People are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying.
For most of my life, just the thought of talking to a group of people made me want to throw up. Unfortunately, most of us have to speak in front of strangers at some point in our lives and when that happens, we’re forced to figure out how to step across the abyss and just do it.
A few years ago, I accidentally came across a formula for how to speak in public without internally flipping out. From a brain perspective, I can see why the formula works because it’s about taking a load off working memory – and reducing the impact of the experience on the emotional brain.
Our personal fear-of-speaking-in-public button is large and extremely sensitive. When it gets bumped – let alone pushed – it activates the lizard part of our brain that triggers a response that is connected to fight, flight, or freeze. This lizard part of our brain is our emotional brain and when it’s activated, our access to clear thinking, reasoning, learning, and memory is cut off.
When you are walking up to the podium and find yourself in the blood-draining realization that everyone is looking at YOU, your emotional brain can take charge. This post is all about how to keep those emotions at bay AND support the brain skill of working memory so you can get the job done more easily and with a whole lot less stress.
Here are 5 public speaking tips to support your brain
#1: Write down the intention of your talk and keep it visible
Merriam-Webster defines intention as “what one intends to do or bring about”.
When you take the time to think about what you really want to accomplish with your talk, you have a higher level view of what you’re doing. It becomes less about looking bad and more about what is at the heart and soul of the talk.
An intention is about articulating a way of being rather than a specific goal. Here are some examples of intentions that I have created in the last week:
Situation: Introductory talk before the start of a long video course.
My intention: To connect with the people in the course so they feel welcome, appreciated for being there, and inspired to listen.
Situation: Meeting with directors at a large company to pitch my time management class.
My intention: To be present/listen thoughtfully so I can be sure that what they need is something I can deliver.
Why WRITE it down?
Mark Victor Hanson, author of The One Minute Millionaire, said “Don’t think it. Ink it.” because he knew that when you write something down, you actually make a commitment (to yourself) to do it.
Why keep it visible?
“Out of sight. Out of mind” is one of many truths about the brain. If you don’t have a visual reminder of your intention, you are relying on your working memory to remind you of it.
Our working memories are already overloaded – don’t add more!
#2: Own the first five minutes of your talk
Whether your talk is 15 minutes or three hours in length, you want your beginning moments at the podium to not be anxiety-producing. Since it will take at least a few minutes for your brain to get familiar with actually standing and speaking in front of people, you want what you say to be comfortable, easy, and not require a lot of brain-power.
The best way to accomplish that is to be in sync with what you say. Here are some key elements that will support a successful start:
- Speak in your own voice.
What you say needs to sound like something you would say – and not like you’re reading text what someone else wrote. One of the hardest things to remember when creating a talk is that the way you write is not the same as the way you speak.
Your audience is looking to make a connection with you. Make it easier by talking to them – not at them.
- Include something that will connect your audience to the topic.
Understand their motivation for being there. Tap into that with a statistic or story that is relevant and meaningful to them/the topic.
- Know those first few minutes of your talk inside and out.
— Rehearse in different places: in your car, in front of a mirror, when you take a walk, standing in your living room. Practice saying it to a friend.
— Create prompts that make it easy for you to remember the flow of your talk. See Tip #3 for how to do this!
#3: Use images to keep your talk on track
A huge part of the brain is dedicated to visual and this tip is about tapping into that: Creating images that will remind you of the flow of your talk.
The most important part of this technique is that you don’t create the images until you are completely done writing the content. Once you’ve done that, then you are ready to engage the visual neurons in your brain. If you change your talk after you have made your visual prompts, your brain is going to have a hard time remembering the changes. Make it easy on yourself and only do this once: when you’re 100% satisfied that the talk is laid out just the way you want it.
Start by working with one paragraph at a time. Towards the end of this tip, I have added screenshots of how I did this for one of my classes.
Here’s how it works:
- Read the paragraph.
- Read the paragraph out loud.
- Now stand up and read the paragraph quietly to yourself.
- Then read the paragraph out loud (keep standing)
- Get a clean sheet of paper and turn that paragraph into shorthand notes.
The key here is not that you turn every word into shorthand notes – but that you shorthand just enough of the words to help you remember the gist of the sentence.
- Refer only to your shorthand page and repeat the content – out loud.
- Reduce the shorthand notes by half.
- Now replace the shorthand notes with images that relate to each other.
- Put the images on index cards – or half of an 8.5″ x 11″ folded paper.
- Practice over the course of a few days and at different times of the day. This will strengthen the neuron connections between the content and the images and make it easier to remember what you want to say.
A few things to remember:
This tip is NOT about memorizing every word of your talk. This is about getting the gist of what you want to say so that you will be able to stay on track once you start talking.
– By the time you get to the shorthand stage (step #5 above), you will have read that paragraph 5+ times – including the time when you actually crafted of the sentences – so a lot of the content is already familiar to your brain.
– If you are going to give your talk standing up, stay standing after step #3 above. That builds muscle memory around your whole body being vertical as you speak.
