This may come as a surprise to many of you, particularly if you’ve attended one of my executive coaching sessions or speaking engagements, but I was not always This. Damn. Good.
Learning to become better at public speaking can be a long, harrowing process. Luckily, I’ve experienced it first-hand. Follow these 4 simple tips and you’ll have a head start I wish I would’ve had.
1. Learn to use Fear as Fuel
When I was 20 I was a ski instructor. Sunday evenings, we would welcome the new guests. Before I would speak, the Hotel Manager would welcome the guests. I would be so nervous waiting in the wings that I would have to run and hide in the bathroom.
I’d come back and it was still not my turn! I’d run off again!
Because the guests had just eaten their evening meal, I was able to rest against one of the tables. This was my protection. It also meant people couldn’t see how petrified I was and I could control my shaking.
Unscientific surveys show that approximately 99 percent of the general public has a fear of public speaking. Even the best speakers will tell you they suffered stage fright when they first began and still have terrible nerves before going on stage, even once they’ve “mastered” the art of public speaking.
When I first began doing executive pitches, I was so nervous that my hands would literally shake. When I got out of my first pitch session, I felt dejected and embarrassed.
The key to my success is simple: I kept coming back. I kept doing it, despite the nerves. And little by little, my hands started to shake less. I started to perspire less. Little by little, I became comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
However, despite coming back again and again, I found that my nerves never really went away; I just learned to deal with them better. I performed well despite my fear. In fact, I came to find that if I viewed the nervousness as energy that I could use, it actually improved my delivery. This is the same thing professional athletes must learn to do; convert fear into fuel.
The secret to effective public speaking is not to get rid of nerves; it’s to learn to deal with them and use that energy in the moment.
The adrenaline rush of public speaking can be intense at first, but if you get in the habit of being thankful for the added energy, you will find it can help power you through.
2. Learn to view Failure as Feedback
I have a friend who is a stand-up comedian. I asked him if he feels bad when he doesn’t get the laughs on stage and his answer was “only at first.” Over time, he learned to view his failures (and his victories) as feedback. If a particular joke didn’t work out as expected, it wasn’t a personal judgement of his character; it was simply useful feedback. The joke would be cut. He would add in a bit here, a bit there, constantly refining based on the feedback from his audience until he eventually got it right.
Get into the habit of viewing failure as feedback. Don’t take failure personally; view the process as an ongoing personal development project. Take feedback as best you can and incorporate the lessons you learn each time you get up to speak.
3. Get Comfortable outside of your Comfort Zone
Here’s the thing about the nebulously described “comfort zone:” it is very flexible.
Whenever we approach a place we’ve never been, there will be fear of the unknown. That fear of experiencing mild discomfort dissuades most people from ever attempting greatness. They give up on their aspirations at the slightest feeling of discomfort and settle for a more comfortable life.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone and learning to relax there, is a secret superpower you can build within yourself.
Recently, after 20+ years of public speaking experience and hundreds of executive coaching classes, I signed up for my first improv class. For those of you who are unfamiliar, improv is basically the art of acting on a stage in front of an audience with no script, no safety net. It’s making it up as you go.
I know the topic of B2B sales so well, there isn’t a sales situation I have not experienced; a sales training environment or question I haven’t been posed with. I don’t get scared by it. I simply know it inside and out.
I did not sign up for the improv class because I thought I’d be great at it and wanted to be the next Drew Carey. I signed up for it because it scared me. Performing in front of a crowd without a script or preparation made me feel as though I were doing it for the first time all over again.
The best public speakers never stop learning and they never stop challenging themselves to step outside of their comfort zone. You can do this, like I did, by signing up for something that absolutely terrifies you. Or, you can work it into your daily routine. If you’re not used to speaking with strangers, try making small talk with a person you’ve never met before. Build the superpower of repeatedly enduring discomfort and you’ll dare far greater things than most people ever dream.
4. This one’s boring, but…Practice!
Not the most exciting piece of advice, I know. But the reality is that your performance is only going to be as good as the amount of preparation you put into it.
Recently, I was preparing for a new keynote on my experiences of biking the Himalayas. To prepare, I hired someone to come in and direct the performance and workshop the script to ensure it was the best. We rehearsed it multiple times over the course of a few days.
When a lawyer friend who had come to see my presentation told me, she was blown away with my keynote, it was not about the last 45 minutes; it was down to the rehearsals for the days prior that made it so good.
I’ve met a few people who were naturally good speakers and could just “wing it” when public speaking. But in all honesty, I’ll bet even they could have performed better, had they put in the time to prepare in advance.
For me, preparation is like a safety net. If I can step on stage confident that I’ve put in my 100 percent best effort to prepare ahead of time, then the performance is just for fun. I can let go. If I know I’ve prepared and put in the work, the actual time on stage is for me to have fun and to deliver for the audience.