Public speaking is a fear that I often hear cited along with phobias of things like spiders, snakes, or heights. I think of it as very different, though. Those fears are instinctual and evolutionary – it’s not often smart to pick up a snake or stand at the edge of a cliff. Public speaking, however, is typically a good thing. Somebody has decided that what you have to say is important enough that multiple people will want or need to hear it. I like to think of an anxiety of public speaking as a healthy nervousness before a performance – you want to be sure you do a good job, as any mistakes that you make or points you miss are magnified by however many people you are talking to.
Sometimes this fear can drift into unhealthy territory, though. Severe fear of public speaking is called glossophobia, and while the tips I’ll provide today may help those with relatively mild nerves, there are also organizations that exist to coach those with severe public speaking phobias. Let’s unpack a few things that those with mild or moderate fear of public speaking can use to ease nerves. I’d like to discuss my relationship with speaking to crowds and also share a few ways that I got over some initial hurdles. With HOSA competitions in full swing, I hope some of you find this useful as you have what may be your first formal experience with public speaking.
When I first ran for office in Oklahoma HOSA, I had very little experience speaking to groups. I had been in a few school plays and had delivered a commencement address to my 8th grade class, but both of these were for people that I already knew. I decided to approach my campaign speech with the mindset that I mentioned above – this was a performance, and I should treat it as such. There is a lot that you can’t control when you’re on stage speaking to a number of people. I think it’s important, then, that you control what you can. First: control the message. There’s nobody that knows what you want to say better than you do. If I know I’ll be at a podium like I was when I ran for HOSA office, I always write my speech in advance. This is the best way to ensure that you say exactly what you mean to. Of course, this also requires that you know your speech very well – it’s very obvious when people are simply reading something that they don’t know. When I have a written speech, I essentially memorize it so that I can both read it in a natural voice and maintain eye contact with the audience. This sounds extreme, but I’ll explain what I mean in a bit. If you can’t have a written speech, it’s usually better not to memorize the exact words you want to say but rather know what general points you want to get across. If you attempt to memorize a speech you aren’t able to read or reference during the speech, you run the risk of both sounding like you’re reading (ironically) or forgetting a single word and not knowing where to pick up. By naturally covering a list of well-known talking points, you will be more engaged with your audience and will be more comfortable speaking. There’s a special case where you don’t know what you’ll be talking about, and I’ll discuss that at the end of this article.
Earlier, I said that when I have a written speech, I essentially memorize it. I don’t mean that I rehearse without it and ensure that I know every word. What I do is practice it until I am comfortable with what I am saying. As with any other performance, practice is the best way to ensure that you perform well. You want to be as familiar with your speech or talking points as possible so that when you are under pressure, your words flow naturally.
So we’ve now talked about being familiar with your speaking material. What about how you deliver it? Contrary to popular belief, I think that most of the work of excellent public speaking was actually done before, when you followed the tips in my last couple of paragraphs. But during your speech, I think that the most important thing that you can do to engage with them is to know them. What kind of event is this? Is it formal, and they’ll expect you to formally introduce yourself and deliver a professional speech? Most HOSA speaking competitions fall under this category. Or is it casual, and you’ll be expected to act familiar with the audience and not take yourself too seriously? The key question is: if you were an audience member instead of the speaker, what kind of speech would you want to listen to? Tailor your words and your demeanor to this expectation. The other thing that you can do during a speech to improve it is to slow down. I rarely give specific advice on how you actually speak, but I’ve never met or seen anyone who goes too slow when speaking to a large group (except maybe professors). No matter how slow you think you’re going, chances are you are going too fast simply because of the pressure you are under. So slow down! This will also allow you time to think about what you are saying and improve your delivery. Slowing down can be hard to practice, but the best way is probably to either record yourself or speak in front of a practice group – this might give you an idea of the nerves you will feel on the day of the speech and how that can cause you to rush.
Even after following all of these tips and preparing well, you will feel very nervous before you speak. I still feel nervous after doing a lot of public speaking during my HOSA years and in years since. What’s important is to embrace that anxiety and funnel it into your performance. Your nerves will push you to do better and will empty your mind of everything other than your speech. This can be useful in situations when you don’t know what you’ll speak about, as I mentioned above. An interview is the perfect example. I tend to think of interviews as a form of public speaking, although generally you’ll want to be conversational as well as professional (Interviews fit somewhere in between the two examples of formality/informality that I gave earlier). They often seem especially difficult because you don’t know what questions you’ll be answering, but I think that this ends up being a minor point. The subject of the interview is something you know very well – you! Answer the questions honestly and you’ll be fine. To make yourself more comfortable, anticipate the questions that may be asked (common interview questions can easily be found online). Finally, the best way to prepare for an interview is to stage a mock interview. This becomes exponentially more helpful the less you know the mock interviewer – they are the perfect practice audience. I’ll write an article in the near future all about interviews, as they are what made me most nervous when applying for both HOSA office and various school programs.
I hope you’ve taken away at least a few helpful tips from what I’ve gone over today. Public speaking is an interesting problem because while it requires practice to do really well, most people don’t have the opportunity to do it that often. By equipping yourself with the tools you need to succeed starting your first time, you’ll more quickly become comfortable with putting yourself in front of a large group. If you have any questions about public speaking or suggestions for things that I cover in the future, let me know at email@example.com.