Conquering Stage Fright: 10 Essential Tips to Master Public Speaking


So many professions require public speaking—an executive presenting to her company’s board of directors, a lawyer arguing a compelling case to the jury, a professor lecturing to a packed auditorium, a journalist reporting live on a breaking story, a corporate trainer delivering a new sales program to the field. The list is endless.

No matter how seasoned one may be, most people at one time or another, have experienced pre-speech jitters—sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, buckling knees or lightheadedness.

Even actors, who are able to buffer their individual vulnerability through the characters they play, unfailingly go through routine warm-up exercises before every performance.

The good news is that one can conquer pre-speech jitters, or at least effectively manage them.

A good example and inspiration for us all is King George VI of England, who overcame a debilitating fear of public speaking, stemming from a stutter developed during childhood. Determined to overcome his terrorizing anxiety, he dedicated hours to speech therapy—practicing tongue twisters, singing, shouting and reading out loud while listening to music.

Although his stutter wasn’t cured, he became more confident and improved tremendously with practice. His success was captured beautifully in the movie The King’s Speech which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2011. 

I recently asked executives, professors, public speaking coaches, corporate trainers, actors and trial lawyers to share their experiences and offer advice on public speaking.

There were many common themes. Here are the top 10:

1. Be prepared. Do your homework, know your material and know your audience. Knowing your material inside and out will enable you to quickly earn credibility with your audience.

Knowing the audience demographic will give you an informed starting point on how to frame your discussion and equip you with information to tailor your content. You can adapt to your audience’s needs and wants, and address what is in it for them.

2. Practice, practice, practice. In front of people, a mirror, or better yet, video yourself, and then ask for specific feedback. “The great idea in your head might not work in front of an audience,” comments Marc Reuss, Global Head of Human Resources at Sandoz, the global pharmaceutical company.

Are your gestures big enough? Are you doing things that are distracting to the audience, such as pacing too much? Is it too long? Too short?

“Public speaking is a learned, perishable skill and there is no substitute for practice,” Reuss adds. With more repetition, you will become more relaxed, comfortable and effective.

3. “You had me at ‘Hello.’” Eliza Leoni, Program Leader at Decker Communications, Inc., advises “Take advantage when your audience’s attention is the highest—at the beginning of your speech—and grab them with a passionate, compelling introduction.”

Invite your audience immediately into the conversation. Relate to them and speak their language. Be approachable with natural but laser-like eye contact and expressive gestures. Project your voice, enunciate well, use inflection and keep your audience engaged with emotion.

Perhaps you can open with a famous quote, ask a probing question, share a personal story, tell a joke (if appropriate) or present a picture tied to your key point.

4. Structure. Have an outline and script out your key points—no more than three. This will keep you concise, focused and on topic. Many people referenced Winston Churchill’s quote:

 “If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.”

Just like in writing, have a roadmap with an introduction, body and conclusion. Be specific about your purpose and equally specific about what you are asking—the “so what?”

For example, if your speech is kicking off a fundraiser, you might ask the audience for specific donations of time to lead a committee, or for financial contributions.

Michael Piercy, national performance coach and speaker adds, “Tell them what you are going to discuss, tell them again, and tell them what you told them.”

5. “PowerPoint is evil.” Atul Saran, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of MacroGenics, a publicly held biopharmaceutical organization, quips, “PowerPoint is NOT a substitute for your presentation. If you need to read a slide, you have failed.”

PowerPoints are one of the fastest ways to lose an audience. He adds, “If you have to use it at all, it should merely emphasize your message, not replace it—with very little content and perhaps, a graphic.”

6. If possible, be familiar with the venue ahead of time. If there is an opportunity to practice exactly where you will be giving the speech, do so, and at least visit the site ahead of time. Understanding the surroundings and the logistics will help you prepare and ease your comfort level with the space.

There is good reason why actors have dress rehearsals on the stage where they will perform. Baseball teams are often described as having a “home field advantage” over the visiting team because they know their field and how the ball will bounce, which helps them anticipate and execute better.

7. Don’t overthink—just do! If you make a mistake, keep going and don’t make a big deal about it. The audience won’t likely notice unless you call attention to it.

If you believe that it is an obvious mistake, make light of it and quickly move on.

8. Be yourself. Be authentic and comfortable in your own skin. Natural approachability, as if you were having a conversation with someone, will make you appear genuine, likeable and credible.
9. Warm up. Ten to 15 minutes before you go on, accomplished actress and The Alexander Group's Associate Director Sarah Mitchell recommends “deep breathing, full body stretches including your face and mouth, vocal warm ups such as projection and articulation exercises.”

Anything else you can do to both pump yourself up and at the same time relax can make a huge difference in your performance.

“The body and brain are connected. Therefore, you want to get the blood flowing and not short-circuit the brain!”

10.  Don’t rush through your speech. Slow down and pause effectively. Even if it seems like an eternity to the speaker, it won’t be to the audience.

“The idea that communication is an inherent skill is deeply ingrained in many people,” says
Monisha Toteja, CEO of Dynamic Speaking LLC, a strategic communications coaching company and lecturer in the Wharton Communication Program.

“Those who understand and accept that communication is a learned skill are the ones who become great public speakers!”

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