Some people seem to glow when they’re given a microphone and are asked to give a toast or a speech, while others of us would much rather sprint as fast as possible in the opposite direction.
The important lesson here is nervousness is actually perfectly normal, Marjorie L. North, a speech pathologist and lecturer at Harvard University, tells NBC News BETTER. (And that person who looks totally at ease is likely going through — or has at some point previously — felt the same exact way.)
“When your heart starts pounding, you’re sweating, your hands are shaking, your knees are shaking, and you feel like you’re going to pass out — that’s the way everybody feels,” says North, who has been teaching public speaking courses for more than 35 years.
Speaking in front of a large crowd is not a natural activity for anyone; to get better at it, you need to learn how to do it, prepare and practice, she explains. “It’s a skill, not a talent.”
Your personality of course has something to do with how you approach speaking in front of people — whether that’s a crowd of thousands or a boardroom full of your bosses and colleagues. People who are more introverted tend to keep a lot of ideas in their heads and on top of mind to keep their brain from getting bored, rather than relying on other people or activities to keep their minds occupied, Jadzia Jagiellowicz, PhD (Psch), a cognitive psychologist, told NBC — “they have an exciting ‘inner life.’” And that’s why too much stimulation and excitement (for example a full room of people whose eyes and attention are all focused on you) can be overwhelming for people who are more introverted, she says.
The brains of people who are more extroverted work the opposite way. Excitement and stimulation — like engaging in a spirited conversation or giving a presentation — energizes people who are extroverted, rather than being overwhelming, Jagiellowicz says.
It may be more likely that extroverts will feel comfortable in front of a crowd, but it still takes skill and practice to speak effectively in a way that engages your audience, North says. Even in smaller, less formal situations you can train yourself to be a better communicator, she adds.
There’s no one checklist that will turn you into a great public speaker overnight. It takes practice, preparation and it helps to get feedback, North says. But remembering these key principles is a good place to start in terms of becoming a better communicator in any situation.
1. Be OK with being nervous.
Even the biggest extroverts among us get the jitters from time to time, North explains. Feeling shy and nervous are feelings, not personality traits. And we all face such feelings when we find ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable, North says. (Some research suggests that it’s actually our past experiences — particularly those from our childhoods — that play a much more significant role in whether or not we feel shy in different situations more so than whether we are introverted or extroverted.)
Feeling shy and nervous are feelings, not personality traits.
The trick is recognizing that nerves are normal and not letting them stop you from speaking confidently, North says. “It’s a natural part of the public speaking process.”
2. Put your audience first.
Remember, the point of giving a toast, a presentation or a speech is about communicating your message to your audience. It’s not about you, Carol Fleming, PhD, a San Francisco-based communications coach and author of It's the Way You Say It and The Serious Business of Small Talk, tells NBC.
You have to give yourself to your audience. Any second you spend being self-conscious, you’re not paying attention to your audience, she says. “The good speaker is the one who leans forward and says who are you? What do you need? How can I help you?”
Plan ahead. Take the time to figure out the best way to tailor your message to your audience — what approach will keep your listeners attention and resonate with them? North asks. Think of a strong introduction that will grab listeners’ attention. And craft a thoughtful conclusion so listeners leave remembering what the key points you want them to take away.
Preparing for less formal conversation — such as a dinner party with new neighbors, a networking event or a meeting at work — is definitely different from preparing for a formal speech, Fleming adds. But planning ahead can still help. Thinking about points you might want to make about a project at work before a meeting with the higher ups will help you feel more confident when it’s time to voice your opinion. And knowing a little bit about fellow party guests ahead of time can make it easier to land on conversations you’re both engaged in.
4. Outline (don’t script).
If possible, outline what you plan to say rather than write out your speech word-for-word, North adds. “It allows the language you use to be more natural, it allows your voice to be much more natural and eye contact is better.”
Plus, not reading your speech from a script makes you look more competent and confident because it shows that you really know your stuff, North adds. “You’re speaking to them about it. I could get up there and read a script from a paper without knowing anything about it,” she says.
Winging it doesn’t work for even the best public speaker out there. That’s when the nerves crop up, explains Jim Kohli, an international director of Toastmasters and a principal architect at GE Healthcare. Practice your speech or presentation out loud ahead of time so you feel comfortable with the words you’re saying and the way they sound coming out of your mouth. And if you can get feedback from a friend, family member or colleague, an outside perspective can be really helpful, says Kohli — who, before joining Toastmasters 15 years ago, says he would have described himself as a “wallflower” in situations where he had to speak to a group larger than five to 10 close friends. “It will take patience and time,” he says.
And don’t forget that communicating — to both large and small groups, formally and informally — is like exercising a muscle. The more speeches you give and the more conversations you have, the more confident you’ll feel the next time you’re in that situation, Kohli says. (That’s the principle Toastmasters is based on.) Speaking to smaller audiences and getting feedback is what makes you feel more comfortable speaking to a larger audience, he says. “There’s no quick fix.”
Whether you’re talking one-on-one or to an audience of a thousand people, communicating is a two-way activity — both parties need to be engaged. When you’re trying to engage listeners in less formal conversations, a good communicator listens to what others are saying before speaking up, North explains. Establish a connection to what they’re saying so you answer questions appropriately and add your own thoughts after that. If you’re trying to make small talk, find a topic you both share an interest in, whether it’s family, hobbies, work, travel or books.
Whether you’re talking one-on-one or to an audience of a thousand people, communicating is a two-way activity — both parties need to be engaged.
And when you’re in front of a larger group of people giving a more formal talk or speech, watch for visual cues from the audience. Are people yawning or rolling their eyes? Does your audience look bored? Maybe that means you might want to skip unnecessary details rather than just plunging ahead, North explains.
7. Make eye contact with your audience.
This is important whether you’re speaking or listening, North says. It communicates to both listener and speaker that you’re engaged and you care. “Your personality comes through much better and you look more competent and confident.”
And if you’re addressing a large crowd, remember good eye contact doesn’t mean just finding the one smiling face to stare down for the duration of your talk, North says. Look at everyone.
8. Stand up straight.
We’re not talking toy soldier straight, but if you’re in front of a crowd (no matter what size) good posture helps support your voice, North says. Plant your feet on the ground and distribute your weight evenly between them. Don’t cross your legs, North adds — “even behind a podium, you can tell.”
And don’t rock, she says. It’s a surefire way to draw attention to what you look like rather than what you’re saying.
9. Be yourself.
If you act confident, listeners won’t notice nerves. They will notice if you’re being fake, North says. (Think of those cheesy smiles four-year-olds are told to plaster on their faces for their first dance recitals. Don’t be that four-year-old.)
“I’m somebody who uses my hands all the time when I talk, so gestures come easy to me — I actually can’t talk without them,” North says. But if you try to add gestures to emphasize a point and they’re not natural, they’re going to look artificial. Be yourself, let who you are come through and have fun, North adds — that’s the only way your audience will, too.