How to overcome public-speaking jitters, connect with your audience, and give the best presentation of your career
By Katie Morell
The mental fog was palpable. Maryna Shkvorets’s body wasn’t connected to her brain. She knew it in that moment, but couldn’t do anything about it. This was more than a decade ago. Shkvorets—at the time, a physics researcher in her early 20s—was presenting to a conference room packed with her superiors, and her brain went blank.
“I was talking, but I didn’t know what I was saying,” she remembers. “I just hoped what was coming out of my mouth was what I’d practiced.”
Shkvorets’s experience is incredibly common. A recent report by the National Institute of Mental Health claims public speaking anxiety affects more than 70 percent of the population; some people even fear public speaking more than death.
Shkvorets’s experience was so impactful that she created a series of exercises to help calm herself before presenting again. She honed those exercises and applied them later in her career as a math and science teacher, and today she owns a consultancy where she coaches leaders on public speaking—through online classes and in-person consultations—from her home base near Toronto.
The act of giving a presentation, or standing in front of a group of people, is inherent in a large majority of jobs. This means most of us, at one time or another, have to face the sometimes terrifying prospect of getting onstage.
Public speaking involves two key elements: the inner work that goes into giving a solid presentation and the outer work of giving a compelling talk.
There is a lot of talk about visualization when it comes to performance, but Shkvorets looks at the topic a bit differently. Instead of visualizing what you are going to say before you go onstage, she suggests rehearsing the scenario in your mind so you can train your body to relax, thereby strengthening the mind-body connection.
“Make sure you have a clear vision in your head of what the stage is going to look like when you get up there, what people will see, and what you will be seeing,” she says. “Once you have that clear vision, you can feel into your body and teach it to relax in that moment.”
This helps especially if you are prone to onstage panic attacks. If you are already halfway through your presentation and feel your throat starting to constrict, it can be hard to calm down. But if you’ve practiced—mentally—what your body can do to relax in the moment, it can be easier to feel the tension and let it go, says Shkvorets.
Hilary Russo, a certified holistic health coach who is based in New York City, also advises on presentation skills. She recommends thinking about your nervous energy and working to identify where it is coming from. Additionally, she suggests creating a mindful breathing practice when thinking about your presentation and before going onstage.
“When you are in your breath,” she says, “you can’t really focus on anything else. Bringing your breath down to a steady level increases serotonin—the happy chemical—and allows you to feel calm and present.”
Positive affirmations can also help. Russo recommends being your own cheerleader before going onstage, telling yourself that you will nail this, that you know the material, that you are strong, and that you are knowledgeable.
“When you repeat positive affirmations and messages of gratitude to yourself, it is impossible to be in any other state,” she says. “You are intentionally putting yourself in a positive mind-set.”
Shkvorets recommends channeling what she calls “your inner Beyoncé.” Think of someone who embodies confidence and imagine him or her on stage with you, encouraging you. Having your “buddy” by your side can help you feel more comfortable in the situation.
“And know that your fear is never going to go away. If it does, it means you aren’t doing something important,” Shkvorets says. “Teach yourself not to let it affect you. Ask yourself if you can recover from this scenario. The answer is almost always yes. And once you realize that, you can look at things differently.”
What about the actual presentation? Should you prepare a script or speak off the cuff? The answer, it seems, is somewhere in the middle.
“Don’t memorize; just familiarize,” says Russo. “If you are an expert on the topic, you don’t need a script—just speak from the heart. It is OK to have notes and bullet points, but if you memorize a script and lose your spot, it is hard to find your way back.”
Now that you’ve mastered your internal world, it is time to put on a show. Deborah Ostreicher, CEO of Distinguished Communications, a Phoenix-based public speaking consultancy, recommends “starting with a bang” to capture the attention of the audience. This can take the form of a story, an action, or a question that speaks directly to the interests of the crowd.
“Embrace storytelling,” she says. “The audience needs to connect with your message.”
Russo agrees. She is seeing presenters today speak about their personal journeys more than in years past. “We are more open and honest with each other, thanks in part to social media becoming a sort of sharing journal,” she says. “People like to identify with the speaker and love to hear anecdotes. It isn’t about being narcissistic, but instead about letting them see you as a human being, not just a big wig on stage.”
Once you have the audience’s attention, dive into your topic and remember to take breaks. Shkvorets recommends allowing audience members to take a mental break. You can let them physically stand up and stretch, for instance, or you can explain that you are going to a new topic, so if they’ve zoned out, they can tune back in.
Finish your presentation with the same enthusiasm with which you started, recommends Ostreicher. “Most people end presentations with the boring ‘any questions?’” she says. “A true exit is when you are clear that it is the end.” Most importantly, remember that each person has her own style of presenting. No one style is better than another.
“There are the Tony Robbinses of the world that jump around the stage and the Seth Godins of the world that sit and don’t move,” Shkvorets says. “Both approaches work—you just have to find your style. Remember that you don’t have to be born with a certain trait to be a good presenter. Everything is learnable.” DW
Katie Morell is a Sausalito, California–based journalist who combats her public speaking jitters by getting onstage a few times per year to tell personal, vulnerable stories. Read more of her journalism work at katiemorell.com.