My first ever “speaking engagement” was at my childrens’ kindergarten. I was so nervous my knees were shaking and my fingers fumbled through the copious notes I kept referring to. It’s fair to say I was far more focused on myself—making a good impression and not making a fool of myself—than on the people in the room. All three of them.
It was a humble beginning. Since then, I’ve spoken to thousands of audiences (yes, numbers have increased), and I’ve gotten better. The real aha moment came one day in Columbus, Ohio, when a tech issue left me without any slide deck or speaker notes. Nervous about messing up, I went into the bathroom and said my go-to prayer: “Dear God, me again. Any advice?”
As always, a divine whisper: “You know your stuff, Margie. You don’t need those notes. Just speak to serve and all will be well.”
And it was. In fact, it was the best presentation I’d ever given. More from the heart, less from the head.
Countless people have asked me for advice on how to speak with more confidence in front of others. They’ve often shared stories of utter anxiety. One man confided he’d thrown up before speaking to colleagues at an annual conference. A woman shared how she’d needed a mental health day to manage her anxiety after her boss asked her to lead a big sales pitch to a major client. Another shared how “I’d just die if I had to get up and do what you did.”
While I’m sure she knew she wouldn’t actually die, her language reflects the level of fear people have about speaking. Fear of exposure. Fear of rejection. Fear of criticism, ridicule and social or professional humiliation. These fears may not be rational, but they are very real and often trigger an acute sense of vulnerability.
The number one piece of advice I give to those seeking public speaking advice is the same I give to anyone who wants to speak with greater power, presence and impact. It is this:
Don’t make it about you.
Of course, that may sound a little too simple if your knees start shaking at the very thought of having to speak to even one person or your job is reliant on nailing a sales pitch. But it’s true.
When you make what you have to say about you, it prevents you from speaking in ways that optimize how your words land on others. Ironically, the less focused you are on serving yourself when you speak, the more you actually do.
Here are the keys to help you find the courage to speak in front of others in ways that earn respect, expand actions and improve outcomes for everyone. Which, in the end, is the primary reason to ever open your mouth!
1. Set your highest intention.
What comes from the heart, lands on the heart. So get clear about your highest intention for the people you are speaking to and for anyone who may be indirectly impacted by what you have to say. Keep in mind, your speaking is not about you proving your brilliance, winning raving fans, making yourself “right” or making others “wrong”—it’s about making things better.
If your words are coming purely from pride, arrogance or ego, they’ll almost certainly trigger a reaction in others that won’t serve your cause. And while accruing raving fans may be an outcome of what you say, if it’s your primary goal, then your ego will undermine your authenticity.
2. Narrow your core messages.
Keep it simple. People can only digest so much information. What is the core message you want people to remember and what are the main actions you want them to take? Narrow it down and don’t overwhelm. You don’t serve anyone if people walk away from your presentation feeling like they just drank from a fire hose.
If you are using slides to illustrate your points or convey data, resist the urge to fill every bit of space with all the knowledge in your head. You’ll lose attention fast. Less is more.
3. Show, don’t just tell.
A few months ago, I was introduced to a new friend’s husband. Straight away, he said, “Oh, we’ve met before. Just briefly. You were the opening speaker at my company’s sales conference. I remember the story you told about your brother’s motorbike accident.” He went on to share how that story had taught him how to “reframe” when things weren’t going to plan.
The point: People remember stories, not stats. If I’d just talked about the science of reframing, he’d have long since forgotten a key point from my talk. So share stories—of yourself or others, infusing humor where appropriate. Just make them relevant so they reinforce your core message.
4. Be humble and authentic.
Before people decide what they think of what you have to say, they decide what they think of you. Rest assured, no one warms to someone who comes across as pretentious or full of their own brilliance. People want to know the human, not the hero. Accordingly, we connect to others far more deeply through our vulnerability than our victory, more through our stories of missteps and disappointments than our stories of getting the glory or nailing it the first time.
So share your journey—but balance the highlights with the lowlights, the success with the setbacks, the highs with the hard work and hustle. This doesn’t negate the importance of owning your value and believing in your worth. It just means speaking with humility, curiosity and authenticity.
5. Tune into your intuition.
Learning to read the room is a skill that takes time. You build it by simply becoming present to who is sharing your space, putting yourself into their shoes and tuning into that “sixth sense” to see and feel the world as they do. What do you sense is weighing on people’s minds? What conversations are not occurring? What emotions are they wrestling with? What unmet needs, frustrations and fears are standing between them and the actions that would serve them?
It may be just an inkling. Trust it. And then be willing to adjust what you are saying to speak to the unspoken concerns. It can transform a good speech into a brilliant one.
6. Embody authority.
Your being speaks more loudly than your words ever can. So pay attention to how you are showing up for others—to the presence you bring into the room or onto the stage. Your physiology impacts your psychology. Are you holding yourself as someone who knows the value of what they are going to say? This isn’t about puffing yourself out or putting on a mask. It’s about stepping into your power to embody authenticity.
Shift your posture so you are standing straight and tall. Take a few deep breaths and connect with the ground beneath your feet. Own your space and the right to be where you are. Soften your face and smile with your eyes as you make eye contact with others. Then speak with a calm and self-assured tone of voice that reveals your respect for others, yourself and your sincere desire to serve. After all, if there is something you genuinely want to say, chances are there are people who genuinely need to hear it.
7. Give yourself permission to get better.
Speaking in front of audiences in ways that engage and influence is a skill. Like all skills, it can be developed and mastered with practice. So don’t wait until you’re 100% sure you’re going to speak with the power of Tony Robbins, the charisma of Bill Clinton or the elegance of Oprah before you open your mouth. You may be waiting your whole life. Decide instead to give yourself permission not to nail every interaction or presentation, but simply to get better at them.
Remember, it’s not about you!
Your voice matters. Your opinions count. Never doubt it. Or yourself. Rather, take a deep breath, trust yourself and then open your mouth to inform, elevate and advance.
In the end, it’s no more or less difficult than that.
This article was published in October 2018 and has been updated. Photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock