How to get better at public speaking
Did you know that mega-inventor and investor Warren Buffett was once deathly afraid of public speaking? It’s true. While attending graduate school at Columbia, he decided to do something about it and signed up for a Dale Carnegie public speaking class. However, he chickened out at the last minute and didn’t go.
Months later, though, he saw another ad for the class and was convicted. This time, he paid in advance!
If you are lucky enough to meet with Buffett now, you’ll see only one certificate hanging on his wall: the one from that Dale Carnegie course. He became convinced: If you want to get ahead, learn how to speak in public.
Said Buffett: “Invest in yourself. The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now—at least—is to hone your communication skills—both written and verbal.”
Most people have some degree of fear of public speaking. In fact, only about 10 percent of Americans actually enjoy public speaking (otherwise known as “the freaks of nature.”) However, overcoming your fears and developing your public speaking skills can put you at a big advantage in your career, as it can lead to opportunities that others may avoid.
This means becoming on-purpose about developing your public speaking skills. Just hoping you’ll get better by doing the occasional presentation isn’t good enough.
That’s what this post is about: how to build public speaking chops—a plan of attack, if you will. Once you’re done reading it, you should have some actionable ideas you can use.
Ready? Let’s go.
First off, get some “professional” help
Maybe you need to take a cue from Warren: take a class on public speaking—or find an expert. There are tons of classes—including ours! We offer The Art of Skilled Presentations skills training. In addition to learning about how to use your mind and body to increase your presentation skills, participants practice and present with each other and each person who signs up for this training receives a free personal one-on-one coaching session with me after class.
Alternatively, you can seek out continuing education courses at local Community Colleges that focus on speaking, presenting, and even acting! Outside of the academic arena, many people have found great value in a membership in Toastmasters. My older sister is one of many people who have found that Toastmasters gave them the skills and confidence they needed to effectively express themselves in any situation.
And don’t forget the option to hire an executive or presentation skills coach. These professionals provide custom, one-on-one tutoring and can be especially valuable when preparing for a high-stakes conversation or meeting.
With this professional foundation laid, you can enhance your training by practicing your public speaking at home or during the commute, or in the shower. Anywhere! Here are some ideas to make that happen:
Make a commitment and stick to it
Think of it like exercise—for your brain. If you want to get into shape, you have to establish a routine that you stick to come “hell or high water.” No excuses. The same’s the case for public speaking. Practice isn’t a “nice to have.” All professional public speakers practice diligently. Set aside time regularly—maybe start with once a week—to practice your public speaking.
Don’t wait until you’re ready to tackle this weakness. If that’s your mindset, you’ll probably never feel ready. Be bold. Even if you’re an introvert or suffer from social anxiety, it’s possible to overcome your fear of public speaking. You can do it!
Create a “feedback loop” Just saying the words of your presentation into thin air isn’t enough. You need a critique of your delivery. What you need is a “feedback loop.” Here are three you can use:
Practice in front of a mirror. Run through the presentation several times in front of a mirror to ensure you're projecting the visual image you want. Do your gestures look natural and relaxed? Are you standing tall and straight with your weight evenly balanced? Does your face project a pleasant positive attitude?
Videotape yourself. The nice thing about this technique is you can give the playback your full attention—compared with watching yourself present in a mirror. This way, you can replay key moments and critique yourself.
Find an audience. Have a live audience of friends and or family. The action of giving your presentation allows you to see reactions and get natural human feedback. This will calm your nerves and make you more comfortable with the entire experience. Many times, you’ll find that your worst mistakes will surface on these “trial runs,” leaving you with plenty of time to correct mistakes and re-organize your thoughts.
Watch the Professionals
If I were to ask how many of you watch TED Talks, I’d bet it would be a great many of you. TED talks gave us a new standard for public speaking—18 minutes at a pop. When TED Talks first posted their content online in 2006, the way we evaluated what’s a “good” talk changed completely. If you’ve watched TED talks, you know what I mean. A great presentation is unforgettable. It changes you.
Among the lessons you’ll learn from critically watching one TED Talk a week:
Hook your audience. You only have a few seconds before people decide whether or not they should pay attention—or scroll through their smartphone as you go on with your presentation. Often, the best way to start is to tell an amazing story. Building your talk around a single story can offer huge benefits. The personal story is the simplest, easiest-to-prepare type of talk. After all, you know your story better than anyone else in the world. A personal story will also spur empathy with your audience.
Be authentic. Self-disclosure captures people’s attention. Most people hide who they are or wear one of several masks—particularly in the corporate world. So, when you open up and share a weakness, it will take audience members aback. “Hey, this presenter’s different!” they’ll think to themselves. It’s no surprise that Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability is one of the most popular TED Talks of all time (32 million views as of 2022!).
Practice relentlessly. In her TED Talk, Harvard brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor said she practiced her presentation 200 times before she delivered it live. Her talk has been watched 15 million times! Practice makes perfect! You need to “internalize” your content so that you can present the information as comfortably as a conversation with a dear friend.
Here are your first 11—11 must-see TED Talks—straight from the TED Talk website. Get a pad of paper and a pen and get ready to take notes!
Being an effective presenter can escalate your career, grow your business, and overall improve the quality of your life. What are you waiting for? You can improve your skills right now. Get some professional guidance and then start practicing on your own. You’ll be thrilled to see your progress.
Want more tips? See: Are your non-verbals helping or hurting your presentation?
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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.