The idea of being a speaker sounds really cool. You get to stand on stage and inspire, motivate, and teach an audience. What’s not to like?
Oh, except for that part where you have to actually talk.
In front of people.
Who sometimes look like they want to hurt you.
That part can freak people out and understandably so. One of the most common questions I get from speakers is how they can become more confident when they’re on stage.
First, let’s address another common and related question…
Grant…do you still get nervous when you go on stage?
I’m usually nervous for the first 30 seconds, because those first few seconds give me a really good read on how the rest of the talk is going to go.
But I don’t think having a few butterflies is such a bad thing for you or me. I think it’s actually a good thing.
If anything, when you have nerves before speaking, it means you care. It means what you’re getting ready to do matters.
Were you nervous on that first date? Were you nervous in that big job interview? Were you nervous when you got engaged? Were you nervous when your child was born?
Because those moments matter and your body is reacting accordingly. So if you’re nervous, it means you’re probably doing something right.
Speaking also causes nerves because the reality is you never know what’s going to happen. Every audience is different. Every environment is different. You have no idea how any given audience is going to respond.
As an example, I just finished a few days of speaking at Iowa State University. They bring me in every August to speak to their incoming freshmen about personal finance. I do the same talk six times in two days as they keep cycling groups of hundreds of new students through the room.
What’s always interesting to me is even though I’m doing the EXACT SAME TALK six different times, it’s for six completely different audiences, so each session ends up being slightly different than the others.
Some audiences are more engaged than others. Some are more tired than others. Some are more excited than others. Each is different.
So as a speaker, it can be a little unnerving, because you never really know what you’re going to get.
You don’t know how they’re going to react. You don’t know if they’re going to be engaged. You don’t know if they’re going to laugh at your jokes. You just don’t know.
It’s like you’re literally walking a tight rope over the audience just praying you get to the other side in one piece.
With all this mind, no wonder we feel nerves when we speak 🙂
But the bigger question is how do you control those nerves?
I’ve found 3 things that have helped me to be a more confident speaker…
A Lot. I have spent hours and hours pacing my office, my basement or hotel rooms going over my talks. Here’s the balance I’m looking for…I want to be comfortable enough with my material that I know where I’m going, but not overly rehearsed where it feels robotic.
I want it to feel like I’m having a casual conversation with the audience. But that means that I need to know my content and where I’m going really well.
Think of it like this…if I were to ask you, “tell me about when you got engaged?” (or some other significant life moment), you would feel pretty confident in telling that story, because you lived it. It’s a part of you. You wouldn’t need your notes.
But if I asked you a week later to tell me the same story, I bet it would be slightly different but the gist of the story would stay the same.
That’s the balance of knowing where a talk is going but not being so robotic that you’ve memorized it verbatim.
Here’s another way to think of it…you remember taking tests in high school and college? Of course you do (insert horrible emotional flashback trauma).
When you would walk in on test day, you would have one of two feelings…
1. “We’re taking a test today! OMG! You didn’t tell us we had a test today!!! Jesus take the wheel!”
2. “I got this. Give me the test. Let’s do this. You can use mine as the answer key if you need to.”
One feeling is fear and the other is confidence.
The difference was in how well you prepared.
Speakers who show up and just go through the motions or “just wing it” are not good speakers. Speakers who spend a lot of time practicing, rehearsing and honing their material are much more confident on stage.
2. Get At-Bats
Like a lot of kids growing up, I spent several summers playing baseball. My major league dreams of playing with the Cardinals were quickly dashed when I got hit a few times by a fastball and realized I was not nearly tough enough to play.
But I remember several times going to the batting cages with my dad and just taking practice swing after practice swing.
I knew that was the only way to get better. You have to get at-bats.
I could sit in my room and read books or articles about bat speed, proper batting stance and swing theory (not even sure if that’s a thing), but the best way to learn was to actually do it.
I also played a lot of basketball growing up and spent hours practicing free throws. Free throw after free throw after free throw.
I would play mental games telling myself I needed to make the next two shots in order for our team to win the championship.
I remember practicing with a team I played on and having everyone yell, scream and try to distract me while I shot. Or the pressure of having to make a free throw or the entire team has to run sprints (that sucked).
But these “at-bats” made me better.
And the best way I know of to become a better speaker is to actually speak.
Stop reading posts (finish this one first…you’ve come so far).
Stop watching TED talks.
Stop pretending to be a speaker.
And start getting at-bats.
Look for any and all opportunities you can find to speak. Give presentations at work. Speak at a local Rotary Club or Toastmasters. Teach a Sunday school class at church. Be a guest speaker at a local school.
How do you become a better speaker?
As you speak more, you become more confident in your material, in your presentation skills and in handling an audience. You learn what works and what doesn’t. You are literally getting on-the-job training.
And that makes you better.
We’ve already established how nerve-wracking it can be standing on a stage in front of a live audience hoping they don’t eat you alive.
But let’s turn the tables for a second. Let’s put you in the position of the audience. You’ve been out there before listening to a speaker right?
As an audience member, what do you prefer to listen to…a crappy speaker or an engaging speaker? Do you want to see a speaker fumble their way through a talk and make a fool of themselves or would you prefer they come prepared and not waste your time?
Here’s the lesson…the audience is on your side. They want you to do good. They really don’t want you to suck, because they don’t want to have to sit through it.
As speakers, sometimes we have this “us versus them” mentality like the audience hates us. They don’t!
Internally, they want nothing more than for you to do good. They’re on your side!
So take a deep breath and stop assuming they’re against you. They’re not.
As a speaker, you’re always going to have some nerves. I’m pretty confident when i walk out on stage, but I still feel those nerves. And I hope that feeling never goes away.
So how do you become more confident as a speaker?
1. Practice. A lot. Be really super comfortable with your material and where you’re going.
2. Get At-Bats. Take advantage of every opportunity you can to speak.
3. Relax. The audience doesn’t want you to suck. They would prefer you be awesome. So do that.
You got this.
Now go do it.
Image courtesy of: Sandwich