About halfway through Year 11, my scariest public speaking nightmare came true. I was on my school’s debating team as a speechwriter, and on the evening of the competition, our 2nd speaker and our two back-ups couldn’t make it. One was too sick, one had a cousin’s wedding interstate, and one was stuck in traffic. That just left me. Timid, terrified, timorous old me who would sooner papercut herself to death than willingly get up to speak in front of a crowd.
But here’s the odd thing – it was such an illogical fear. I knew the content. I knew that I knew the content. There were only about ten people in the room, including my teammates who had decent enough arguments to gloss over any mistakes I made. And what was the worst case scenario? I said something dumb or mumbled my way through a mediocre performance? So what? Minor, temporary embarrassment followed by a bit of guilt at having let my team down – I could handle that. Life would go on.
So why were my legs and hands shaking like I was a scared rabbit with hypothermia?
Well, by some cruel twist of evolution, a fear of public speaking is unbelievably common, and yet the act of talking in front of a crowd or group is something most of us will have to deal with at some point. So whilst you might bemoan your teachers for making you give oral presentations, you should know that public speaking is one of the rare activities you do at school that can genuinely help you later in life, regardless of what kind of career you’re considering.
And since this basically just comes down to your brain trying to trick you into being afraid, you can trick it right back! Below are some tips to help you get through those public speaking assessment tasks with an aura of confidence as opposed to… well…
1. Know your stuff
Most public speaking phobias are born from some kind of fear that you’ll forget what to say or where you’re going or how to do words good. And if your speech is something you’ve hammered out the night before and have barely proofread, it follows that you’ll have a hard time delivering the content effectively when you don’t even know what it is.
As such, it’s crucial to get your act together before you need to speak and ensure that you’ve prepared adequately. Go over your whole speech a couple of times and think about the flow of your arguments. Are you actually presenting things in a way that makes sense to you? If not: edit!
It’s easy to be complacent when it comes to oral presentations and think that ‘well, I’ve written ~700 words which is enough to get me over the time limit – guess I’m done now!’ But if you go to the effort of fine tuning your speech, I can guarantee your teachers will notice the difference.
Editing for clarity is probably the most important thing to do, but you can also think about your word choices and any potential issues with repetition or pronunciation. If, when rehearsing, there’s a word or phrase that you’re constantly stumbling over, just change that word or phrase! Nothing’s set it stone, and you’ll be better off modifying the stuff you find difficult than sticking with your first rough draft.
2. Practise x ∞ = public speaking success!
And, naturally, the better you know your speech, the more confidently you’ll be able to deliver it. Sure, you may still have to deal with some pre-presentation anxiety, but if you can comfort yourself with the fact that you’ve gone over your speech a dozen times, then you can at least mitigate your nerves a little.
Do this on your own the first couple of times to ensure you get a feel for the flow of your speech. You could also try recording yourself and listening back to see if you’re too fast or too monotonous. Having a friend or family member listen to you practice is another very valuable exercise – it may make you nervous at first, but it’s better to gradually work your way up to speaking in front of a larger crowd than to throw yourself in the deep end.
Some people say that practising makes them more nervous because they start imagining all the things that could go wrong. But you can actually learn to embrace this ‘worst case scenario’ type of thinking. So if you’re prone to being like…
…at the mere mention of public speaking, then you can have some back-up plans or preventative measures to deal with this. You may find it useful, for example, to chat with your teacher outside of class and say ‘hey, I’m kinda terrified of public speaking and I’m just wondering if you had any tips for seeming more confident?’ That way, at least they’ll be aware that you’re anxious, and if something does go wrong, they’ll be a little more understanding. And if everything goes right, they’ll think ‘wow, that kid said he was nervous, but that was a stellar performance!’ Or, more realistically ‘wow, that kid said he was nervous, but that speech was pretty decent.’ And though this seems like a silly trick, it’ll alter your teacher’s expectations so that they can take into account how challenging this task is for you. Whilst you may still lose marks if you end up speaking way too fast or make no eye contact whatsoever, your teacher will be more inclined to overlook the little things like shaky hands or a quivering voice.
3. Take a chill pill
No… not actual drugs. But definitely take a metaphorical chill pill. Because if you rush through your speech, it’s going to turn into an unintelligible mess.
Most of the time, you’ll be given a pretty definitive time limit, so when you’re practising your speech, aim to hit the upper limit (i.e. if it’s a 3-5 minute window, try to get it just under 5 minutes). Statistically, you’re more likely to talk faster on the day, especially if you’re prone to getting nervous, and it’s much easier to speed up and cut out some content at the last minute than to drag things out or add stuff in.
There may be some moments in your speech where you’ve left things a bit open-ended to allow for some improvisation or audience participation. Firstly, that probably means you’re far more confident at public speaking than I was in Year 12 so I’m super jealous of you. Secondly, you’ll probably still be able to give yourself a rough estimate and base your average time around that.
Another very useful means of combatting timing-related public speaking fears is to have what I call the ‘Penultimate Cue Card Strategy.’ What this involves is writing a cue card that will go just before your last one. And on that cue card will be some fairly strong points, but nothing that’s too essential to your core contention. Maybe it’s an extra sub-argument that’s not as in-depth as your others, or maybe it’s a bit more evidence to beef up your previous point. Either way – the point is that it’s optional! So if you get to your third-last cue card and you haven’t yet hit the minimum time limit, you have that extra one to tide you over. But if you’ve already made that cut-off point and you’re running out of time, then you can just skip that second last card entirely and focus on your ending.
