When I was a sophomore in high school, I had my first and only lead role in my high school’s musical. That year, it was “Camelot.” I was Guenevere.
There’s a song in the play that begins, “Tra la, it’s May! The lusty month of May!” Every year, on the first of May, I text that lyric to my high school co-lead King Arthur (my best friend, Derek).
When people ask me whether I still get nervous as a professional speaker, I tell them that the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life was performing that role.
The reason? I’m not a good singer. I learned to sing my parts of the show (and they, um, maybe lowered a few high notes so I could reach them), but singing just doesn’t come naturally to me.
The point is this: I don’t feel nervous to speak on a stage as long as I don’t have to sing on that stage.
To this day, decades later, I still have anxiety dreams that I have to get on stage and perform “Camelot.”
(p.s. I just saw the brand new revival at Lincoln Center, and Phillipa Soo is a phenomenal Guenevere. And hits ALL the high notes.)
Despite all the nerves I felt onstage in high school, though, that was my first taste of public speaking — and I was immediately hooked.
Today, I speak for a living, and I coach executives on how to overcome their nerves and prepare to give speeches. Even for top leaders, public speaking can be a source of anxiety. So I thought it might be helpful to share my top five tips for becoming a better public speaker.
1. Think of Every Time You Speak As Public Speaking
If you think of everything as a speaking opportunity, you’re always practicing. If you struggle with “ums” or “uhs” or making eye contact, for example, you can practice overcoming those challenges every time you talk out loud, whether that’s in a meeting or simply having dinner with friends.
The best way to overcome weaknesses in public speaking is to be aware of them, and work on eliminating them. even in your casual conversations.
2. Preparation Is Powerful
In my view, 70% of public speaking success is preparation. When you perform in a musical or play, you learn your lines, you learn your blocking, you learn your choreography.
You should prepare for a speech the same way. This means that it is not really practicing to flip through your slide deck or read through your notes.
Preparation means anticipating what will resonate most with your audience and practicing how you’ll deliver those ideas out loud — ideally by videotaping yourself and/or practicing in front of another person. When I coach clients on public speaking, we spend most of our time practicing.
3. Trust that a Classic Structure Will Never Fail You
In terms of content structure, the most classic speaking advice is this:
- Tell your audience what you’re going to tell them
- Tell them (in 3 points, 5 points, 10 points, etc.)
- Tell them what you told them.
I always teach speech structure like a five-paragraph essay. (My dad was an English teacher, so that’s ingrained in me.)
4. Stories Will Always Outperform Facts and Figures
Stories and human examples are more memorable that statistics.
When people tell me what resonated with them in my first book, Getting From College to Career, they don’t talk about the 3 tips on this, or the 5 tips on that. Instead, they remember the story I shared of my coming home from graduate school and hiding under the covers eating frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles when I was struggling to find a job.
I’m not saying not to use facts, of course. But you want to illustrate statistics with compelling, human stories. Stories bring numbers to life, every time.
5. Always Have a Closing
My pet peeve as a speaker is somebody who trails off with something like, “Well, OK, um, I guess we’ll take some questions?”
Your closer doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple “Thank you” is a perfectly acceptable closing, as long as it lets people know that you’re officially finished.
And the best part of public speaking is that people clap at the end!
(See? Works every time.)