Strategies for Becoming a Confident Public Speaker

by Janice Tomich

Lack of public speaking confidence, whether with peers or strangers, is considered a social anxiety disorder. 

There’s more people that don’t want to be front and centre sharing their expertise and vision than those that do. Across the spectrum glossophobia touches 73% of the population. 

Try to think of people that tell you they love public speaking. Likely you can’t come up with many. Usually people’s first reaction when the subject of public speaking comes up is they’d rather not speak at events and they describe the unexplainable surge of fear they feel when the thought of having to present is on the horizon. 

If you’re the one of many who declines speaking opportunities or have sleepless nights before your time to take the stage it’s fair to say that public speaking is not your favourite thing to do either.

Many professionals and executives find public speaking daunting. But as an executive communication coach, I know that speaking with confidence is attainable. As I wrote in an article on Inc.com, delivering presentations and speeches with ease is a skill that can be learned.

How To Cultivate A Confident Mindset For Public Speaking

Whiteboard with the elements of building a confident public speaking mindset illustrated

Awareness Is the First Step To Building Public Speaking Confidence

The first step to dropping the weight of public speaking nerves / anxiety is understanding that it’s embedded in our DNA. 

In primordial times people lived in groups. Living on your own would leave you vulnerable to your environment. If you were rejected by the group your isolation would have you living in fear because a community group is not there to protect you. 

Turn the calendar many centuries later and that same fear response can still be activated. When you stand alone in front of a group your fight or flight can be triggered, however public speaking isn’t life threatening so there is no need to be on high alert like our ancestors needed to be. 

Knowing there is a reason for public speaking anxiety while delivering a presentation or speech (or even while thinking about it) is the first step to mastering confident public speaking. 

The next step is to work on your mindset.

Switch Perspective To Create A Positive, Confident Mindset

Focus On Your Audience – Not Yourself

You’ve heard the term ‘being of service’ in relationship to strong leaders. It’s those that focus on giving, supporting, and mentoring who are leaders that leave a legacy of success. 

The same holds true for you and your ability to speak confidently. Public speakers often think it’s about them and what they know. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Understanding that it’s about those you serve, not about you will put you on a solid foundation to learning how to be a confident public speaker. 

While creating and developing your presentation, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. What’s in it for them? That’s what they’re thinking. 

A simple technique to start connecting to your audience is to direct the content to point at them using statements such as, “This is something you’ve probably experienced” or “Have you noticed…?” 

Most people who gather to listen to your presentation or speech are on your side. They would not be investing their time to attend. There is a caveat here. You will never be able to please everyone. That’s a perfectionist perspective that is unattainable.

Pro Tip: Increase your comfort level (and your confidence) when you arrive at your speaking event by reaching out and introducing yourself to others and find out why they are attending. It’ll be easier to create an interactive presentation when you know who’s in the room and what they want to learn from you.

Focus On The Message You Want To Send

Take the time to know what your audience wants to hear. 

Your audience wants to learn from you and pull nuggets of information they can use themselves or take back to their team(s). 

Use a whiteboard or large sheets of drawing paper and brainstorm what is it your audience wants to learn from you. Think about questions that colleagues or clients have asked you about your specialty. Check out forums like Quora, which provide an opportunistic insight into what questions are being asked.  

Consider too that audiences can be different in how they learn. How can you deliver your message in a way that they can easily understand and run with your ideas and expertise?

The investment in time taken to focus on your message – one that will land well with your audience is worth it. 

When you can switch your perspective of a presentation or speech from being centred around you rather than who it is actually for…your audience…the response and feedback you’ll receive is a confidence builder. 

Visualize Your Public Speaking Success

Visualization is a powerful means of setting yourself up for success

You may roll your eyes and think that visualization is bunk. It’s not. Elite athletes use it to drive their success. 

The mind has incredible power. It can even build muscle without lifting weights. By visualizing working out your arms or fingers you can grow muscle. Not at the rate the actual performance results in but good results for sitting on the couch and imagining. 

