The Public Speaking Guide
Today at a Glance
- Confession: I am a nervous public speaker. But confident public speaking is a critical skill, so we need a set of strategies to increase our confidence and perform as the best version of ourselves.
- Prep Strategies: (1) Study the best speakers and learn from them, (2) Create a clear storytelling structure, and (3) Build "lego blocks" but avoid rote memorization.
- Pre-Stage Strategies: (1) Address the Spotlight Effect and ask "so what?" about your worst fears, (2) Get into character and turn on the best version of yourself, and (3) Eliminate stress with a simple breathing technique.
- Delivery Strategies: (1) Cut the tension in the crowd at the outset, (2) Use big, broad gestures and avoid touching your pockets or torso, and (3) Move with purposeful, slow steps.
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"There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars." — Mark Twain
Confession: I am a nervous public speaker.
I know I'm not alone—in fact, a number of surveys have found that people rank public speaking ahead of death on a list of their greatest fears.
But confident public speaking is a critical skill for our careers and lives, one with the capacity to accelerate personal and professional endeavors meaningfully.
We can't just hide from it—we need a set of strategies to increase our confidence and perform as the best version of ourselves.
Last week, I delivered the keynote at the ConvertKit Craft & Commerce event in Boise, Idaho. I was nervous, but I had a plan that I executed against.
This piece shares the strategies I've used to build a powerful public speaking muscle—strategies you can start using immediately...
Three strategies for preparation in the week leading up to the event:
Study the Best
We live in an incredible era: We literally have access to the best speaking coaches in the world at the click of a button.
Identify 3-5 speakers you admire. They can be politicians, business leaders, comedians, motivational coaches, whatever.
Go on YouTube and find videos of each one delivering a speech. Slow down the playback speed and take notes.
Pay attention to the following:
- How are they structuring their talk?
- What is the pacing of their words? When are they pausing and when are they accelerating?
- When are they raising their voice? When are they lowering it?
- Note their movement on the stage. How are they gesturing?
- How are they engaging with the audience?
By studying the best, we naturally move to embody the traits we've identified.
Create Clear Structure
The best public speakers don't deliver a speech—they tell a story. They take the audience on a journey.
Create a clear structure that is familiar and easy to follow.
It's often helpful to be clear and explicit about that structure upfront, whether in the presentation materials or in your early delivery.
Build Your "Lego Blocks"
When you're nervous for a speech, toast, presentation, or talk, your natural bias is to memorize the content word-for-word.
The memorization is intended to serve as a protective wall that shields you from your fears. You can recite something and semi-disassociate from the act itself.
Unfortunately, I have found (and observed) that memorization often has the opposite effect.
When you memorize material, one tiny slip-up can throw you off. You only know the material in one fixed linear trajectory, so you're unable to adapt. All it takes is a glitch in the slides, an off-track question from the audience, or a slight stumble in your opener and all of your preparation is out the window.
- Build "lego blocks" by practicing the key moments, such as the opening, transitions, and punchlines. Perfect these lego blocks.
- Practice the speech in segments rather than sequentially. This may seem contrarian, but it will make you more dynamic if things don't go perfectly according to plan.
One other *weird* trick for a big speech: Practice once while on a brisk walk or light jog. I have found that it effectively simulates the heart rate increase you may experience when you take the stage.
Three strategy checklist for getting into the ideal mental space:
Address the Spotlight
The Spotlight Effect is a common psychological phenomenon where we overestimate the degree to which other people are noticing or observing our actions, behaviors, appearance, or results.
Public speaking is one of the moments when the Spotlight Effect is most pronounced (and potentially crippling).
To dim the spotlight, remember the "So What?" Approach:
- Confront your worst fears about what could go wrong.
- Ask "So what?" about that worst fear becoming reality. So what if you forget your remarks or don't deliver them perfectly? You'll stumble through, but you won't be dead. Your family will still love you when you get home and life will move on.
Usually the "So what?" isn't nearly as bad as we think. As Seneca famously wrote, "We suffer more in imagination than in reality."
Get Into Character
Character Invention is a technique in which you create a character that can show up and perform in the situations that induce fear or self-doubt.
The general strategy: Create a character in your mind who can nail the speech, then "flip the switch" to become this character before stepping into the spotlight.
Envision the public speaking character that you would like to embody:
- What traits do they possess?
- How do they interact with their surroundings?
- How do they physically appear to others?
- What is their mentality?
Turn on your character and take on the moment with new energy as the best version of yourself.
The “Physiological Sigh” is a remarkably effective, science-backed technique to quickly eliminate stress.
It’s a breath pattern marked by a double-inhale that is immediately followed by a long exhale. We do it naturally when levels of carbon dioxide in our bloodstream get too high. It creates a relaxing sensation by releasing a lot of carbon dioxide very fast.
If you feel your nerves rising before the event, try it:
- Double-inhale through your nose
- Long exhale through your mouth
- Repeat 2-3x
Immediate positive impact.
Three strategies to nail your delivery:
Cut the Tension
A few minutes before my keynote last week, the organizers asked me what song I wanted to enter to. They probably assumed I’d pick some upbeat pump-up music.
I told them “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys.
They thought I was joking, but I was dead serious. Why? Doing something unexpected and funny early in a talk immediately cuts the anxiety and tension in the room. When I entered to that song, I had a built in joke!
“You’re probably wondering why I just entered to Girl on Fire…well, it’s my 1-year-old son’s favorite song, and I figured he’d be more excited to watch the replay if his Dad entered to his favorite jam.”
My anxiety disappeared when I saw the crowd’s smiling and laughing faces.
Lesson: Find a simple way to cut the tension early and get people on your side.
Play the Lava Game
You may remember playing a childhood game where parts of the floor are “lava” that you can't touch.
During a speech, I try to play a similar game. I think of my pockets and torso as “lava”—I can't touch them.
This simple framing forces you to get your arms away from your body, gesture broadly, and embody confidence.
Pro Tip: Use big, bold, body-opening gestures early in the talk. I have found that doing so builds your confidence and momentum (consider this my hat tip to Amy Cuddy's much-debated "power pose" research).
Pacing around like you're on the phone with your childhood crush isn't helpful. It just makes you more nervous.
Take slow, methodical, purposeful steps. Move with gravitas.
Use your movements to add dramatic pauses to your words as you navigate the room.
There are people who move to move—and then there are people who move with intention, who are going places.
Always be the latter.
The Power Speaking Guide
These nine strategies will work wonders for your public speaking:
- Study the Best: Use YouTube to study speakers you admire.
- Create Clear Structure: Be deliberate about the storytelling arc.
- Build Your Lego Blocks: Relentlessly practice the opening, transitions, and key lines, but avoid rote memorization.
- Address the Spotlight: Ask "So what?" about your worst fears and stop suffering in imagination.
- Get Into Character: Turn on your ideal character prior to the start.
- Eliminate Stress: Use the "physiological sigh" to eliminate stress.
- Cut the Tension: Find a way to cut the tension early with a joke or self-deprecating remark to get the audience on your side.
- Play the Lava Game: Use big, confident gestures and avoid touching your pockets or torso.
- Move Purposefully: Slow, methodical, purposeful steps.
Public speaking is a muscle that we can all work to build. By leveraging these strategies, you'll be well on your way.
Give them a shot and let me know what you think!