A bit like maths, most people think you either have it or not when it comes to public speaking. As a personal performance specialist who helps clients overcome public speaking anxiety, performance anxiety and trauma, I know this is not true.
My clinical work often involves getting anxious people ready for presentations, pitches and live TV. I have also coached several TEDx speakers - one client I treated for stage fright went on to become a UN Ambassador.
Here are my top ten tips for succeeding in an area even more in demand from journalists now: from Tiktok and video explainers to conference moderating, public speaking is another string to your bow worth honing. Let's get started:
1. Understand your nerves
A few nerves are understandable but you need to make sure that your nerves do not completely wreck your ability to speak coherently. When your nervous system perceives danger (real or imaginary) it will go into fight, flight or even freeze mode. These emergency modes are perfect when you are in physical danger; not so much when you are on TV reviewing the papers. This can cause your rational brain to get less blood and sometimes even go completely offline so much so that you may stumble over your words, look like a rabbit in the headlights and get brain freeze.
2. Settle your nerves
As you are waiting to go live, on stage or on air make eye contact and smile at the people around you: the interviewer, tech support and audience wherever possible. Ideally, chat with them if you can. This will help get your nervous system out of emergency mode and back into a safe mode called social engagement. It will help to reestablish some sense of safety back into your system.
3. Move your neck
This is a trick that speaks directly to the really old part of your brain. If you move your neck side to side and look around the room, you are telling your brain "there are no predators here". Try this before it is your turn to speak. It really works.
4. Preparation is key
Plan and rehearse what you want to say. Do not underestimate the importance of this. Even on a commentary slot, you will feel a lot more confident if you have some plan for what you want to say. Ideally, you want to hone your opener, so you can start speaking confidently, and your ending as well, to have something to aim for and ensure you do not 'ramble' on. This will also help with the nerves and make sure you are less likely to go completely blank. Very few people can speak well without preparation and even those people are noticeably better when they do prepare.
5. Reframe the responsibilty
Sometimes it can be quite crippling to think about all the things you want to say and the anxiety to convey all this information can put unnecessary pressure on the speaker and situation, something heightened when you are dealing with 2-3 minute broadcast interview hits. A really good way to think about this is to reframe the responsibility from, "I am the absolute expert here" to "I am making a contribution to the debate". You do not have to give the definitive take on the subject. There will be other opportunities.
6. Criticism comes with the territory
After your presentation or appearance you may be subjected to criticism and even vicious trolling. This is a huge issue for journalists, especially women and marginalised groups. You need to acknowledge that this is a possibility and this can add to the nerves. It is understandably worrying but it would be a shame to let yourself be silenced by the threat. Do what you can to protect yourself (for example using an app like BlockParty) and then go and get your voice heard.
7. The post-mortem
The post-mortem is a key part of any speaking occasion. Once you have done your thing you may be very reluctant to listen back to yourself or watch yourself back but you will not be able to improve if you refuse to do it. You can learn valuable lessons and you may even be pleasantly surprised. Many clients tell me: "When I watched the recording it wasn't as bad as I'd feared."
8. Hating the sound of your own voice is normal
There are psychological and physiological reasons why people hate the sound of their own voice. Psychologically, the inner critic and any lurking lack of self-acceptance will come out to play when you hear a recording. Physiologically, why does it sound so much worse? When you hear your voice as you're speaking it's amplified and filtered through the bony structure of your skull. In a recording, however, your voice sounds less resonant than the one inside your head.
9. Your inner critic is trying to protect you
"Don't make a fool of yourself", "No one wants to hear what you have to say." "You're too dumb to be on stage". It may seem like it is all coming from you. Depending on your trauma history, your inner critic may be the voice of a school bully, a critical parent or a teacher that you have internalised. It often wants to keep you small and safe. Try and find a way to have a dialogue with your inner critic. Say "thanks very much for trying to keep me safe. But I'll take it from here."
10. Enlist help from your friends
Finally, you do not have to do it alone. Get the help of a colleague, supportive friend or mentor to help you prepare and afterwards with the post-mortem. Let them encourage you to keep pursuing new opportunities to speak and, most importantly, to have fun!
Olivia James is a Harley Street performance specialist who helps clients overcome public speaking anxiety, performance anxiety and trauma.