How to Speak in Public With Confidence – And Be On Top of Your Game

By Mary Jaksch

The idea of speaking in public can be terrifying. Just imagine for a moment that you’re stepping on to a stage and look down at a sea of faces all waiting for you to start. What happens when you imagine that?

Most likely your palms will start to sweat and your pulse rate will shoot up. And that’s just thinking about it! However, there are strategies that can help you to present and perform with confidence and be on top of your game.

When I started out with my first career as a classical flutist, performing on stage was a central part of my work.   Over the years the performance training I received as a musician has stood me in good stead. In this post I’ll share with you my best tips on how to overcome nervousness, speak with confidence, and actually enjoy being on stage.

I’ve divided the material into two parts. This post is about the psychological strategies that help you to present with confidence. A companion article on Write to Done shows how to prepare the actual content of a presentation. It’s called How to Prepare Public Presentations that Knock the Socks Off. Read both to get the full juice!

Before we look at the psychological strategies you can employ in order to feel confident and in charge during a public presentation, let’s take a look at what fears you may need to be overcome:

What are your worst fears?

Fear #1: My mind will go blank
Fear #2:
People will think I’m stupid
Fear #3:
I’ll be so nervous; I’ll start to shake, stutter, stammer, or otherwise be unintelligible.
Fear #4:
I’ll make mistakes
Fear #5:
Instead of applauding, the audience will respond with anger or ridicule.

As you can see in the list of fears, there are two main categories of fears. One is ‘presentation failure’ – which includes physical or mental problems that mar the presentation. And the other is ‘response failure’ – which is getting the wrong kind of response from your audience.

‘Response failure’ comes down to mistakes in the preparation of the actual content of a presentation. You can read more about how to get it right in my companion article, How to Prepare Public Presentations that Knock the Socks Off

In the following tips I’ll show you how to avoid ‘presentation failure’ in order to feel confident on stage.

How to control you mind-state through NLP strategies

There are some kick-ass Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques that can create a confident mind-state in an instant. (A young guy once came to me in despair because he had failed his driving test five times. During each he was so terrified, he could hardly hold the steering wheel because his body was shaking so much. After I taught him to use the NLP ‘anchor’ technique, he passed the next test without problems. Boy, was he beaming when he told me about it afterward!)

How to use NLP ‘anchoring’ technique

This powerful NLP technique allows you to change your emotional state at will. NLP anchoring is based on the concept of being able to get into the most powerful, most appropriate state for a particular task or event, and then being able to access that state exactly when you need it.

This means that you can access a confident mind-state before you go on stage, as well as during your presentation or performance. The way this techniques works is to create a connection between two different experiences in the brain. For example, if you connect a memory of a successful personal experience with a physical sensation – say, touching forefinger and thumb together, then each time you induce the physical sensation, the emotional feeling-state of the memory will be triggered.

There are four steps to creating a robust ‘anchor’:

  1. Call to mind an experience when you felt confidence. Make the memory vivid by remembering how you felt, what you saw, what you heard, and what you smelt.
  2. When your memory is at it’s clearest, activate a physical trigger. This needs to be something that you can do without anyone noticing, for example making a fist, or touching forefinger and thumb together. (Don’t choose something like touching your toe to your ear – it doesn’t look pretty and is difficult to do on stage …)
  3. Repeat steps one and two with the same or different memories in order to reinforce the anchor.
  4. Test the anchor. Use the physical trigger and notice how your mind-state changes accordingly

Note: anchors get stronger through use. Start at least two weeks before your presentation and work on strengthening your anchor through practicing steps one and two over and over.  You can read more about  the NLP anchoring technique here

How to rehearse

Musicians and other performers rehearse their performance over and over in order to perfect it. If you want to lift your game as a public speaker, make sure that you rehearse your speech many times. Here are the phases of rehearsal:

Phase 1: rehearse your speech with a simulated audience. Set out a row of chairs in front of you and borrow teddy bears and dolls, if you can. Otherwise you can also put cushions on the chairs in order to simulate the audience.  Practice walking on to the ‘stage’ and face your ‘audience’.  (Remember to use the NLP anchoring technique!)

Phase 2: rehearse your speech in front of just one friend or family member. Ask you friend to smile at you while they listen to you, and also time the presentation for you. Again, include walking onto the ‘stage’ and stepping off as part of your presentation. Before you start, take a deep breath and smile at your audience. During your presentation, speak a little more slowly than usual.

Phase 3: invite a small group of staunch friends to listen to your presentation. Follow the guidelines above. Make sure you treat the presentation like a dress rehearsal. Wear the clothes you have chosen for the presentation, and simulate stepping onto the stage.

