Last updated on 1 July 2021
People seem to think public speaking is reserved for the chosen few who possess a talent for it. Some of us are born with it, and the rest of us should just give up. I don’t agree.
First, thinking that a great speakers are “just good at it” ignores the hard work they put into developing and preparing. Second, that confining conviction prevents worthy people from telling important stories.
Talent helps, but with hard work and good habits, anyone can be great at public speaking.
So “talent” isn’t holding you back. If you have no desire or use for public speaking, that’s ok! Nobody should be forced to do anything they don’t want to.
But if you want to give more effective speeches, pep talks, presentations, or performances, then you can. And if you weren’t born with “talent,” so what? Just work a little harder. Here’s how: the four R’s of public speaking.
Practice makes perfect, as they say, and storytelling is no exception. The goal of rehearsing a story is to internalize it, so you don’t have to think too much while telling it.
Some people rehearse every aspect of their speeches, from lines to delivery, and control every tone & gesture precisely. I prefer to rehearse only the broad strokes, repeating my story in different contexts to different people, so I can get early feedback and view it from different perspectives. If I can explain something to both a five-year old and a domain expert, then I understand it enough to stay in-the-moment while presenting.
I’m always nervous before performing or speaking: my heart beats faster, and my breathing gets shallow. If I don’t relax beforehand, I’ll end up sweating, stammering, and fumbling on stage.
So there are two techniques I use to relax. Dr. Amy Cuddy’s power posing calls us to open up the body and occupy more space, reducing cortisol (a stress hormone) levels and increasing oxytocin (a love hormone) levels.
The box breathing technique, used by meditation practitioners and combat units alike, helps us stay focused and grounded by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathe out for a count of four, hold that for a count of four, breathe in for a count of four, and hold that for a count of four. Repeat as long as needed.
On stage, you’re up there giving your talk, telling your story, and everyone’s looking at you. Surrounded by people, it can be the loneliest place on Earth, but it doesn’t have to be.
My acting coach Theodora Voutsa always says, “If you’re feeling lost on stage, just make eye contact with one of your fellow actors. Reconnect with them, and you’ll reconnect with yourself.” The same principle applies when you’re on stage alone, giving a talk. Connect with someone in the audience. Forget everyone else for a moment and tell your story to that one person. Reconnect with them, and you’ll reconnect with yourself.
When I’m done giving a talk, facilitating a workshop, hosting a conference, or performing a scene, I feel relieved. It’s over! I don’t have to feel nervous anymore! But as painful as it may be for my ego, I know I need to look back and see what could be better.
Here are questions you can ask yourself. How engaged was your audience? What kinds of questions did people ask? Did people understand the central point of your story? And perhaps most importantly, how did your performance feel for you?
You Can Do It
Unlike math, there are no wrong answers in public speaking. There’s no formula, no gold standard, and no set of criteria you can fail to meet. Whether you want to motivate, educate, persuade, or inspire, it’s all about you and your objective.
If you feel good about what you’re doing, and you’re getting what you want, you’ve succeeded! Rehearsing, relaxing, reconnecting, and reflecting can help you keep it up. And I’m here for you too, just let me know if I can be of service. Until then, thanks for reading, and break a leg!
Inspired by Sherin Wafaai, cover image by Hester Buikman-Pagán