Is public speaking so hard? Fear it and do it anyway!

Does the prospect of presentations and public speaking bring you out in a cold sweat? Our Learning and Development Consultant Andrew Woodhead gives some useful advice on how to become a more confident speaker.

I’ve worked on some brilliant apprentice programmes here at Brathay and it’s always energising and exciting to see individuals progress and gain confidence, not least when it comes to addressing the rest of the group.

With lots of our five-day courses apprentices give presentations to share their key insights from the week and say how they will transfer their learning and experience back to their day-to-day work.

Something I see repeatedly is the fear that giving these presentations generates. As soon as you mention the p-word, once outgoing apprentices frequently break into a sweat and pull faces that suggest you could have just given them a death sentence…. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but it’s got me thinking about why public speaking makes people nervous.

Face the Fear

I think that some people find presentations nerve-inducing because they become the centre of attention. There is a perception that they are being judged by the audience, who could be looking out for weaknesses or points raised to disagree with. With a presentation to your line-manager or senior stakeholders in a business, there can be a real concern that you will say something or do something that will make you look incompetent. Ironically, this fear sometimes is self-fulfilling when individuals choose to say little and not take a stretch.

My advice is to ask yourself what is the best that could happen and what is the worst? Often, personal fear is greater than the likely consequence. Do people lose jobs from giving a poor presentation in a non-pressured situation? I’ve never known that happen.

Take the Stretch

Some people hold self-limiting beliefs that they are not good at presenting. If you don’t see yourself as a public speaker, you are unlikely to put yourself in the position where you do it, thereby re-enforcing your belief. When you do speak, you might feel like it goes badly which also increases your belief.

To address it, take a stretch! You might realise that you are actually okay at speaking in front of others. Try simple things like talking in a meeting and see how your confidence builds.

Take a Breath

When you are passionate about something, you want to do a good job. When this involves giving a presentation, you will plan, edit and rehearse to make sure you are getting the message across that you want. However, sometimes people are so passionate and want to make such a difference that, during public speaking, they choke.

I’ve seen this at conferences, on programmes, in weddings even. A speech is being given and suddenly the speaker either loses their words or is overcome by emotion. This is a physiological response to the stress of being in front of a group of people and wanting to deliver a credible message.

Sometimes the speaker redeems themselves; having got the wobble out of the way, they relax and deliver something much more personal and connected to the audience than might otherwise have been.

What helps? Taking a breath. Sometimes, using ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ tactics work well here; stand in a strong pose, speak deliberately slowly and smile and it’s amazing how quickly you become relaxed and engaging.

Try some Tricks

For apprentices, one of the reasons that they might fear presentations is a lack of skill. For most people, giving presentations is a rare occurrence. If you deliver loads, you become comfortable and use tools and techniques to get the responses you want. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen some great presentations and doing things like speaking slowly, using appropriate humour and even just smiling make a massive difference to how it comes across.

Pick a couple of things to do and see how they work. Consider the structure you use and tools available. Catching the eyes of a couple or three audience members on a regular basis can give good feedback about how you are being received. Have a few things that you could chuck in too; a joke, a grin, anything to bring it to life. As you speak more publically, you will have a better idea of what works.

Modelling is also useful. What do pro-presenters do? Or, dare I say it, politicians? See if you can distil their performances down into a couple of techniques that connected with you, and then model them in your own public speaking.

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