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Public Speaking Tips for the Socially Awkward

I enjoy giving advice to others from my own personal experience—including giving blood.

How to Get Comfortable With Public Speaking

I used to be terrified of speaking in front of even small groups of people. My hands would shake, my palms would be sweaty, I would stumble over my words, and my voice would sound tight and constrained. It was awful!

I've transitioned from being that person to someone who can trot up on a stage inside a sizably populated basketball stadium and give a speech . . . completely off the cuff. In fact, I did just that when I graduated from business school at George Washington University.

Given the type of person I am (extremely socially awkward, introverted, highly self-critical, fearful of nearly everything), I should not be so comfortable speaking in front of other people. And yet I am! Take these methods for a spin, and you, too, might achieve the seemingly impossible!

Below I'll share with you the major tweaks that enabled me to speak in front of others in a comfortable, friendly, functional manner.

Some jerks are making you speak publicly. Have fun with it! Turn your awkwardness into entertainment.

Some jerks are making you speak publicly. Have fun with it! Turn your awkwardness into entertainment.

Don't Take Yourself Seriously

One of the biggest challenges of public speaking is coming to terms with the realization that people are watching you! It's hard enough being a self-conscious person in modern society; being forced to stand in front of even a modest group of people can be simply too much.

Before one can really deal with this issue, one has to come to terms with two things:

  • People are watching you.
  • People are judging you.

Dealing with these issues becomes both easier and harder when you realize a third detail:

  • People don't care.

Yes, you are being watched. Yes, you are being criticized. Yes, that shirt does make you look fat. Yes, your pores are so big they could have their own zip codes. Yes, you are really boring. But you're also not that big of a deal.

They're not going to hate you more than they hate paper cuts or late buses or that professor who gave them a D+ in Freshman English. You're just not that big a deal. So even if someone does notice something bad, they'll probably forget about that detail—and if not reminded of it, they'll likely forget about it in 30 seconds.

Besides, so what if people criticize you? Are you really going to die if someone thinks poorly of you?

Come to Terms With Your Flaws

If the answer to that question is a big resounding "Yes!" (coupled with gnashing of teeth and tearing out of hair), you need to stop taking yourself so seriously. All that matters is your own self-worth. Once you've built that up, you may actually find that people think more highly of you.

The gist is this: before you can become comfortable with public speaking, you need to come to terms with the fact that people are watching you; people are criticizing you; people don't really care about you. You need to stop taking yourself so seriously.

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I can't offer a good solution for overcoming this hurdle. I achieved this by losing absolutely all of my self-esteem, becoming severely depressed and paranoid, and nearly killing myself (after all that, I didn't much care about anything, let alone what others thought of me). I would not recommend this. But I can recommend taking time to stop and ask yourself: "Is it the end of the world if people don't like me?" and coming to terms with your personal flaws. We all have 'em. Let's just get on with our lives.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I hate it when people tell me that practice is the key to success, but unfortunately, that's the case. When it comes to public speaking, especially when one is socially awkward, I suggest three particular forms of practice:

  1. Practice not caring about what people think of you: You'll really need to get over this issue before you can be truly comfortable delivering speeches and presentations in front of groups of people.
  2. Practice your speech or presentation: Thinking through, visualizing, and talking through presentations (first just in your head, then alone) and then in front of a kind friend or family member (or pet iguana) will help you deliver your presentation with greater ease once you're in front of a sizable crowd. You'll find that there are two different kinds of nervousness when delivering presentations: nervousness about being in front of people and nervousness about deftly presenting something. Practicing your presentation will help you to address that latter nervousness.
  3. Practice doing things in front of groups: The more presentations and speeches you deliver in front of groups, the more comfortable you will be delivering them. Think of it this way—how did you feel the first time someone threw you over a cliff? Awful, right? The second time sucked, too. But by the third time, you learned how to avoid certain rocks at the bottom, and by the ninth time, you learned how to reduce the number of cuts and bruises. By the 25th time, you kind of have this cool slide-and-tumble technique perfected, and by the 112th time, you have devised a cool BASE jumping parachute that enables you to sail down unscathed!
No . . . you're not making me uncomfortable at all!

