Growing up with a severe speech impediment I was petrified of taking the stage. These 10 exercises can help Introverts to improve their public speaking skills
I couldn’t stop staring at the clock. My palms were drenched. All my classmates had to do was speak for 11 minutes instead of the allotted 10 and I wouldn’t have time to give my talk. 8 minutes. “Come on man.” 9 minutes. “Just keep f*cking talking.” 10 minutes. “That’s it, kid.” 11 minutes. “What a legend.” 12 minutes. “Beers are on me.”
Just as soon as I allowed myself to breathe again, suddenly I heard the words I’d been trying to escape since Mr. C, my 11th-grade History teacher, announced months earlier that we’d have to do a year-end presentation — “Thompson. You’re up. Let’s squeeze this in.”
I grew up an extremely shy kid with a severe speech impediment, but that day my stutter reached a whole other level. I was in full out machine-gun mode. My friends still remind me of how I kept the entire class after school because it took me 18-minutes to give a 10-minute talk.
I was mortified.
If you had told me that Friday afternoon — sitting alone in the classroom waiting for the parking lot to empty — that’d one day I’d be a communication coach and I’d meet my wife while leading a presentation skills seminar for the Catalan government I wouldn’t have liked you. But that’s exactly what happened. After I graduated from college my desire to share my ideas finally overpowered my fear of speaking in public.
However, I didn’t attack my fears by jumping head-first into a public speaking course or by volunteering to give a talk like so many people suggest (come on extroverts —I know it is that simple, but for some people, it’s not that simple).
Instead, I slowly approached my fears by taking small but manageable steps that allowed me to gain the confidence I needed in my own way and at my own pace.
Over the years, I’ve tried just about every tip that exists. The exercises below may be a bit uncomfortable, but they work. We’re going to ease into it with 3 steps that will allow you to build your confidence in the comfort of your own home. Alone. Before slowly moving into a handful of ways to test the waters of speaking in public.
Let’s dive in.
3 Effective Ways to Practice in Private
1. Write out both your public speaking fears and your public speaking goals
Does public speaking scare you because you had a bad experience? Is it because you’ve always been shy? Or is it because you’re worried that people will make fun of you?
Write your fears down and get specific regarding how they’ve held you back both professionally and personally. Then flip the script by writing down the many ways that overcoming this fear can propel you forward both professionally and personally.
2. Record yourself talking about your public speaking goals
Turn on your computer or grab your phone and record yourself talking about your answers in the exercise above. Start by telling your story as to why public speaking scares you. Then move into how you envision your life once you’ve overcome this fear.
The reason for this step is three-fold: First, getting comfortable in front of the camera has a funny way of making the stage feel less intimidating. Secondly, it will get you to think about how to best structure your story. Lastly, there’s a real power in putting a voice to your fears and then saying out-loud exactly what you plan to do about it.
Important aside: If you struggle to get started simply record yourself saying the following three words — “Pineapples are delicious.” Then take a deep breath, turn your camera back on and give your talk another go. I’m not kidding. Your goal isn’t to record an amazing speech — that’ll come with practice. Your goal, for now, is to simply get just 1 percent more comfortable doing something that makes you uncomfortable.
3. Record yourself giving the same talk 10 times while critiquing each take
People who look comfortable on stage aren’t any smarter than you. They’ve simply given themselves permission to be bad more times than you. Fortunately, unlike other skills that are hard to measure, when it comes to speaking in public you’ll only need a few takes before you start to see noticeable improvements.
It’s human nature to first focus on the times you get tripped up when you begin to review your playbacks. And don’t fight that. Taking notes on areas where you need to improve is important. But please do not forget to also review your recordings for moments when you get things right.
Maybe after a rocky start, you notice a shift in your body language and you look more relaxed. Maybe you had a decent stretch where you avoided saying words like “um” or “like.” Maybe after the fourth take your introduction begins to sound more engaging. Write this stuff down. Collect every win you can. Maybe you’ll realize that after ten takes all you have to do is string together the good parts in each video and you wouldn’t look half bad;).
After you’re comfortable talking about your public speaking goals move on to recording yourself telling your favorite stories, pitching your dream startup idea or describing your work experience. My friend and professional speaker Conor Neill got it right, “Recording yourself for just three minutes every single day is the best investment you can make to improve your speaking skills.”
Now that we have a few ideas of how to effectively practice in private, let’s explore some ways to begin to ease into speaking in public.