How to deal with ‘performance nerves’

As the day of your presentation draws closer, you’ll notice a rise in tension. That’s good! It’s the way our mind and body readies for such an occasion. It’s important to explain this to yourself in a way that’s helpful. Whenever you notice the mounting tension say to yourself, ‘Good! I am readying myself’.

On the day of the presentation, the nervous tension will be more pronounced. As the hour of the performance draws closer, you may experience trembling knees, ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, and overall tension. This is the result of increased adrenaline production and a subsequent heightened pulse rate.

An adrenaline boost may feel difficult to cope with, but it’s actually necessary for top performance! Adrenaline helps you to reach beyond your normal capabilities.

Butterflies in yours stomach? Make them fly in formation.

In order to make the butterflies fly in formation, you need to reframe your experience. Instead of telling yourself how nervous you are, say to yourself, ‘I’m gearing up for the presentation.’

How to calm yourself before going on stage

Waiting offstage can wear you down. It’s good to use the time productively by doing some calming breathing exercises.

Exercise 1: Let your arms hand by your side. Now breath in deeply and simultaneously raise your arms until your palms touch above your head. Then turn your hands back to back and slowly bring them down to your side, exhaling slowly at the same time. Repeat until your pulse rate has calmed down.

Exercise 2: Very slowly bring your dominant hand up and lay it gently and kindly upon your heart region. Then breathe softly in and out.

How to shine onstage

As you walk on to the stage, your inner tension will be at it’s strongest. Before you start to speak, take a moment to use your ‘anchor’ in order to activate a confident mindset. Then …

Smile

The smile helps you to calm down, and it makes it easy for the audience to connect with you. It’s important to structure your introduction in such a way that it captures your audience’s attention, as well as allow you to calm down. Find out how to structure your presentation here

Use mindful focus

The most important thing is to get immersed in your presentation, and not to get caught up in thoughts about how you are doing. If you notice a lot of thoughts, return to the present moment by noticing your sensory experiences. For example, notice your feet touching the ground. Remember to speak a little more slowly than usual and draw deep breath in between sentences.

Conclusion

Public speaking doesn’t have to be scary – it can be fun! The secret of success lies in the preparation, and in how you use your mind. As I explain in my companion post How to Prepare Public Presentations that Rocks, there are strategies that set you up for success. They include chunking down your information, using structures that storytellers have used since ancient times, applying a continuous story thread or motif to your presentation, and creating emotional tension and release within your talk. You can read about the strategies here.

Most importantly, through using the psychological strategies above, you can control your mind-state and access your full potential in order to create a memorable and enjoyable presentation.

If you have some more tips, or want to share your experiences, please write a comment. (If you are reading this by email, just click on the headline and you will access the article online. Then scroll down to the comment section).

Read the companion article: How to Prepare Public Presentation that Knocks the Socks Off.

{ 3 trackbacks }

How to Prepare Public Presentations that Knock the Socks Off | Write to Done
September 30, 2010 at 10:38 pm
Waiting, Patiently or Not | Unflappable Phoebe
January 14, 2011 at 6:15 am
25 Secrets of Great Public Speakers | Marcus Bertrand
March 4, 2011 at 4:41 am

{ 35 comments }

1 Slava October 1, 2010 at 12:42 am

I personally gave the speech to an audience of more than a thousand people. It was scary at first. The best 2 advices I could give is “repeat your speech dozens and dozens of times before you go” and “have some kind of notes” – either notes in hand or plan on screen, on board.

If you know your speech well – you’ll get through somehow (actually by the end of the speech I was so energetic that there were people congratulating me aftwards on “the best speech in the show”, although it was my 2nd speech in life(!); first one was a spectacular failure – I’ve got stage fright and completely forgot what I was supposed to say :) )
.-= Slava´s last blog ..The Bastei Bridge – Connecting to Nature in Germany =-.

2 Alex Blackwell October 1, 2010 at 2:03 am

Confidence has always been a struggle for me – especially when I’m asked to speak in front of a group.

What works for me is to “learn” my material, but not “rehearse” it. This way I don’t have to be nervous about how I’m delivering the content. This allows me to be more spontaneous, which relaxes me and increases my confidence.

Thanks for a thoughtful and comprehensive guide Mary.

Alex

3 Suzy October 1, 2010 at 4:13 am

What worked for me is to rehearse my presentation over and over in front of a mirror. I read this in a book once, that to get rid of the nerves just practice your speech so much that you are utterly bored and tired with it. Well it worked for me. I tried to practice every day for 3 months, even if I just did 5 minutes of it. The day I gave my presentation I was so relaxed that I didn’t even know who I was!

