- Michael Thompson
Staring at the clock, I did the math. If the classmate standing in front of the room would just keep speaking beyond his 10-minute time limit, I wouldn’t have to give my presentation in front of my 11th-grade history class. He was already at the eight-minute mark. Come on, man, I pleaded in my head, my palms sweating. Don’t stop talking.
I watched the seconds hand make another round. Nine minutes. That’s it, buddy. Keep going.
10 minutes. Yes!
11 minutes, 12 minutes. Thank God. I’m free.
I took a deep breath of relief when I suddenly heard the voice of my teacher, Mr. C: “Thompson. You’re up. Let’s squeeze this in.” I froze.
I was an extremely shy kid with a severe speech impediment, and that day, my stutter fired out like a machine gun. The entire class was forced to stay after school because it took me 18 minutes to finish my 10-minute talk. I was mortified.
If you had told me at that moment that I would one day become a communication coach who would be invited to teach presentation skills to politicians and business leaders, I would have probably laughed in your face. But here I am. I often can’t believe it, either.
People sometimes ask how I overcame my fear of public speaking, wanting to know if there’s a workshop they can sign up for or trick they can use when they’re up on stage, feeling like they might vomit. What I tell them is this: I gained my confidence by carving out ways for myself to speak in public in every area of my life. I took small but manageable steps, in my own way and at my own pace.
I created this guide to help you, fellow shy person, become more comfortable speaking in public. It begins with the lowest-stakes strategies, and builds from there.
Let’s dive in — whenever you’re ready.
Write out your fears and goals
Take some time to think about the root of your fears. Does public speaking scare you because you had a bad experience? Is it because you’ve always been shy? Is it because you’re worried about what people will think of you?
Write down your fears and get specific about how they’ve held you back, both professionally and personally. Then flip the script and write down the many ways overcoming this fear can propel you forward and bring you satisfaction. I knew that I wanted to become a better speaker because I had ideas that I desperately wanted to share with the world. Describe what your life would look like if you were a confident public speaker. What might change?
Record yourself talking about your public speaking goals
Now, talk about your public speaking fears and goals — while recording yourself. This is a great exercise for a few reasons: 1) getting comfortable in front of the camera has a way of making the stage feel less intimidating later on; 2) it pushes you to think about how to best structure your story; and 3) there’s power in putting a voice to your fears and asserting exactly what you plan to do about it.
Note: If you’re struggling to get started, simply record yourself saying, “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 award-winning speech — for now, at least. Your goal is simply to become 1% more comfortable doing something that makes you uncomfortable.
Record your talk 10 more times and critique each take
Why do some people seem like naturals at public speaking? Because they once gave themselves permission to suck at public speaking. You must do the same.
My friend, professional speaker Conor Neill, said that recording yourself for just three minutes every day is the single best investment you can make to improve your speaking skills. You might cringe when you play back your recordings, but keep watching them. Note where you need to improve, but also jot down what you’re doing right. Maybe after a rocky start, you settle into a groove and notice a shift in your body language. Maybe you avoid saying filler words like “um” or “like” for a decent stretch. Maybe after the fourth take, your introduction starts to sound more engaging. Collect every win you can.
Once you start to feel more comfortable talking about your public speaking goals on camera, recording yourself giving other mini speeches — you might tell your favorite childhood story or pitch your dream startup idea.
You’re beginning to get acquainted with the sound of your voice.
Now let’s move onto speaking for an actual audience.
Tell a story to a trusted friend
Prior to giving a TED Talk that would reach nearly 25 million views, Quiet author Susan Cain worked with communication coach Jim Fyfe. One of the first questions he asked her was where she felt the most comfortable. Cain told him that she enjoys speaking to friends one-on-one in intimate settings. Fyfe then sat her down on her sofa and asked her to give her talk to him there.
If you feel most comfortable at home, invite a friend over. Get cozy. Put on your favorite Christmas onesie if that’s what you feel most relaxed in. Have a drink if it helps your words flow. Then simply share a story that you might one day want to tell a larger group of people. You’re allowed to be comfortable while doing something uncomfortable.
Go to a talk and ask one question
A great way to gain more confidence is by briefly stepping into the spotlight — and then stepping out of it. Go to a talk — it could be a book signing, a panel discussion on Mexican food, anything — and raise your hand during the Q&A portion. When you’re called upon, go for it: Introduce yourself, ask your question, sit back down, breathe, and celebrate the fact that you made it out alive.
Post videos of yourself speaking on social media
You probably know that on Instagram Stories and YouTube, people record themselves talking about anything and everything — they give tours of their fish tanks, describe what they had for lunch, or do live Q&As. For the public-speaking-averse, this could be a great exercise. You might even announce to your followers that you’re afraid of speaking in public, and ask if anyone has any tips. You’ll likely be showered with support and may even receive some advice that resonates with you.
Recruit a public speaking partner
The odds are high that you have 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. You could critique one another’s videos or interview each other about various topics. Having an accountability partner can make the whole mission more motivating and fun.
Host a storytelling party
Invite a small group of friends to your home, and over dinner and drinks, ask everyone to share a story. You might throw out specific questions such as “Who was your oddest celebrity crush?” or “What’s something you’ve always dreamed of doing but haven’t gotten to yet?” You might get a few eye-rolls at first, but once the crowd learns that their buddy had the hots for Lois from Family Guy, they’ll appreciate the ice breaker.
Find low-stakes audiences
Before you give an important presentation in front of 50 colleagues, seek out less intimidating audiences. This might mean you volunteer to talk about your career at your kid’s school or sing karaoke at a loud bar.
The size of your audience doesn’t matter: When I moved to Spain 10 years ago, to make ends meet, I gave a monthly workshop to help other expats find English teaching jobs. There were two people in attendance.
Practice a real talk on a stage with some friends or co-workers
Once you’ve conquered these steps, it’s time to give a real talk in front of a real audience. Gather some friends or co-workers and ask them to share specific feedback (if you don’t, you’ll get 20 people saying, “Nice job!”). Ask them whether you sped up too much in certain areas or if you were doing something weird with your hands. Then do it again and again with different groups of people.
I may not be the smoothest speaker in the world, but the fact that I’m no longer afraid of speaking in public has brought more opportunities into my life than anything else. Try slowly chipping away at your fears every day until you no longer feel like you’re “public speaking.” You’re simply sharing your story.