From Fidgeting to Fabulous: How to Perfect Your Public Speaking Skills

I’ll never forget – I was in my senior AP English class, and my overachieving high school self was mildly distraught over a less-than-perfect grade. I thought I had done everything right for a major presentation– I knew my material inside out, projected my voice, and, of course, spit out my gum beforehand. Frantically reading through the teacher’s comments, I found what had dragged me down — throughout my presentation, I pulled my long sleeves over my hands when I was nervous, and it was “distracting.” Judging from my grade, all my hard work was outweighed by a small nervous habit I didn’t even know I had.

While this may seem like a silly high school story, this comment still rings in my head every time I’m preparing to speak, more than 10 years later. It made me realize that, whether it’s a major presentation at work or a fun wedding toast, being a good public speaker is so much more than simply knowing your content.

If you’re reading this and cringing thinking about your own public speaking experiences, you’re not alone. A recent study found that 25.9% of Americans are afraid of public speaking, a fear that ranked higher than flying, several devastating natural disasters, and even death! If you can relate to this, here are six steps you can take to improve.  

1. Perfect the basics

There are some basic tenets of good public speaking – things like speaking clearly, maintaining a good pace and volume, avoiding filler words like “um” and “like,” and using tone and emotion properly. Focusing on these areas is a good place to start. Ask a friend or family member you know will be honest, and one who you’re comfortable getting constructive criticism from, to listen to you speak and provide feedback. If even that makes you too nervous, there are also apps like Orai that can help you practice on your own.

2. Create an engaging experience

People are “talked at” instead of “talked to” every day. Flip this around by creating an engaging and inclusive experience for your audience. Don’t just take questions — ask questions, too. I recently volunteered at a leadership conference where the speaker asked, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” and gave attendees the opportunity to answer out loud or on large sheets of paper hung around the room. This prompted attendees to do some self-reflection and draw connections between the leadership principles they were hearing and their own personal lives.  

3. Ditch your distracting behavior

Your nervous habits can make your audience miss out on the great things you’re saying. It’s important to identify this behavior and eliminate it. For me, it was fidgeting with my sleeves. For you, it might be pacing, tapping your fingers, or shoving your hands in your pockets.

Not sure what your distracting habits are? Neither was I, but there are a few different ways you can find out. One is to record a video of yourself and then watch it. As uncomfortable as it may seem, it’s the only way you’ll get to see yourself firsthand. As with perfecting the basics mentioned above, you can also look externally for help. Schedule a dry run of an upcoming speech or presentation with someone whose public speaking skills you admire, and ask them to provide honest feedback.

4. Know your audience

If you’re unfamiliar with the crowd you’re speaking to, ask someone closer to the group to give you some insight. You’ll want to know about their level of formality and appetite for (appropriate) humor so you don’t serve up a presentation that’s too formal or relaxed. You’ll also want to know the level of expertise they may already have on the topic, so you know how to tailor your material.

5. Don’t make it about you

It’s often appropriate to share a brief personal anecdote to help your audience feel comfortable and connect what you’re saying to their own lives. However, there’s a fine line between making relevant connections and making it about yourself. Before you speak, make notes and practice telling a concise version of your story so you don’t lose focus at the event.

6. Set yourself up for success

If you’re still nervous, do everything you can to feel prepared and give yourself peace of mind.  Scope out where you’ll be presenting in advance, familiarize yourself with available technology, and determine where you’ll put any notes or handouts. When it’s time for you to speak, show up early. Remember that attendees may arrive early, too, so give yourself extra time to settle in by yourself. Doing these small things can make you feel much more comfortable and lead to greater success the day of the event.