How to Master the Art of Public Speaking, Even If Your Anxiety Is Through the Roof
Nerves are fine, but falling apart… not so much.
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Michael Bay has plenty of talents. He's an incredibly successful film director and producer, known for high-budget films that draw enormous audiences eager to see stuff explode. He is not, however, a gifted public speaker.
We know this because in 2014, Bay appeared at a Samsung press conference during the Consumer Electronics Show to promote the company's new 15-inch curved TVs. Things went awry shortly after he was introduced: He stopped mid-sentence, explaining haltingly that the teleprompter was off. It was an understandable snafu, and Samsung exec Joe Stinziano tried to throw Bay a life preserver by asking him to describe how he comes up with cinematic ideas. The director struggled to answer without the teleprompter, pacing around and sighing with frustration. It was awkward, to put it mildly.
Stinziano tried one last time to get Bay to speak off the cuff, asking how a TV format changes the way viewers experienced his films. But it was too late: The four-time MTV Movie Award winner was flustered beyond the point of return. "Excuse me…I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he muttered before spinning around and fleeing the stage.
What happened at that moment is every public speaker's worst nightmare. Luckily for Bay, appearing at conferences isn't his main gig, and minus a likely ding to his ego and potentially soured relations with Samsung, he walked away unscathed. Entrepreneurs can't afford such catastrophic meltdowns, however.
Here's how to make sure they never happen.
Related: Want to Give a Great Speech? Avoid These 5 Common Mistakes
Know your story
There's a reason you're the person giving a presentation: You have something important to say. Since you're an expert on a topic, there's no reason to read stiffly from a card or have a stilted presentation memorized word for word. These techniques are guaranteed to bore an audience, and fast, explains Bell + Ivy co-founder Zach Binder in a 2020 article in Forbes. Instead, he advises simply knowing your key points and being ready to adjust if the situation calls for it. In other words, do the opposite of what Bay did.
"Audiences want to be comfortable watching a presentation and want to connect with that person," he writes. "The easiest way to make that happen is by being yourself."
So, rather than composing an entire speech ahead of time, write out key concepts you want to hit, the practice — using them as a focus. Because, by leaving space for flexibility, it's easier to adjust depending on the mood of the room. If people seem to be zoning out, engage the audience with a question or joke. Making eye contact and moving around the stage is also key for maintaining dynamic interaction — both much harder if you're frozen in place trying to remember your lines.
When you're deep into an industry, it can be hard to divorce yourself from the jargon you know so well. But for the sake of the audience, you have to. Lengthy acronyms and dull tech speak aren't the way to show off knowledge; more likely they will induce sleep among listeners. And like a lot of founders, I've been guilty of this myself, but after realizing that what I was doing simply wasn't working, I made an effort to simplify what I was saying.
Not only does this keep things engaging for an audience, but it's also a more effective way to show what you know. A room full of smart people can tell when someone is trying to hide behind jargon as a cover for a lack of deeper understanding.
Keeping talks as straightforward as possible is also wholeheartedly embraced by Maria Thimothy of Forbes' Young Entrepreneur Council. "The most important thing about a presentation," she says, "is that it be easily understood. Keeping it simple allows you to control the flow… no matter which way it goes."
Related: How to Dazzle Your Audience in the First 7 Seconds of Your Speech
Nuts, bolts, and presence
Some people, no matter how ingenious their ideas or how knowledgeable they are about their industry, are just not natural public speakers. That's okay because it's a skill that can be learned.
Nerves present quite the Catch-22: You're nervous you'll mess up, but being so is often why you mess up. Annoying, right? The best way to ease those nerves is to practice. Yes, I know I just wrote that it's best not to memorize a presentation, but if the idea of speaking off the cuff strikes icy terror into your heart, it may be the best route — at least until you get more comfortable.
A presentation, of course, is more than simply words. This is where developing a stage presence comes in. Writing for Harvard Business Review in 2013, TED Curator Chris Anderson says that the most common issue in unpracticed speakers is moving their bodies too much, including swaying from side to side or otherwise compulsively shifting.
"People do this naturally when they're nervous, but it's distracting and makes the speaker seem weak," he explains. "Simply getting a person to keep his or her lower body motionless can dramatically improve stage presence."
Eye contact is also important. Anderson recommends finding five or six friendly-looking faces in different parts of an audience, then making eye contact with them while you speak.
"That is incredibly powerful, and will do more than anything else to help your talk land," he writes. "Even if you don't have time to prepare fully and have to read from a script, looking up and making eye contact will make a huge difference."
Finally, you don't need to regard nerves as an enemy. Just recognize them and take some simple ameliorative steps: Taking a deep breath before going onstage, and remembering to breathe throughout, is one of the best.
Related: 3 Expert-Backed Strategies for Blowing People Away With Your First Impression
Talking in front of people, whether you're pitching to a group of investors or giving a speech, is part of every entrepreneur's life. Becoming comfortable with the process will make both you and your business come off as polished, professional and competent. It's abundantly worth your while to get good at it.