To help my clients prepare for presentations a few days before the event I guide them (in their mind’s eye), to watch themselves deliver their speech or presentation on event day. Begin from when you wake up and get ready to getting yourself to the event, meeting the hosts, being introduced, delivering their presentation, and listening to the applause. All this while bringing up positive emotions and seeing a successful outcome. 

It’s through parsing and focussing on the details, with excitement or positive feelings, that makes visualization work. When feeling a crisis of confidence leading up to your event and / or while on stage, retrieving positive imagery and feelings will disrupt any anxiety or imposter syndrome.

How Imposter Syndrome Sabotages Your Confidence

Have you questioned whether you’re the best person to be speaking about a subject (although you have years of experience) or do you let your monkey mind take control while it’s chattering at you? Do you sabotage yourself thinking your audience has a better grasp of what you plan to share with them? 

That’s the Imposter Syndrome rearing its ugly head. A feeling of unworthiness (a fraud) and self doubt although you are more than qualified to speak to the subject. Often it’s people who are smart and have accomplished many/great things that are unable to believe what their success is telling them about their abilities.

Know this…many of us get bitten by Imposter Syndrome…from one of my heroes, the very accomplished Maya Angelou to the brilliant musician Leonard Cohen. Can you even begin to imagine that they would doubt themselves? 

This experience was first described by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their paper ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention’ published in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3, Fall 1978.

Perfectionism is a driver of Imposter Syndrome and high achievers are often affected because they mix up the success of their achievements with their self-worth. They have difficulty seeing that not succeeding at something is a stepping stone to learning. 

It’s easy to see how public speaking could cause Imposter Syndrome show up. It’s common for perfectionists to think that someone else is a better speaker or that they need to be perfect even when you’re new to speaking and when the anti is upped when you’re an experienced speaker.

Build Confidence by Managing Imposter Syndrome

  • Remove the finger pointing words that are pointed at yourself such as must, should, or will with words that are more open to the possibilities such as it’s an opportunity to try, I would like to, and / or it would be good for me to…
  • All presentations are not A+ candidates or perfect. Rather than labeling a presentation as a failure ask yourself what you learned. Flip the switch to a learning and growth mindset to help build your confidence in public speaking.
  • Create a success jar or board. Catch yourself when you are successful and write the occurrence and what you did to make it happen on slips of paper. When you’re having a crisis of confidence pull out a few slips from the jar or read off items from your board. This is a quick way to get your mindset back on track.
  • Beat perfectionism back by evaluating what is out of your control. Sometimes at public speaking events things go not according to plan such as tech going awry or not being introduced as we had directed the hosts. Or perhaps you were given only a short window of time to pull a presentation together or weren’t given all the information. There are too many variables out of your control for perfection.

The Role of Planning, Preparation, and Practice

Agenda illustrating the importance of planning and preparation in becoming a great, confident public speaker

Key to learning public speaking confidence is how you get ready. It’s near impossible to communicate with others when you know that you haven’t adequately prepared. 

My clients and students often give me a look of disbelief when I tell them that Steve Jobs would spend months and months preparing for his presentations. He and his teams had Plan B and even C in place in case technology failed or something didn’t go as planned. 

Many of the executives I work with who are the face or spokesperson for their organization, invest days and weeks in preparation. They know the importance of being prepared. 

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Designs who works with Silicon Valley giants on their keynote speeches recommends thirty hours of practicing for a one hour speech. This does not take into account creating the content or building the slidedeck. For a one hour speech you can expect to spend 60 hours for the creation side. 

Of course not all presentations are an hour long or are high-stakes. 

Not all will take the time investment I’ve spoken of above. However, each and every public speaking event is important and requires dedicated planning, preparation, and practice.

Learn Your Speech or Presentation The Easy Way (Don’t Memorize It)

Memorizing your presentation or speech is a poor investment of time and can fuel anxiety and have you freezing up like a deer in headlights if you forget a word or where you are in the flow of your presentation. 

You’re better served to put to memory your key points and then assimilate the core message you plan to speak to for each of the key points. Learning your key points is a more natural way to deliver a presentation confidently when you internalize the concepts instead of memorizing individual words. 