No . . . you're not making me uncomfortable at all!

Get to Know Your Audience

One great gift practice brings is that of familiarity. I've found that all new things scare me, so the more I became acquainted with public speaking, the less daunting it appeared.

Another fordable aspect of public speaking involves being presented before so many strangers. One way to reduce that aspect of unfamiliarity is to get to know your audience!

If you have to give a presentation before a class, get to know your classmates and your professor. The more you know them, the less you'll feel as though you're giving a Big Scary Presentation, and the more you'll feel as though you're speaking with a sizable but nonetheless familiar group of friends.

Speak to People You Know

If you are speaking in front of a large group of people you are encountering for the first time that day, try to get to know some of your audience members beforehand and speak to them when you deliver your presentation (seeing them return your eye contact from the audience will be really reassuring).

If you do not have the opportunity to get to know anyone before public speaking, look for one or two friendly-looking faces (evenly dispersed throughout the crowd) and deliver your presentation to those people. Doing this will reduce the "Oh My God I Am Standing In Front Of 500 Potential Axe Murderers" quotient and get you to look at several points in a crowd—which makes you look like less of a public speaking noob!

Be Creative & Have Fun!

Even though I'm really comfortable speaking publicly, there are still certain types of public speaking that would make me totally nervous—mostly because they're horridly awful to deliver! Does reading a written speech off of a piece of paper make your want to vomit? Well, it should. Watching people read off a piece of paper makes audience members want to vomit, too. There are better ways to deliver presentations- ways that are easier on your nerves and more entertaining to your audience.

What to Avoid

  • Reading off of a piece of paper (if you need notes to keep you on track, only use bullets on a minimal list. Do not stare at it! Look at your audience!)
  • Reading anything off of a PowerPoint slide (if you do this, go have someone punch you in the face and call me in the morning)
  • Text-heavy presentation aids

What to Include

  • Questions to your audience
  • Pop culture references and examples (they can be fun and educational when worked in as metaphors explaining more complicated or dry subjects)
  • Lots of images and cool presentation aids
  • Moving away from a podium and walking around

You'll actually find that when your audience is more entertained, you're more at ease. Everybody wins! All you have to do is find a style that works for you. Don't feel as though you have to comply with traditional presentation techniques. You don't!

Go For It!

Let's wrap this up. I used to be terrified about giving presentations in front of other people. Now I couldn't care less. This is why:

  • I don't care what people think about me
  • I don't take myself seriously
  • I tend to think through my presentations ahead of time, so I don't worry about losing my way
  • I have had a decent amount of practice
  • I've found ways of giving presentations that I am comfortable with

Have you become more comfortable with public speaking over the years? What has helped you? Let me know by leaving a comment!


Lana Adler from California on March 28, 2015:

This is one of the best public speaking advice articles I've read (and I've read many - establishing credibility ;-)) You've made every point so clear, and used humor to illustrate it even further. Thanks! Part of me (like 99% of me) doesn't want to ever have to use these tips, but in case I do - it's good to know!

Ashley Vailu'u from Central Texas on February 27, 2014:

I can relate so well to your experiences of shaky hands and major depression of speaking in front of others! When I was in highschool I remember having to present an essay in front of my entire class (and I was so shy that I don't think more than 2 other kids even knew my name). I thought I would be cool about it, but once I stood up and felt all those bored eyes on me I freaked out. I stuttered, I was shaking, and even started crying; I had to run out of the classroom. Now that I'm older I understand that in order to better my life and build positive relationship I have to move outside of my comfort zone. This includes standing up for myself and my beliefs.

Anyway, great article! Very relatable and practical!

Andrew Wheeler from St. George, Utah on March 22, 2012:

This is an awesome Hub! Just thought i would stop by since you did and I love your page! Its rad! and you have great information! :)

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on March 14, 2012:

Thanks, Eliminate Cancer! And you're so right- all these things overlap!

Eliminate Cancer from Massachusetts on March 09, 2012:

Wonderful advice - I believe this applies not just to public speaking, but should include dating, job interviews, and friends' weddings when you don't know anyone except the bride.

