I went from being a nervous wreck of a public speaker to a confident public speaker after learning a few simple lessons.
You can do the same.
I want to make it as easy as possible for you to transform your public speaking skills. And your public speaking skills are easier to improve than you might think.
I’m going to share all the lessons and list out all the resources you might need.
Even if speaking in public feels really scary to you, these tips will help. Heck, my first lesson is about vomit. I’ve been scared of public speaking too!
You might feel like you are already a good public speaker. That’s awesome! Starting from a place of confidence can be really helpful. For you, I’ve got a bunch of tips and resources (some are affiliate links) to improve your skills.
No matter where you are at with public speaking, you can get better.
It’s a great skill to develop. It can boost your chances for success in many facets of life and work. Because whatever else you are good at, being able to communicate it to a group more effectively makes you more valuable.
Developing a transferrable skill like this can also be empowering. You might feel better about a lot of things as you get more comfortable, more confident, and more skilled at public speaking.
Let’s get on with the lessons. I will walk you through them all. I will share my experiences and I will share with you many specific resources you can use immediately to improve your public speaking.
You can start today and keep going tomorrow and the day after.
Lesson 1: Embrace the Virtues of Vomit
I wasn’t worried about speaking, I was worried about vomiting. Maybe that was my mind’s way of bringing clarity to my big moment.
My goal had been to improve my public speaking skills. And the way I thought I would do that is to get myself to do more public speaking.
I wasn’t growing fast enough in my job, and there were limited opportunities to develop skills like public speaking. So I went ahead and created some opportunities for myself.
Now was my big moment. I had a great chance to speak in public as the keynote for a small conference of 150 executives in Boston. It was a great opportunity to share my knowledge but also to sharpen my public speaking skills through experience.
Experience, after all, is probably the best teacher.
But now, rather than worrying about my public speaking debut as a keynote, my body gave me something more primal and urgent to consider.
I was about to go out on stage in front of a large crowd as the morning keynote speaker. And this is exactly what I had hoped for in my longtime quest to improve my public speaking skills…to work my way onto a big stage and give a great talk.
But, if this is what I wanted, why did I feel so apprehensive? Enough to induce this sort of biological urgency…
I think it’s because my mind and body were lending me a hand. The relentless cycle of nonproductive thoughts and endless worry were preoccupying me. Overwhelming me.
The urge to vomit brings clarity to a situation.
And that focus takes attention away from the sillier worries. Like worries that I’d utter an “um” or “ah” in the wrong place. Or that I’d forget an important point. And that nagging sense that maybe I shouldn’t be the one on the stage, after all. That I’m not worthy, not ready, or that I don’t really want to put myself through this little ordeal.
Of course, I went out onto the stage and delivered the talk without harm to myself or others. In fact, it went over very well and I received accolades as well as thanks for sharing important lessons and insights.
I never did vomit, either. But I was thankful for the urge.
It was a good reminder that a lot of my worry was about stuff that doesn’t matter much.
All that stuff rolling around in your head is just a distraction. Put it into perspective.
Vomiting on stage would be bad. But a lot of stuff that falls short of that just doesn’t matter.
A good friend of mine tripped on her first stage appearance. You know what happened? Nothing.
I’ve forgotten some points that I wanted to make, slipped in lots of “ums” and “ahs” in the wrong places, and messed up with nervous gestures, wonky slides, and all kinds of tech problems. Things still went fine.
So while you worry about all of those little things, consider that they are likely way out of scale in proportion to all the things that will go well. They are all surmountable challenges. Things will go your way and the audience will appreciate what you are doing.
The most important thing is to get out there and get experience. The more public speaking you do, the better you will get and the more comfortable you will become.
Lesson 2: Put Yourself Out There
Nobody is going to come looking for you at your desk. If you want more public speaking experience, you’ve got to be active in seeking opportunities.
But the good news is…
Once you put yourself out there and actively seek opportunities, you will land them. And here’s the beautiful secret: once you are out speaking, people will notice you and they will invite you to more speaking opportunities.
