Date published

Mar 28, 2023

Reporting from Lean In Leeds

In our industry, confidence is often considered a must. That’s why we try our best to look that way—masking our nervousness in an important meeting, taking the floor to answer a question, only to find our voice shaking. But, thankfully, sooner or later, we realise that the more you practise public speaking, the better you become.

So, if you aren’t one of those lucky extroverts, you certainly can add more tips to your bag from those Katie Taylor-Thompson, shared with us at the latest Lean In Leeds event.

Why are we afraid of public speaking?

Upset stomach, increased heart rate, sweating, dry mouth, stiff muscles, and shaky speech are all regular symptoms of our fear of public speaking. And it’s completely normal. It’s good news, as Katie remarks! It means the part of your brain called the ‘amygdala’ is working as it should. Responsible for the protective ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, it releases stress hormones when we feel threatened. And that emotional response makes complete sense if you think about it; As social creatures, humans are in less danger when in groups, making the rejection from the group a cause of risk and being looked at by ‘all eyes in the room” as potential harm from a predator.

How can we overcome that fear?

1. Have a word with yourself

Remember, the audience is there just because they don’t understand the subject matter as well as you do, they trust you know what you’re talking about, and if you fluff a line, they won’t even notice it.

2. Rehearse but not too much

It’s a good idea to rehearse as it will help you be clear about the key points you want to make and have some nice words on hand. However, too much rehearsing will make you think there is only one way to tell this. If you have presented the same deck in several meetings, you have probably noticed that you don’t say the same things every time. If you did, one small slip from the script would end up in a trainwreck!

3. Practise your body language

Have you caught yourself avoiding eye contact, looking at the floor, or hiding behind props like lecterns? Research shows that the way you stand influences how anxious you will feel. Becoming withdrawn and making ourselves look smaller, like in interviews, leads to more of the stress hormone, cortisol, getting released, while ‘high power’ dominance stances decreased its levels by 25%.

4. Find your tone of voice

Steve Jobs’ style of presenting isn’t the only way to do it. ‘Cautious & humouristic’, ‘organised & calm’, ‘smart & theatrical’, ‘emotional and shy’, ‘friendly and vivid’—all real examples of real people we’ve witnessed presenting in a School of Thought presentations day in the office. The goal isn’t to act like someone else but to bring out your unique thinking. How? Take the way you normally talk and multiply it by three!

5. Appreciate your introversion

It’s time to make use of one of the introverts’ best skills—reading the room. Being able to listen to your audience, empathise with them and adapt your presentation to their needs and mood? There’s not one thing bad about that.

6. Research the venue

If there’s one, google it or ask for pictures of it. What’s its capacity, how many people are expected, will there be a podium or can you move around, what audiovisual tech and light systems will be in place, will you be able to see your screen or a timer? Just standing there to get used to the view before people start coming in also helps the stage fright numbing go away.

7. Calm your nerves

Find what works best for your case. Dry mouth? Try taking a glass of water with you and sipping in natural pauses. What about a racing heart? Breathing exercises or herbal medications can help; just test them before. All good options overall, unless it’s illegal!

8. Optimise your Pacing

Depending what’s your source, there are various ‘Rules of three’. If you ask Aristotle, that’d be “Dramatic unity of time, place and action’. A more specific approach from Dale Carnegie is ‘tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them’. Finally, according to Katie, a great pacing and rhythm technique is to ‘open with a bold statement, present evidence to prove your point with a longer sentence, and then wrap it all up in your final point’.

9. Prepare visual aids

Visual aids will keep you on track with what you have to say, captivate the audience’s interest, and help with understanding. Colourful, varied, and accessible in the choice of font, contrast and size, it is always nice to have, especially for those with a visual learning style. Bullet points will be handy for those who want to take notes, as long as you don’t read the text to them!

10. Structure your talk

Are you the type that starts with an introduction on what they’ll cover or the one that jumps right in? In any case, clearly label every new topic you introduce into the discussion and how all correlate, keep your audience on their feet with exercises and participation, like answering questions, and summarise your points.

11. Brace yourself for the worst

If you like Paula Radcliffe, prepare for race—or presentation—day by thinking of three things that can go wrong, then when one happens, you’re ready for it. Take, for example, a technical issue; laugh it off and explain what you were trying to say. Whatever happens, take your time and don’t forget to breathe.

12. Avoid the ‘questions cringe’

It’s OK if there are no questions at the end—they are probably just as nervous as you! If now, you need to think about a question, that’s allowed; The better you understand a question, the better answer you will give. And if you aren’t happy with how you answered something, clarify directly to that person afterwards.

13. Have Fun

Think of it like making friends. It’s awkward initially, but you enjoy your time after a while. Think of public speaking like this—a way to put yourself out there, talk over things you are passionate about, and let people know you or even learn something from you.

As you might have figured already, we’d certainly recommend joining Lean in and connecting with Katie!