it.

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