4 Steven H October 1, 2010 at 4:18 am

We share a lot of the same interests Mary! It’s nice to see a Zen practitioner who works with NLP, and who reads everyone from Eckhart Tolle to Dan Ariely.

As for me, I loathe public-speaking. I am an introvert down to the core. I can be incredibly social with one or two others, but if you add another person to the mix I get too overwhelmed. It is something that I have just recently started to consciously work on. And, now that I am done with college, I have much more free time to focus on these little facets of my being.

Thanks for the tips. Anchoring can be really powerful – it’s all about cultivatingthe mindset though, not necessarily the touching.

Hope to read more from you soon,
Steven
.-= Steven H´s last blog ..To Catch An Insight =-.

5 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 9:11 am

@Steven H, Thanks, Steven. i think that NLP has some great tools for introverts to feel more at ease with larger groups of people. Personally, I think ‘shy’ is endearing. But ‘brash’ is wearing…

6 Katie October 1, 2010 at 6:49 am

Great advice and so detailed. I’ve given a few speeches and I always sound like I’m going to cry. I get gushy and I don’t see myself as a gushy person so it’s quite aggravating. I’ll have to keep all of this in mind when I’m up there again. It is one of my least favourite things to do though so I avoid it because why do something you hate. I prefer taking command of an intimate group. Bottomline, public speaking is never as bad as our imaginations lead us to believe it is. The mind is so powerful.
.-= Katie´s last blog ..How to Grow Momentum in Your Life =-.

7 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 9:08 am

@Katie, There’s something I didn’t mention in this post that has helped me a lot: I’ve done a lot of videos in the last 6 months. If you video yourself doing a short presentation, and then watch it afterward, you’ll learn a lot about what works – and what doesn’t. The more you do it, the more you’ll get more confident.

I’ve found that the confidence that videoing engenders carries over into doing online webinars, and also into presenting live.

8 Madeleine Kolb October 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

I’ve often used breathing exercises to calm myself before a speech but was not familiar with the NPL anchoring technique. I wish I’d known about this years ago because it sounds really helpful. Now that I do know, I’m eager to give it a try.

Rehearsing or practicing does make all the difference. In a workshop once, a man who’s an exceptional speaker said that people often tell him he’s such “a natural.” He said, “Do you know how to become a natural? Practice, practice, practice!”
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..Your Health- If They Ask- Should You Tell =-.

9 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 9:04 am

@Madeleine Kolb, What breathing exercises did you find especially helpful, Madeleine?

10 Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 1, 2010 at 12:43 pm

You gave excellent suggestions here. I’m very introverted and somewhat shy, so the mere thought of giving a speech makes me nauseous. I think I will at least try presenting to a faux audience, a few friends, etc.. There’s nothing stopping me from using your suggestions to work my way up to making a big presentation someday. I know I would feel like a million bucks after accomplishing that.
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..75 Ways to Show Love in Relationships =-.

11 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 9:01 am

@Nea | Self Improvement Saga, I love your term ‘faux audience’. I will tell my teddybears about this :-)

12 Andrea DeBell - britetalk October 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Hi Mary! Thanks for the wonderful tips. I’m not really great with public speaking. I get nervous and start speaking really fast. With my foreign accent on top of that, people can’t quite understand what the heck I’m talking about after a while.

I like to use Ujjayi breathing (I learned in yoga) to calm myself before speaking. It’s sort of a slow breathing from the throat.

I appreciate your advice and I’ll sure try your tips next time the opportunity arises. Loving blessings!
.-= Andrea DeBell – britetalk´s last blog ..The Sexy Art of Touch =-.

13 Madeleine Kolb October 2, 2010 at 1:17 am

@Andrea DeBell – britetalk,

Andrea, This is common with people for whom English is a second language. Based on my experience in Toastmasters, I know that if you speak more slowly the audience will have a much easy time understanding you. Of course, the hard part is that when you get nervous you tend to speed up. How about having a friend sit in the back and hold up a red folder (or other signal) to tell you when to slow down?
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..Your Health- If They Ask- Should You Tell =-.

14 Andrea DeBell - britetalk October 2, 2010 at 10:17 am

@Madeleine Kolb,
Hi Madeleine! This sounds like a great idea. I use to ask some co-workers to do a hand signal when I did a presentation at work. Often they’d forget about it. A red folder might work better. Thanks for the tip!! Loving blessings.
.-= Andrea DeBell – britetalk´s last blog ..The Sexy Art of Touch =-.