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on February 23, 2012:

Yes, vespawoolf! The hand puppet trick is a real winner! I'm glad to hear that time and practice has made a difference :D

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on February 19, 2012:

I'm one of the "I don't like public speaking, but it's not a major fear" crowd. Ten years ago I would've been shaking in my boots at the prospect, but time and practice has helped. It also helped me to realize that I'm not the center of the universe, as you mentioned. People don't really care that much. I might try the hand puppet trick next time. : ) I enjoy your make me laugh!

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on February 10, 2012:

Thanks Marina! And right on- it really does make a huge difference when a speaker's personality shines through.

Marina from San Francisco, CA on February 09, 2012:

Simone I think you nailed it. Not taking yourself too seriously it key! If you're not an overly serious person generally, why try to change that for a speech? It comes off as unnatural and awkward. The best speakers, in my opinion, let some (or all) of their personality come through when presenting. This makes the speech all the more engaging and authentic. Sweet Hub, me gustaaaa!

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on February 08, 2012:

I'll bet that you'll be brilliant, melbel! After all, you're getting to know your classmates, and since you've survived the card dropping fiasco, it will probably all be downhill from there on :D

Hahaa, well, there's something to be said for short-and-sweet, Wesman Todd Shaw! Most audiences would prefer that over a longer presentation any day!

Welp, Randy, all I can do is point you to whatever emails you've received and our forum policies :D

Great point about subject matter, FloraBreenRobison. I bet one HUGE reason why students in particular are nervous about public speaking is they're forced to talk about subjects that are new to them.

Reviewing video of one's speeches really does help, Robin- excellent tip! Great advice about positioning, too.

And I MOST CERTAINLY AM, Om!! And hahaa, I'm really glad your practice paid off- hahaa! Puking in the middle of a presentation would be horrid- though... it would also make for an excellent story!

Om Paramapoonya on February 07, 2012:

YOU are "extremely socially awkward"??? haha That is hard to believe. I'm socially awkward, too. In grad school, I felt like I was gonna throw up and die every time I had to make a presentation. Trying not to care or not to take myself seriously didn't usually work for me, but practice really helped a lot. Due to diligent rehearsing, I managed to make 6 good presentations during my 2 years in grad school without puking, fainting or peeing my pants!

Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on February 07, 2012:

Excellent advice, Simone! One of the best classes I ever took was on how to give speeches or presentations. The biggest things that I learned were to stand with your feet square and weight equal and to look your audience in the eye (a good amount of time is 5 seconds). They also videotaped us which was extremely useful to see our common missteps.

FloraBreenRobison on February 07, 2012:

With me it has everything to do with the subject. If I am talking about singing, a subject I know very well and love, I have no problem at all. But if I am assigned a topic I couldn't care less about (often happened in school), there is a problem. And I have a much easier time, regardless of the subject, talking to a roomful of 1,000 people, than I do talking to only two or three people.

Randy Godwin from Southern Georgia on February 07, 2012:

Ha! I have no problem speaking in public because of my long years in the music business. But then, I never had to worry about getting censored for it before I came to HP.

And by the way, thanks to you guys for not telling me why I was banned from the forums for a month because of my "public speaking"!LOL!


Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on February 06, 2012:

I'm so dang bi polar that I'll either seize the freaking day with this kind of thing.....or I'll melt like butter on a Texas sidewalk on a Summer's day.

Remember the bank robber dude in "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" Baby Face Nelson, I think? (that's a real depression era bank robber, btw)....I'm like that.

I like to crack a great joke when in a large crowd....then I'm done with the whole deal. I would go nuts if I had to talk for a long while or something.

Give me a short performance - just a little cameo appearance, and I can usually do really well...but speaking? How long are we talking? I can nail thirty seconds, but thirty minutes and I'd have a freaking nervous breakdown....or possibly convince everyone to do something wild.

Melanie Palen from Midwest, USA on February 06, 2012:

OMG! This hub is SOOOO relevant to me right now! I'm in a speech class (and have to speak in another) and guh I'm terrified. I'll have to read this and re-read it.

