Public speaking is considered the # 1 fear in the western world (apparently, the rest of the world has more important things to worry about). And I get it. While I am not really that scared of delivering a prepared speech, I am terrified of impromptu speaking because exposing my unfiltered thoughts feels like a crowd is watching me undress, spanx and all.
In an attempt to face my fear, I joined Toastmasters, a public speaking workshop with branches all over the world. And because I’m the go-hard-or-go-home type, I joined the most renowned Toastmasters in NYC. Many of the members get paid to speak in their real lives and every Monday night, they come together to improve & maintain their craft. Over the course of my year as a member of the organization, they’ve given me feedback that has helped me tap into how great speakers deliver their thoughts. I’ve learned a few things I thought might help those of you looking to become the kind of speaker people actually want to listen to.
Before we get into it, let’s make a couple of things clear. I am by no means an expert public speaker & this is not Public Speaking 101. This is just a slightly delusional person who believes she can actually get better at something sharing what’s helped her go from average to slightly above average.
Lesson # 1: The Best Story Wins
Good content without good delivery is like a really attractive guy that hasn’t shaved or showered in a few months, not really something you’re going to pay attention to. I’ve found that my speeches are a hit when I embed my core points in a story that the audience wants to listen to. For example, I spoke about the evolution of my racial identity after the shootings in July and I won best speaker of the night. Later, a past president of the Toastmasters club emailed me to elaborate on what made the speech good. He explained that I hit on the audience’s pain point by speaking about race at a time when most people in the room were thinking about racial injustice and racial identity.
Why this works: Telling stories allows us to connect to other human beings on a personal level. We all love a good story, we grew up listening to them and telling them.
Lesson #2: If You Can Practice, Practice
The best way to project confidence is to actually be confident (stop rolling your eyes). If that is true, your chances of appearing confident increase when you improve your competence in an area, which in this case, is your speech. So if you have the opportunity to practice your speech before hand, don’t put it off because you need to clean your apartment or go for a run or de-clutter your inbox. Do the really boring (and slightly painful) thing and practice. Practicing doesn’t remove all nervousness but it’ll reduce one of the reasons you get nervous, the fear that you don’t actually know what you are talking about.
Why this works: People get rewarded in public for the work they do in private. Practicing is the work, the thing most people won’t do. It’s what sets you apart.
Lesson # 3: If You Can’t Practice, Pull from Your Story Bank
This is really the reason I joined Toastmasters – for the impromptu mini-speeches I’d have to deliver in everyday scenarios. I’m talking about things like eloquently answering questions during high stress interviews and having something to say to the CEO when we’re in the elevator for 30 grueling seconds. In these situations, my biggest fear is that I don’t have anything to say that sparks a conversation.
To alleviate these fears, I pull from a story bank. A story bank is exactly what it sounds like; a reserved set of stories you pull from when making conversation. My current story bank is home to Feyisa Lilesa & Ryan Lochte (since everyone is talking about the Olympics) among other stories I pick up through reading and conversation.
Why this works: See Lesson #1.
Lesson #4: Make Eye Contact & Smile
At our very core, we are all just toddlers asking everyone we meet, “Do you love me?” While toddlers are great at making friends with everyone they meet, we are a little more reserved as adults. Making eye contact and smiling does two very powerful things. First, you are making a confident move by making eye contact whether you know it or not. You are asserting that you’d like to connect with another person. Then you are smiling. This inviting gesture lets the other person know that you are warm and it encourages the other person to smile back.
Their smiling at you does one YUUGE thing for you when you are speaking in public, it creates an ally in the room. That inner toddler who was begging for love now has a friend, and a distraction from the terror of standing on stage and possibly wetting their pants.
Why this works: When people exude strength (making eye contact) and warmth (smiling), we think of them as influential according to research at Harvard.
Lesson $5: Get You an Alter Ego
You might do everything listed above and still have the smallest part of your brain take over, telling you that you can’t do this. If that is the case, pretend to be someone entirely different when you are about to get into the moment. Become someone smarter, more comfortable, and more confident. I know this sounds insane, but I promise you, I wouldn’t have done 90% of the things I am most proud of if I let my mind overpower me. Plus, we all know those delusional people who have no skill but still win at life simply because they are crazy enough to think they are best? Yea, they understand the power of an alter ego (although they probably took it too far lol). Still don’t believe me? Ever heard of Sasha Fierce? How about Yonce?
Why this works: Alter egos are really just a way of getting out of your own head. It stops you from keeping yourself in a box. If we really can be whatever we want to be, why not become the person you need in that moment?
That is it! If you’re terrified of something like public speaking, it is probably a sign that you should grab it by the throat and kick it’s ass (Maya Angelou quote remixed).