You can tell when a speaker has memorized their presentation. It’s obvious because there is a flavour of performance art – the delivery is a bit disassociated from the words.

Memorized presentations sound robotic because it’s hard to instil passion in them – they lose their  conversational energy, which results in not being able to connect and engage with your audience. It’s through audience connection that your confidence will grow. 
This is the framework I use when I’m practicing a presentation (out loud in my living room) and recommend that my clients do too instead of memorizing.

Confident Speeches Start with Rituals

Woman holding an special necklace to help her stay grounded and focus on her upcoming presentation or speech

Rituals ground us and help us stay focussed on the task at hand. They dissipate feelings of anxiousness and can help you deliver your presentation confidently. 

As you start practicing your speech or when you’re about to deliver live create a few rituals for yourself to set off with a confident start:

Take two or three deep breaths. Take the time to do this before you speak. No one will notice the few seconds it takes. Many people don’t actually know how to take a deep breath. Do you? 

To ground yourself and stay focussed on delivering your presentation these techniques will help you stay present:

  • Feel your feet on the floor from the tips of your toes to the back of your heels
  • Have an amulet in your pocket such as a stone or shell that has a special meaning for you to touch when you’re feeling your confidence waning 
  • Touch a piece of jewellery such as a ring or necklace. 

Just as you are about to speak in your mind’s eye imagine with your first words projecting to the back of your audience.

The key to using rituals to build your confidence is consistent practice. At every practice session initiate your rituals and you’ll be easily able to access them when you go ‘live’.

Use Confident Body Language

Women sitting on a table with very confident body language. Effective use of confident body language like this can a boost of confidence to yourself and is interpreted as confident by your audience, too.

How do you feel when you slump over in your chair? Not very energetic, right? In a slumped position it’s hard to take full breaths and your overall vibe feels a little low. Now sit up tall, projecting your upper chest forward (which allows you to take a deep breath) and notice the difference in how you feel. You likely feel you have more energy and more positive too … simply better. 

Dr. Amy Cuddy, who is known for her TED Talk on body language, posits through her research that how we hold ourselves reflects on how we feel. Standing tall with your arms extended out (the SuperWoman Pose) will have positive feelings coursing through your body. A caveat though, Cuddy’s research has been refuted and maligned although she stands by it. That all being said, I do feel better when I stand tall with my arms in the air formulating a V. My clients have said the same. 

Consider too, how you’re perceived when you stand tall as opposed to hunched over. How about when you walk confidently on stage or enter a Zoom room with your shoulders back and sitting erect? The perception is that you’re confident, which when mirrored back makes you feel confident as well.

Introverts Can Be Confident Public Speakers Too

Extroverts are thought to be the best public speakers. They love to put themselves out there and to be the center of attention with public speaking coming naturally to them. They usually don’t lack confidence or deal with the fear or anxiety to hold them back. Extroverts are often good storytellers and can easily speak off the cuff and are fuelled by the exchanges. 

If you tend towards introversion you’ve probably noticed your ability to connect at a deep level with others. Introverts are often thought to be genuine and humble, which are perfect traits for public speaker’s ability to engage an audience. 

Women delivering a speech seeming to be shy—but introversion and shyness need not be an impediment to confident speech delivery.

Introverts, often prefer to gather their thoughts about what they want to say and speaking in front of an audience can be overstimulating, which requires them to rest after an event. Introverts can be excellent public speakers too.

While you can’t change your genetic makeup, you can teach your nervous system to be less reactive with regular exposure to things that overwhelm you — including public speaking. Introverts can gradually desensitize themselves with regular exposure to speaking up and at events.

Many people find public speaking daunting. Speaking eloquently with confidence and ease is attainable. It’s a skill set to be learned – step by step.

Through building your confidence by challenging your mindset, managing your energy, learning how to make the best of your speech preparation, pulling your shoulders back and stand tall, and manage any overwhelm you can deliver a presentation that receives terrific feedback and accolades.

If you want to build your public speaking skills and would like to learn how I help my clients communicate with confidence and ease, here’s access to my calendar to book a time to see how we can work together to make that happen.

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