I soo need to just practice. At least I'm starting to warm up to the other students, so I don't feel super hated or anything.

I dropped all my note cards DURING my first speech... I wanted to die just there. Hopefully that doesn't happen again!

My next speech is a toast... I picked Dennis Ritchie for it. Nervous! :S I want to do the man justice.

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on February 06, 2012:

Hehee, that makes two of us, rLcasaLme! Ah well. Getting to know people helps, too :D

Thanks so much, randomcreative! Public speaking is, in my opinion, not really meant to be a "comfortable" thing, since one has to work very hard to gauge audience reaction and consider how one should change one's approach to be as effective as possible. I bet you're great!

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on February 05, 2012:

I have gotten better at public speaking as I've gotten older, but I still don't enjoy it. Thanks for the tips! You have a lot of great advice on this subject.

Rael Casalme from Dubai, United Arab Emirates on February 05, 2012:

i loved that photo by jimf0390. =)

If only people would look like this in my presentation, it would really help ease my nervousness.

Simone Haruko Smith (author) from San Francisco on February 04, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by, y'all!

JamesPoppell, I can definitely say that ceasing to take myself seriously made the biggest difference of all these things.

That's awesome, cclitgirl! And if you can take on high school students, you can take on ANY audience!

Hehee, true that, shea duane! And thanks :D

That's awesome, Alecia Murphy! Your mother raised you well! I'm with you on preferring one-on-one when given a choice, though. It's definitely easier than group stuff.

Thanks, algarveview! And congrats on not having that hurtle to overcome! It's a rare condition, you've got. Revel in it!

That's awesome, bizandculture!! Yay GW!

YES!! I'm glad you agree with me, Stephanie Henkel. And honestly, I'm surprised that so many people continue to make those speech mistakes @_@

Stephanie Henkel from USA on February 04, 2012:

I used to be extremely nervous about public speaking, but I'm much more comfortable now. A few things that helped me were getting to know my audience beforehand and bringing my audience closer to me. I liked to make people move up into the front rows of the room and talk to them for a few minutes before starting. It does help to break the ice by joking around a little bit, too. Your suggestions for what not to do are right on! Don't try to read a speech! and don't bore people to death with a Power Point presentation of pages of text!

bizandculture from Rapid City, SD on February 04, 2012:

Excellent hub, as always! (BTW, my son went to GW)

Joana e Bruno from Algarve, Portugal on February 04, 2012:

Very interesting. I don't really have a problem with public speaking, but I know a lot of people who do. Will advise them to take a peek at this hub. Nonetheless, there are some good advices here that can apply to other important stuff in life...

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on February 04, 2012:

I really never had a problem with public speaking even though I am a somewhat socially awkward nerd. My mom was smart to force me to speak as a kid since she has the same problems with public speaking. But I actually find it easier to talk to people one-on-one than in a group setting. Your tips are very useful and practical. It sure beats that ridiculous picturing everyone in their underwear business. Great hub!

shea duane from new jersey on February 03, 2012:

great hub. very well written and presented. you are right, too. practice really helps. funny too.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on February 03, 2012:

You know, when I first started teaching, I did break out in a cold sweat knowing that a bunch of teenagers were watching me and judging me. I still get butterflies after six years of teaching! Interestingly enough, what finally made me lose my fear? It's a combination of exactly what you said (not take yourself too seriously) and thinking, what in the world do I care? Heck, I especially don't care if I never hear their comments, either! I almost run out of the classroom after each class so I don't hear their critiques. I also make jokes with my students, and when I present to my staff I make jokes with them, find a friendly face or two like you said, and then I present like my hair's on fire. I don't think about the people looking at me. I focus on the fact that I'm enjoying what I'm talking about and if someone's looking at me weird or critically, I imagine them naked. It's crazy, but it works, too. :D

JamesPoppell on February 03, 2012:

I have a fear of public speaking for the reasons you describe here. You have written something that can really help me overcome my fears. I think the best advice you offer, for me anyway, is not to take myself seriously. I love the practice tips as well. Vote up and a tweet. Thanks for sharing.

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