– The images that you use in step #8 don’t have to be pretty and can be as silly as you wish. You are the only person who will see them so they just need to make sense to you.
– Practice with crazy props: go through your talk and wear a coat backwards or put on a hat; wear two different shoes; hold the image cards in your non-dominant hand, etc. Doing odd things like this will help your brain get comfortable when your environment is different. The more you practice the talk with distraction, the easier it will be for you to not get derailed during the actual talk.
Here’s an example of how I did this with content from one of my classes:
This is what I started with –
What gets in the way when it’s time for you to get started on a project? What external forces and behaviors come along that make you procrastinate? Is it emotional? Maybe you’re afraid of failure. If you can’t do it perfectly, what’s the point? Or if you can’t do it perfectly, it must mean you are a stupid/bad/fill-in-the blank person. Maybe you don’t start because it’s a huge project and will take too much time. And who has big chunks of time for anything?? Maybe you don’t start because it’s just too ugly. Who wants to clean out the disgusting garage? There may be gross things in there!
Here’s the first iteration of this paragraph:
What — way when time —- started on project?
What ext forces & behav — procrastinate?
Emot? — afraid of failure?
Can’t do perfectly — what’s pt?
Can’t do perfectly = stupid/bad/fill-in-the blank person
Maybe bc HUGE P & >> Time!
who has big chunks of T 4 anything?
Maybe bc 2 ugly — garage? (gross things there?)
Here’s the second iteration:
Here’s the third iteration – which fit nicely on half of an index card. I even added “attic” to the last section that included examples of things that could be ugly to clean up.
You can use this technique for your entire talk but start with what you’ve written for the first five minutes. Practice makes perfect (!) and the more you do it, the easier the process gets.
Here’s something you might not have considered:
Once you know your talk well, you’ll actually have to work on something new: Reminding yourself to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. It’s going to feel like a real “win” to get to a place where you’re suddenly less worried about what you’re going to say and more worried about how you’re saying it.
#4: Plan for breathing room
It’s difficult to maintain your concentration and stay on track if your talk is long. It’s also hard for your audience to maintain their concentration.
John Medina, author of Brain Rules says “Audiences check out after 10 minutes, but you can keep grabbing them back by telling narratives or creating events rich in emotion”.
Plan to insert natural breaks that are engaging.
Here are some ways to do this:
- Give the audience something to ponder.
“How does this show up in your life?” or “Where can you apply this today?”
- Take a short (5 minute) pause.
Set a timer so people know when it’s time to start again.
- Poll the audience.
You can do this easily with a show of hands.
- Ask questions – or field Q & A.
- Tell a story you know well & tell it s-l-o-w-l-y.
Just make sure it’s relevant and punctuates your point. You don’t want them to think of you as an entertainer.
#5: Personalize your audience
The fear of public speaking comes from a very deep-seated fear of being judged negatively by others. Because we all know that they must be so much smarter, more knowledgeable, clever, funny, interesting, whatever-adjective-you-put-here better than me!!! But here’s something to consider: They aren’t sitting there in order to judge you personally. They are sitting there to hear what you have to say.
So it really isn’t about you.
Here are a few ways to get around that mindset:
- Get comfortable with the venue before the day of your talk.
If you can visit the stage or conference room ahead of time, you will be able to visualize yourself standing there on the actual day.
- If you can, meet one or two people from the audience beforehand.
That will help you see them as regular human beings and not Those Who Judge. This may also allow you to personalize your talk a little.
- Before you start your talk, pick a person or two from the audience and imagine you are having coffee with them at a cafe.
Take away the backdrop of the room, the chairs, the podium etc and in reality, those people in the audience are regular people – just like you.
- This works for some people: make eye contact with your audience.
Pick people who aren’t intimidating. This can make you feel like your talk is more of a one-to-one experience.
- This works for other people: don’t make eye contact with anyone!
Look at the tops of people’s heads or even an empty chair. No one will know.
I have personally done this when I had a few people in the crowd who had peculiar expressions on their faces. It was terribly distracting to look at them so I looked at people who weren’t looking at me. No one looks at where you are looking. Sometimes I have even smiled at an empty chair – which makes me laugh at myself.
- Your audience will get a lot more out of the talk if you let your personality show through.
Of course you want it to be professional but if you’re a funny person, use a little humor. If you have personal experience with the topic, tell your story (but keep it short). People want the human connection so let who you are be seen. They will love you for it.
In one class, I started talking about something and then I completely lost track of where I was going. I laughed and said “Well, that’s a working memory problem – Sorry everyone!” They laughed and I moved on.
- Don’t dwell on mistakes.
Here’s where you get to be human too. If you make a mistake (which you will do) let it go and move on. Your talk is actually about making a connection, not perfection.
Stepping across the abyss
It IS possible to speak in public without having your emotional brain leave you speechless, gasping for air and practically paralyzed…
If a public speaking event is in your future, take a step back and start supporting the executive function skill that needs help: working memory.