Cold sweats, fumbling over words, forgetting what you were going to talk about all the while drowning in your own sweat. These are the symptoms each time I stood up to talk in front of a group.
Let’s dig a bit deeper as to what was really going on inside me. As soon as I realized I had to talk, my brain reacted by giving in to the fear and proceeded to convince me I was going to regret the decision of opening my mouth. My body also had it out for me and decided to embarrass me by sweating profusely and becoming a slide-regurgitating robot.
A few years ago I decided that I had enough of this. I wasn’t going to run from my fear of speaking in public anymore. I had to improve my speaking skills if I was going to achieve the goals I had set out for myself. I was tired of not having the confidence to speak in front of groups. Even my one on one communication lacked the clarity I needed to express my thoughts in a clear and concise way.
This realization started the journey to improve my public speaking skills. I read books, listened to books, listened to podcasts, and read countless articles but the best way to face your public speaking fears is to get out there and speak in front of an audience. Take the punches and learn from the mistakes to get better quickly.
“All great speakers were bad speakers at first.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Activities To Practice Speaking In Public
Everyone creates their own path to getting better. Here are some speaking activities that have worked for me. I hope some of these will resonate with you and get you started on your own journey as well. One suggestion is to create a talk in advance of starting these activities so you are ready to get started right away. It doesn’t have to be the final version since you will be iterating on it during each of these activities.
1. Start a 30-day speaking challenge
A 30-day speaking challenge is a great way to supercharge your skills. By practicing every day you have the chance to quickly correct your mistakes and also get the benefit of seeing your progress. The compounded benefit of just 5 minutes of practice each day can boost your skills to new levels.
Bill Smartt, a public speaking coach, provides customized individual coaching and also runs a 30-Day Speaking Challenge. In this challenge, you get weekly worksheets with instructions, videos, practical guidance, and worksheets. What I love about this challenge is that you get to focus on up to two areas of public speaking each week instead of everything at once. For example, one week you could be working on volume and filler words and another week you could be working on just your pitch. Another great technique about this challenge is that you need to record yourself and then rate your performance on the areas of focus. Then you need to give the same talk again and rate your performance again. The quick feedback loop is extremely effective in helping you get better quickly.
2. Present at local Meetups
Meetups are a great way practice speaking in front of larger audiences. Although depending on the size of the group you could be speaking to a handful or a hundred or more people. My suggestion is to find Meetups that are directly and indirectly related to the subject of your talk. For example, if your topic is related to user experience then first look for Meetups that focus on UX and then look for Meetups related to development, project management, and even the startup scene.
Tip: Meetup organizers are always looking for interesting topics for their audiences. Don’t be shy to contact them.
3. Present at a ‘Lunch And Learn’
Speaking about a topic of interest at work is a great way to practice and share ideas. Speaking in front of a familiar audience is a great way to build your confidence. As you get comfortable you can ease your way to larger unfamiliar audiences.
Don’t have a Lunch and Learn program at work? Here are some resources to help you get started:
Lunch and Learn: Why we do it and why you should too.
4. Present at a school
Looking for a challenge? Reach out to a school to present in front of children. This activity will definitely challenge your presentation skills. It will also force you to tailor your talk for children. You won’t get to use big words and technical speak which will force you to rethink your talk to present the core ideas in an easy to understand way.
Tip: Add a few slides that will help your audience connect with you and keep your talk fresh.
5. Present during team meetings
Step up and offer to present a short talk about any topic during your team meetings. This is a great way to get in some quick speaking practice and sharing knowledge also helps build trust within a team. Open the floor to questions since taking and answering questions is an important part of public speaking as well.
6. Present at a conference
You are ready for this. Seek out smaller local conferences which are supportive of presenters who are just starting out. What better way to force yourself to get out of your comfort zone than having to prepare for a conference talk. Lanyrd.com is a great place to find out about conferences which have open calls for presenters.
Tip: Start applying to the conferences as soon as you have a rough draft for your talk since it takes a few months to hear if your talk has been accepted.
“We all deal with our nervousness in different ways. The important thing is it does not have to make us embarrassed or frightened or upset to speak in front of other people. We can deal with that. You may be nervous, but you don’t have to be disabled in front of other people.”
— Paul L. Witt, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies at TCU from Fear of Public Speaking Hardwired
Just Do It — In Small Steps
The key to getting better at public speaking is putting in the time and effort. Start practicing in person, then keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and present in front of larger and larger audiences. Focus on a few areas of improvement at a time instead of being overwhelmed by the whole public speaking challenge.
After each talk, you will start to see a change in the way your mind and body react. The cold sweats, mumbling, and nervousness will slowly start to fade away. Remember it’s not a matter of if you’ll get better but when you get better.
None of these steps are easy. They will take all your energy, effort and determination. There will be times when you will feel all alone in this quest and there will be times when you will question why you started in the first place but don’t give up. Remember to keep your eye on the prize which is becoming comfortable with presenting in public. As you start completing the activities you will start noticing your confidence rise. Just hang in there and keep focused on your goal.
Now get out there and show them what you’re made of. Good luck on your public speaking journey.