Public Speaking Tips for the Socially Awkward
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 the 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.
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 zipcodes. 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 busses 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?
How do you feel when people are watching you?
If the answer to that question is a big resounding "YESSSS!!!!!" (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.
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:
- 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.
- 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 delivering 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.
- 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 if 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, 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!
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'r 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.
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 returning your eye contact from the audience will be really reassuring).
If you do not have the opportunity to get to know anyone before publicly 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.
Here's what you should 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
On the other hand, you might benefit from including:
- 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!
What about you?
Are you comfortable giving presentations and speeches now?
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!