15 Sandra Lee October 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Mary,

This is an excellent and detailed set of instructions. It’s wonderful to be able to learn this powerful NLP anchor technique from you. I can see how the repeated re-framing you suggest is also effective. Just reading the new phrases presented in the article already gave me a feeling of possibility and empowerment. Thanks so much for your generosity.
.-= Sandra Lee´s last blog ..The true meaning of Zen Hint- it’s not a habit =-.

16 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 9:00 am

@Sandra Lee, I’m so glad that this post gave you a feeling of empowerment. It’s true that we can be in charge of how presentations work.

17 Sowmya October 2, 2010 at 1:57 am

I’d never been scared of stage performance (oratorical, dance, recital etc) even during my school days. I used to attend Toastmasters regularly earlier as well.

Your points are valid even for people that aren’t much afraid of a large audience because every now & then, everyone has off days and comes across topics or audience that they don’t identify themselves with and that causes nervousness.
.-= Sowmya´s last blog ..Hello Loneliness! =-.

18 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 8:57 am

@Sowmya, Thanks for your comment, Sowmya.

19 guest October 2, 2010 at 11:33 pm

Great post on an important and challenging topic.

20 Stephen October 2, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Hi Mary I think being able to speak well in public is such a valuable tool. Thanks for tackling it and for such a thorough post.

I became involved in the oral storytelling tradition (I was trained by Ashley Ramsden of the School of Storytelling at Emerson College) about three years ago. And storytelling for adults really makes you face the fear of public speaking head on. Even more so than say business presentations.

You are not only speaking, but very intentionally seeking to entertain your audience. And as they say public speaking is one of our greatest fears. Apparently it is higher up peoples list of fears than dying –if you can believe that!

Anyway what I wanted to share was one of the techniques that I learnt to calm my nerves and to centre me for a performance.

And it is simply this: the audience is there to be entertained (in the case of storytelling) or illuminated in one or other way in the case of any public speaking.

So I shift my focus from myself to the responsibility I hold for the audience.
I focus on not letting them down rather than not letting myself down. On giving the best possible performance I can for them and not being overly concerned about how I look or even come across.

And in my experience I have found this a very effective change in perspective.
.-= Stephen´s last blog ..The Power of One More Thing… =-.

21 Madeleine Kolb October 3, 2010 at 4:37 am

@Stephen,
This is a really interesting comment. I too love storytelling and have used it a lot in Toastmasters. In fact, “Storytelling” is one of the advanced manuals I’ve completed. And of course, using storytelling within a informative, persuasive, or inspirational speech adds great power to it.

“…the audience is there to be entertained (in the case of storytelling) or illuminated in one or other way in the case of any public speaking.” I think that the best stories both entertain and illuminate with a moral which is understood or stated explicitly.

Stephen, you and other commenters may be interested in the book “Improving Your Storytelling” by Doug Lipman. The chapter “Discovering the Meaning” alone is worth the price of the whole book. Just writing this makes me want to go back to re-read the book.
.-= Madeleine Kolb´s last blog ..Your Health- If They Ask- Should You Tell =-.

22 Stephen October 3, 2010 at 7:16 pm

@Madeleine Kolb,
@ Madeline I have head quite a bit about Doug Lipman, but never read him. Thanks for the tip and I will definitely give it a read. I like what you said about ‘discovering your meaning’ which is central not only to storytelling but public speaking in general I think.

Why am I giving this speech? What is my purpose?

And then in terms of your comment about stories being both illuminating and entertaining (at least when they are done right ), yes of course I agree 100%
.-= Stephen´s last blog ..The Power of One More Thing… =-.

23 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 8:55 am

@Stephen, Public speaking is scarier than dying?? Wow! Thanks for your lovely tip, Stephen. It’s interesting how our experience of life changes when we step out of being the center of our universe…

24 Stephen October 3, 2010 at 7:27 pm

@Mary Jaksch,
@ Mary in reference to public speaking being a greater fear than dying there was a great joke told by Jerry Seinfeld:

He said so basically most people would rather be in the coffin at funeral than giving the eulogy!

Now of course I think that shows the absurdity of these sorts of statistics, but still it honestly is a great fear which for many people is simply overwhelming.

Mary said “It’s interesting how our experience of life changes when we step out of being the center of our universe…”

Mary I agree although I make the claim of having reached that stage.

In fact I’ve come to believe that our psychic health or its opposite is in direct proportion to that focus. Excessive focus on the narrow self causes distress not only for others, but for the individual concerned. And, conversely, the greater the focus of attention moves beyond the individual self into the community the healthier the individual becomes.
.-= Stephen´s last blog ..The Power of One More Thing… =-.

