Not too long ago, a colleague was kind enough to compliment me on my public speaking skills. She remarked on how confident and polished I sound when I'm presenting and wondered how I do it. It was a kind thing for her to say, and I was flattered, but the first thought that came to my mind was "If she only knew!"
Of course, many people struggle at public speaking—it certainly never came easily to me. I've always been something of an introvert. In kindergarten, I was so quiet that my teacher told my parents that she was concerned I might be mute! My parents assured her that wasn't the case: I was simply overwhelmed in a new environment, surrounded by so many new faces. I also had a stutter—reading helped me overcome that eventually—but the combination of the two meant that I kept to myself.
It wasn't until I came to Fidelity that I had the opportunity to truly tackle public speaking head-on. I signed up for a presentation class the company offered, where I received some terrific one-on-one training that reinforced my good habits and helped me overcome my bad ones, like cracking my knuckles when nervous. (Yes, I did that!) Thanks to that class and plenty of practice, I've come to find speaking to groups invigorating rather than terrifying. And it's a good thing, too—as the manager of a 22-person team, I regularly put my hard-won public speaking skills to work.
While I don't anticipate giving a TED talk on the subject anytime soon, I'd like to pass along some tricks that help me feel and look more comfortable speaking in front of groups. Among them:
- Make eye contact with your audience. Making brief but meaningful eye contact goes a long way toward engaging your audience and bringing them into your content.
- Gesture, but don't let your hands distract from your message. Fidgeting with your hands is a common sign of nerves for public speakers. Try to keep your hands still—otherwise, they'll distract from what you're saying. I overcame fidgeting and my knuckled-cracking habit by making a point of walking through the crowd while speaking whenever that's possible. Getting an audience to track your movement draws listeners to you and your message.
- Act confident—even if you're not. There's a lot of truth to the saying, "Fake it 'til you make it," especially where public speaking is concerned. Even if you're inwardly terrified, walking onto a stage like you own the place will help you to feel more confident. And if you do make a mistake, be authentic—try to remember that everyone in the audience is human too. If my voice cracks, for example, I might make a lighthearted comment like, "Sorry, give me a minute—I'm a little nervous!" It will make you instantly relatable.
- Practice your remarks—and then ditch the script. It's taken a while, but I'm finally letting go of my notes when the situation allows and speaking from the heart. If you know your subject matter inside and out, an off-the-cuff approach can help words flow more smoothly than reading from a script. I'm trying to do this more and more, especially when speaking about myself, a subject I think I know pretty well.
Public speaking can be a scary prospect, even after years of doing it. But it's no different from many other skills: Once you put your mind to it, it gets much easier, especially with lots of practice. If only my kindergarten teacher could see me now!