Your legs wobble as you approach the podium. Your hands tremble as you adjust the microphone. Your head throbs. A wail builds deep inside you and threatens to escape.
It’s showtime—and the feelings are primal.
Evolutionary biologists tell us that in the presence of a presumed threat, we go into fight-or-flight mode, kicking off a millennia-old chain-reaction that starts in the brain’s fear centers and ends with our muscles pumped with blood and oxygen, prepared for battle or escape.
If you experience this, don’t worry. You’re in good company. In a recent story for the New Yorker, Joan Acocella writes that some of the greatest performers—Daniel-Day Lewis, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Barbra Streisand and Sir Laurence Olivier—have all faced symptoms of extreme stage fright.
As panicked as the thought of presenting in front of a group can make us, whether we’re delivering a speech before hundreds, doing a business pitch, attending a job interview, or introducing a report in a meeting, our careers may depend doing it well.
So how can we get better?
A good place to start is over two thousand years ago. The ancient Greeks believed that every citizen should study public speaking and the art of persuasion. In his Art Of Rhetoric, Aristotle broke it down like this:
- Ethos—how we earn the respect of our listeners
- Logos—how we support our message with solid facts
- Pathos—how we appeal to our audience’s emotions and persuade them of our argument
Master all three pieces, and you’re most of the way there. Master the methods of the masters, and you’re even closer.
Here are eight ways to help you convey your ideas forcefully and persuasively in any public-speaking situation.
Practice is key to mastering virtually every skill, and effective speaking is no exception. For every minute of delivery, Winston Churchill spent an hour preparing. A 45-minute speech meant 45 hours of prep (or the average worker’s workweek). In the meantime, Churchill had a country and war to run. A great speech should seem effortless, authentic, even spontaneous. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best: “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
Like all the great songs we can never forget, your talk should have a great hook. Take the three most-watched TED Talks of all time. Within the first two minutes of each one, the speaker delivers his or her Big Idea. “It’s education that’s meant to take us into the future that we can’t grasp,” says creativity-in-learning crusader Sir Ken Robinson. “I want to start by offering you a free, no-tech life hack . . . [that] could significantly change the way your life unfolds,” says psychologist Amy Cuddy. “All the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world think, act, and communicate the same way. And it’s the complete opposite to everyone else,” author and consultant Simon Sinek declares.
Hooked? You bet! Not a bad tactic, since studies have shown that, on average, listeners’ heart rates begin to decline the moment the speaker steps on stage. Scott Berkun warns about this in his book Confessions Of A Public Speaker: “Something is wrong if 60 seconds goes by and you aren’t already into your first point.”
Napoleon Bonaparte was masterful at rallying his troops. But to compensate for his small stature and crude, Corsican-inflected French, Napoleon didn’t wow them with an impressive war cry. He used the power of silence. Before a battle, he’d stand silently in front of his troops for up to nearly a full minute before addressing them.
David Hume, a speechwriter for four presidents and author of Speak Like Lincoln, Stand Like Churchill, calls this the “strategic delay,” which “adds weight and wisdom” to your audience’s perception of both you and your speech. Although none of us is likely to torture our colleagues with 60 seconds of silence, the artful pause can be equally effective in a sales pitch, power meeting, or negotiation. Hume advises, “Before you speak, lock your eyes on each of your soon-to-be listeners. Every second you wait will strengthen the impact of your words. Stand, stare, and command your audience, and they will bend their ears to listen.”
When Ronald Reagan wrote about public speaking, he shared “a little secret that dates back over 50 years to my first stint at a microphone.” On his first day as a radio broadcaster, Reagan was nervous. He wondered how he would “connect with all these people listening to the radio.” The secret? Instead of talking to a “group of unknown listeners,” he imagined he was speaking to the “fellows in the local barbershop.” Reagan wanted to replicate that banter—where everyone would swap jokes, talk sports, and tell stories:
I learned then the fundamental rule of public speaking. Whether on the radio, on television, or to a live crowd, talk to your audience, not over their heads or through them. Just use normal everyday words. I have never lost that vision of the fellows in the barbershop sitting around and listening to the radio.
Which is why in his fateful message to America’s superpower rival, instead of saying, “We forcefully demand that the leaders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at the soonest opportunity disassemble the barrier that separates East and West Germany,” Reagan simply said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Just like a story has a narrative arc, a presentation has a structure that can move an audience to embrace an idea. In her brilliant TED Talk, Nancy Duarte uses that structure masterfully—a series of starkly contrasted shifts from what is to what could be. In fact, it’s a square waveform pattern that can be found in the structures of heroic myths, classical music, and the speeches of some of the greatest communicators of modern times, including Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs. Duarte explains:
When you say, ‘Here’s a problem. What happens if we solve it?,’ ‘Here’s a roadblock. Let’s annihilate the roadblock,’ you make the status quo unappealing and the audience ask themselves, ‘Wow, do I want to agree and align with this or not?’ That contrast between what is and what could be builds tension in the minds of the audience. And just like a sailboat tacking in the wind, that tension draws the audience forward ever faster, toward what could be in the future with your idea adopted.
Sean Stephenson, author of Get Off Your “But”: How To End Self-Sabotage And Stand Up For Yourself, was a White House intern for President Bill Clinton. Stephenson saw Clinton up close, and marveled at his ability to connect with people through an extensive repertoire of physical gestures. The effect? Everyone was “laughing, hugging, and listening closely to him,” Stephenson says. He catalogs some of Clinton’s patented people-pleaser moves:
Touching: Clinton would place his hand on your shoulder, back, or forearm as he spoke, “passing his energy on to you kinetically.”
Eye contact: “Once President Clinton’s eyes locked on to yours, they didn’t leave until the interaction was complete.”
Facial expressions: He’d greet people with smiles in moments of joy and with expressions of empathy in times of sadness. “He never seemed false around me—he was always successful in conveying the emotion he wanted to show.”
“People say that Clinton’s greatest skill is his ability to communicate,” says Stephenson. “I believe his strongest suit is being able to connect.”
Whenever Chris Rock performed as a young comedian, he would stand stock still in front of the microphone. After the veteran Eddie Murphy caught Rock’s act one night, Murphy gave Rock some solid advice. To keep the audience’s attention, Murphy said, get moving. Rock has been stalking the stage ever since. Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins, who report this anecdote in their book Own The Room: Discover Your Signature Voice To Master Your Leadership Presence, write: “Movement arouses the central nervous system. Our eyes follow movement. [When you move on stage] the audience can’t help but watch. Conversely, when you stop, the sudden absence of movement is compelling and creates emphasis.”
You should make your movements emphasize your words, the authors suggest. Block out your talk as if you’re an actor taking advantage of the space. Move toward your audience and lower your voice to create intimacy. Approach your audience at an angle and include a gesture for emphasis. Return to center stage when you return to the theme of your talk.
Martin McDermott, author of Speak With Courage, who has taught communication skills for over 25 years, has noticed that people with performance experience—no matter at what level—typically take to public speaking more naturally. You don’t have to have been the star of your high school musical, but just “six months of comedy improvisation bolstered my presentation skills far more than any professional development course I’ve taken,” Martin says.
Many other public speaking gurus recommend improv classes to sharpen your instincts and your ability to think on your feet. Get up on stage, Martin advises, whether you’re in a band, a play, or an athletic contest, till you get to the point where you can say to yourself, “I am in front of people, but I’m relaxed and I’m having a good time.”