25 Tess The Bold Life October 3, 2010 at 4:57 am

I’ve relaunched my speaking career after 3 years of only 3 presentations a year. This is such a great reminder…I’m printing it off. One thing I’ve done in the past is arrive early and meet and greet people before the event begins. Then I feel I’ve made some friends in the audience that I can make eye contact with and smile at. This is perfect timing my full day presentation is Nov. 11.
.-= Tess The Bold Life´s last blog ..Relationships that Nurture Your Spirit =-.

26 Mary Jaksch October 3, 2010 at 8:53 am

@Tess The Bold Life, We’ll all cross our fingers for your presentation in November :-)

27 Prerna October 4, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Excellent post, Mary! Much needed. Although I was in Communication and Soft Skills Training for almost 4 years, I used to get butterflies (literally) in my tummy each time it was my turn to make a presentation. While I am the talkative sorts (reason for long comments), I need to really prep myself up for public speaking.
.-= Prerna´s last blog ..Six Ways to Simplify Your Time Online =-.

28 Charley Hampton October 6, 2010 at 12:21 pm

I work regularly with individuals who are launching their own business and, almost without exception, they struggle with talking to others about their companies. Even if you never speak at a public gathering, getting comfortable with the skills to do so creates huge self confidence for networking and marketing. BTW, Toastmasters provides the best training in this area I have ever seen.
.-= Charley Hampton´s last blog ..What about your cigarette burns =-.

29 arina nikitina October 10, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Hey, Mary! This one is so cool! The techniques to overcoming various fears … It’s very cleverly presented. It wouldn’t be difficult for anyone to soon become adept at speaking in front of people because of the easy-to-do and easy-to-understand ideas about being up there on stage.

As for me, I always make sure I have an outline of the topic on paper. Once I’ve laid down all areas I need to speak about, I find ways to make them interesting. Then I write down all the details I will be talking about, citing instances and peoples and quotes are usually marked in red. For people, like me, who find it cool to insert jokes and anecdotes or personal accounts that are thought-provoking, I place “reminders” on the outline where they’re most suitable. When everything is set, I go around practicing what I will speak about, like when I’m driving, taking a shower or relaxing in the tub, washing dishes or walking to the coffee shop for a date with friends. Finally, I make sure I have a rehearsal, with or without an audience (usually friends or my mom).

It also helps me greatly when after I’ve run through the topic several times, I would list down possible reactions or comments or questions from the audience. This is to keep me ready and confident that I could give back appropriate responses, and create an impression that I do know what I am talking about.

Still, I’d love to integrate the great points in this post, particularly the techniques. And share them as well with people who come seeking improvement in the area of public speaking with great confidence. Cheers, Mary! You’ve just made a lot of people happy with this information!
.-= arina nikitina´s last blog ..Effortless Action for Effortless Success =-.

30 mona January 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm

its great to read you, it helps us

31 priyanka January 11, 2011 at 9:16 pm

you are good.it improves our anchoring.

32 Haley June 7, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Thanks a lot for enjoying this beautiful post. I am appreciating your effort to write it! Looking forward to another great article. Good luck to the author! all the best!I’m suffering this problems and I need useful advices like those.
Haley´s last blog post ..Ways to reduce stress

33 Prashant July 21, 2012 at 12:37 am

hi marry,
have practice your NLP techniques and it really helps me to give my presentation in my college as well as presenting my project to my audience in great fashion. i am a bit quite in nature which don’t make me feel comfortable while talking to a group of people….but thanks to approach it makes the things easier for quite and introvert kinda guys….

34 Prashant July 21, 2012 at 12:51 am

hi mary,
have practice your NLP techniques and it really helps me to give my presentation in my college as well as presenting my project to my audience in great fashion. i am a bit quite in nature which don’t make me feel comfortable while talking to a group of people….but thanks to your approach it makes the things easier for quite and introvert kinda guys.
one more thing i have one of my good friend who is really intelligent and knows every things about the presentation but at the time of presentation what happens to him god knows he started trembling, his voice become unnatural to hear though he has really good voice when he talks in normal conditions his legs start shaking and the whole body language become unnatural….do u suggest anything for him which make his to able to speak his mind… because i know the day he start taking the things with good confidence no one can stand in front of him. he is really very hard working.
please suggest something which will be practically possible for him to apply to improve his presentation skills.

35 ukaegbu richard November 9, 2012 at 12:10 pm

The steps outlined above is really useful. i really appreciate.

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