7 ways to ease yourself into speaking in public
1. Ask a trusted friend to come over and tell them one of your stories
Prior to taking the stage at TED, Susan Cain—the author of Quiet, — worked with a communication coach to help her feel more comfortable on stage. One of the first questions her coach, Jim Fyfe, asked her was where she felt the most comfortable. Susan responded by saying she enjoys speaking to friends 1-on-1 in intimate settings. Jim then sat her down on her sofa and asked her to give her talk while the two of them sat like old friends.
This was really smart. It serves as a strong reminder that the best way to get to where you want to go is by starting with where you are.
If you identify with Susan, call a supportive friend and ask them if they’ll play along. Crack open a few beers. Pour a couple of larger than normal glasses of wine. Put on your favorite Christmas one-piece pajama if that’s your thing. Allow yourself to have a laugh. You’re allowed to be comfortable doing something that you find uncomfortable.
2. Go to a talk and volunteer to ask a question
A great way to gain the confidence to speak in public is by seeking out ways that you can step into the spotlight and then quickly step out. Volunteering to ask a question to a speaker at an event is a great way to do this. Simply raise your hand during the Q&A, stand up, introduce yourself, ask your question, sit back down, breath, pinch your leg to prove to yourself that you’re still alive, and then give yourself a massive pat on the back.
3. Post a video on social media asking for public speaking tips
Posting videos on social media may not be your thing. It’s not mine either. Fortunately, you’re only going to have to say three sentences to get started. Simply grab your phone and repeat these 20 words — “All my life I’ve been scared to speak in public. I want to change this. Does anyone have any advice?”
Not only will you feel like you’ve conquered the world after doing this. But you’ll also be amazed by how many people will support you. You may even receive a few tips that really resonate with you.
4. Recruit a public speaking partner
The odds are high you have some friends who’d like to improve their public speaking skills as well. Ask one or two of them if they’d like to team up and face this fear together. Having an accountability partner will not only help you to stay motivated while you record your 3-minute videos each day, but critiquing other people’s work will help you to improve your own.
You could pretend like you have a podcast where each week you interview each other about a pre-determined topic. You could even go sing karaoke. Find an out-of-the-way dive bar and draw straws for who takes the lead when singing “Love Shack” together. Then make a pact that before you leave each of you has to take the stage alone.
5. Host storytelling parties
Following the lines of using your home-turf to your advantage, host a dinner party where everyone has to tell their favorite story. Go first by giving a toast and telling each guest what they mean to you (most people won’t laugh at you while you’re paying them a compliment).
When it comes time to practice one of your stories, arm your guests with popcorn and encourage them to throw it at you every time you mess up. Have some fun with your mistakes. Ask your friends to tell their stories as well. Award the person who has the least amount of popcorn bruises with a cheap bottle of wine. You never know — it may turn into an amazing evening.
6. Start with the smallest audience possible — literally
If speaking in front of your friends or co-workers freaks you out, why not start small — like three-feet small — by volunteering to read stories at your kid’s school. Maybe the second time you offer to do it, instead of reading the story, you’ll tell it by heart using as many funny gestures as you can. These are all wins.
When I moved to Spain 10 years ago, in order to make ends meet, I gave a monthly workshop geared at helping other ex-pats to find English teaching jobs. For my first talk, there were 2 people in attendance. For my last talk 6 years later, 40 people were in attendance. Some months I didn’t even notice how much the audience had grown. This is the power of repetition.
7. Practice your talk on a stage with some friends or co-workers
Once you’ve taken the steps above it’s time to get as close to the real deal as possible. One extremely nice way to ease into this is by taking the stage and asking your friends or co-workers to ask you a few basic questions about your life or what you plan to talk to them about. “Where did you go to college?” “Why are you interested in public speaking” “Why does this topic interest you?” Answering these questions before you give your talk will loosen you up while creating a relaxing environment. After you’re done, don’t forget to ask for both positive and negative feedback. Then give your talk again. And again. And again.
I may not be the smoothest speaker in the world. My right leg still immediately begins to shake at the very thought of taking the stage. But the confidence I’ve gained from making the shift from petrified to speak in public to only nervous has brought more opportunities into my life than anything else.
Start by recording yourself for just three minutes today. Then do it again tomorrow. You may be surprised by how far slowly chipping away at your fears can take you.
One last thing — eat more pineapples, they really are delicious.