This is especially useful if you have a very narrow window (e.g. 6-7 minutes or 9-10 minutes) where it’s much harder to get the timing right. If your school gives you a bigger margin though (e.g. 5-8 minutes or 6-10) then this probably won’t be necessary though.
4. Cheat a bit when it comes to eye contact
If you have to speak in front of a whole class, you might be lucky enough to have access to some peers who can help you out. That awkward ‘not knowing where to look’ feeling can easily be circumvented by a carefully situated friend or two. Since most teachers care quite a bit about how effectively you make eye contact with the crowd, shifting your glance between a couple of different people is better than just staring at the wall at the back of the room. And having your friends nodding encouragingly can do wonders for your nerves. Whereas, if you have to make eye contact with the teacher who’s scribbling down notes and judging your public speaking skills, or other random people in your class who are barely paying attention, that can be a little less helpful.
Just be sure your friends aren’t going to try and make you laugh. Teachers don’t tend to look favourably upon spontaneous giggle fits or awkwardly-suppressed-laughter-face in the middle of speeches.
5. Have resources to aid you
Most schools will allow you to use cue cards to aid you in public speaking. If yours doesn’t then you’ll unfortunately just have to memorise as much as you can and trust in your ability to improvise (scroll down for more details on that!). For those that do have cue cards, use them to your advantage! It’s okay to write your whole speech out if you need it (and if your teacher allows it). Technically cue cards are just meant to give you ‘cues’ in the form of dot-point reminders, but many students like to have the whole thing in front of them as a bit of a safety net (/security blanket.)
But why stop there? You could highlight your cue cards so that you know which points to stress and when to shift your tone. You could write the first line of the next card at the bottom of each one so that your transitions are smoother. You could even annotate your cue cards with little reminders like ‘slow down here!’ and ‘stress this word.’ If you’re really, really nervous, then you may even want to fine tune your presentation by noting when to pause or when to look up at the audience. A little colour-coding system (e.g. blue highlighting for all the bits that need to be said slowly; yellow for words that need to be said whilst making eye contact, etc.) could be advantageous.
If you rehearse your speech enough, you probably won’t even need these reminders, but if it’s going to help you feel more confident, then it’s an excellent way to prepare.
Some schools also allow (or even require) you to use visual aids like PowerPoint presentations. If that’s the case, the same rule applies – use it to your advantage! Don’t make that classic mistake of sticking your entire speech word for word up on the screen – you should be using visuals as a secondary medium. And although it’s good for your speech (auditory input) and PowerPoint (visual input) to compliment one another, having them be identical is really distracting, especially if the audience is trying to read along. Ever tried watching a movie when the audio’s out of sync? It’s like that.
Whereas, if you’re able to match the content of your speech with some powerful visual material, it can strengthen the impact of what you’re saying. So if you’re opening with an anecdote or a hypothetical question, you could represent this visually on screen to make things more engaging for the audience. And you can still use the occasional word or expression (like if you’re including a quote from someone, or repeating a key phrase) but you should abide by the ‘less is more’ rule in this case.
6. Start strong
Imagine starting off your speech like this:
“Umm… hi, my name’s Lauren. Most of you probably know me cause I’m in your class, haha. Anyway, today I’m going to talk to you about the issue of drunk driving and why it’s bad.”
Impressive, huh? Doesn’t it just make you want to pay attention?
No? Thought not.
Although the first minute of your speech will be over in… well… a minute… it’s still vital that start off strong. First impressions matter. And not just to your audience (and the teacher marking your performance) but to your own confidence levels too! If you’re starting off on the wrong foot, it can throw your balance off for the rest of the speech, so a really weak or cliched opening is a surefire way to end up with a mediocre result.
Aim to capture the audience’s attention and present your issue or argument in a way that’s relevant to them. If in doubt, consider what kinds of things you would find impressive You could go for something funny, heartfelt, sarcastic, confronting – whatever! If it’s interesting, it’s good.
7. End with impact
Last but not least, have a goal for your speech to work towards. Whether it’s a nice, snappy line for you to close with, or a highly impactful emotive appeal that you want to stress – anything that motivates you to get to the end. Public speaking can be a lot more difficult when it’s aimless, or when it’s clear that you’re just stretching for time. One of the absolute worst speeches I’ve ever had to sit through was one delivered by a Year 12 classmate. We had a 6-8 minute timeframe, and I reckon this guy only had about three minutes’ worth of content. He started talking reeeeally slowly once he hit his last cue card, and then just stood around repeating his points and saying ‘ummm… yeah’ over and over again until he hit the minimum time limit. It was excruciating to watch.
But if you’re ending powerfully and memorably, not only will your teacher reward you, but you’ll also feel a lot better once the speech is over and done with. That way, you won’t have to spend weeks agonising over how you did or whether your fear of public speaking got the better of you. Plus, the fact that you know you’ve got that awesome ending means you’re less likely to stress about any little slip-ups you make along the way.
As much as the ol’ ‘take a deep breath and remain calm’ advice is worn, but true, what’s more effective in combatting public speaking nerves is consciously counteracting them rather than pretending they’re not there.
So try and put things into perspective, and let your preparation help ease your worries. It’s entirely possible you’ll never fully overcome this fear – there are public speakers who get paid thousands to speak all over the world and still report feeling nervous and jittery before every one – but it is something you can learn to manage. In the end, you’re teachers aren’t expecting the Gettysburg Address or the “I Have A Dream” of Year 12 performances. A well-written, well-delivered speech is all they want to see, and that’s well within your capabilities no matter what your nerves would have you believe.