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. But most of us have to speak in front of people we don’t know at some point in our lives. Then we have to figure out how to step across the abyss and just DO IT.
Here are 5 tips that will support your brain when speaking in public:
Tip #1 – Write down the intention of your talk and keep it visible
Tip #2 – Own the first five minutes of your talk
Tip #3 – Use images to keep your talk on track
Tip #4 – Plan for breathing room
Tip #5 – Personalize your audience
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 an emotional response that is connected to fight, flight, or freeze. This response comes from our emotional brain. When our lizard brain is activated, our access to clear thinking, reasoning, learning, and memory is cut off.
So if you are walking up to a podium and find yourself in the blood-draining realization that everyone is looking at YOU, your lizard brain can take charge. This blog post is about techniques that will help to keep that lizard brain at bay as well as support your working memory.
Tip #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 make a commitment to doing 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.
Tip #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 on 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 or 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. You can even 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!
Tip #3: Use images to keep your talk on track
You can use this technique for your entire talk but start with what you’ve written for the first five minutes.
A huge part of the brain is dedicated to visual
and this tip is about tapping into that fact.
The most important part of this technique is that you don’t create images until you are finished writing the content. You need to have your talk completely written out before you engage the visual neurons in your brain. Changing your talk after you have visual prompts will make it harder for you to remember the latest sequence of images that you created. Make it easy on yourself and only do it once. So this tip assumes you have written out what you want to say. When you have done that, read on…
To be clear, 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.
When you know your talk well, you’ll have to remind yourself to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. It feels revolutionary to get to a place where you’re suddenly less worried about what you’re going to say and more worried about speaking slowly.
Start by working with one paragraph at a time. Towards the end of this tip, I have added screenshots of these steps 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 and easier to remember what you want to say.
A few things to remember:
– 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 fair amount 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 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 it just needs 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.
Tip #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 but not just you talking about your topic.
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.
And 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.
Make sure it’s relevant and punctuates your point. You don’t want them to think of you as an entertainer.
Tip #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!!! 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 you have a public speaking event in your future, just take a step back and start supporting the executive function skill that deals with what you want to say: working memory.