That’s how I got to be the keynote speaker at an all-day industry conference in Boston. The organizer had seen me speak. She knew that I was interested in sharing my ideas.
At first I simply raised my hand when there was an opening to speak on a panel in my professional association. That panel led to another panel invitation.
Volunteer for the smallest opportunity you can find. People will be thankful to have you participate, and you will get noticed.
One opportunity leads to the next. Sometimes the leaps are bigger than you might expect.
Speaking on panels led solo speaking spots and eventually to keynote spots.
But I didn’t just wait around for invitations. I actively pursued multiple opportunities, and you should too.
If your work and profession don’t offer enough opportunities, look into hobbies and interests.
As I was learning about social media and blogging many years ago, I gathered a bunch of knowledge and insight that would be helpful to those a little further back on the learning curve.
So I pitched speaking gigs to industry conferences like WordCamp and PodCamp. Conferences like these are filled with enthusiasts at all levels. And they are usually run by volunteers who are eager to have others form the community share what they know.
Your hobby likely has a community. And they might gather at times to share knowledge. Any of those gatherings would be a perfect opportunity for you to get some great public speaking experience. It’s also a great chance to “give back” to your community.
Many groups meet locally on a regular basis and are looking for speakers. You might already be attending some MeetUp groups or something similar. Reach out to the organizers and let them know that you are interested in sharing your knowledge and experience.
Before you know it, you will have a speaking slot in front of an interested group. And there’s nothing like a deadline and a promise to focus your energy on putting together and delivering a good talk.
To start small, you can also volunteer for small spots in ceremonies at church, in your kid’s scouting group, or any other group that needs that sort of participation. The part may be small, but at least you will be putting yourself out there a bit. You can get used to having a group’s attention on you, even if it’s just for a short time.
You might even want to deliver a little talk or lesson at your local library.
Another way I got some “public speaking” practice was to conduct Skype interviews and then put them up on YouTube. That’s a great way to connect directly with thought leaders and to share your knowledge. It’s different from a live format, but still carries the emotional weight of performing for viewers.
There are lots of ways to put yourself out there. Start pursuing them and you will soon have lots of opportunities to gain public speaking experience. Which will lead to new (and exciting) opportunities.
Lesson 3: Be Open to Unexpected Opportunities
Once you “put yourself out there” with knowledge, people will notice.
They might even offer you a job. That happened to me. Twice.
What was really great was that the jobs were on a new and different topic than my day job. They were born out of my interest, research, and speaking on the topics of internet marketing (social media, digital strategy, community building, etc).
Those are the kinds of opportunities that can come from public speaking. It’s a great way to transition toward new fields and to garner opportunities that you might never land otherwise.
The world is hungry for curious minds to share their insights, lessons, and struggles.
If you are curious and just a tiny bit courageous (which is often an imbedded byproduct of passion for any topic), the world has speaking opportunities for you.
Speaking to a small group at a local conference, one attendee asked me to be a guest speaker at her graduate class on digital marketing.
When I spoke there and happened to mention during the Q&A portion that I might like to teach, she connected me to an opportunity.
That’s how I landed the job at Bentley.
Which was great, because I wanted to teach and also continue to develop my public speaking skills. Speaking to 34 students for 3 hours per class for 12 weeks would provide lots of opportunities for both!
As you get out in the mix, remember to say “yes” to any opportunity that leads you to a new challenge. You may feel unprepared and unqualified (as I did), but you should go for it anyway.
Be open to new opportunities. The things you don’t plan for can be some of the most rewarding experiences.
But remember that it’s not just about raw opportunities. You’ve got to delve more into yourself too, and be prepared to share that in your presentations one way or another.
Lesson 4: Put Yourself “In There”
Public speaking is not about you. It’s about the audience.
But it’s also about you.
Let me explain.
If you aren’t into the material, you are going to struggle. And your audience is going to suffer. That’s not fun for anyone.
Fortunately, this is easy to fix. All you need to do is get comfortable with putting more of “you” into the mix. That could be with content, but it could also be with style. It might need to show up in other ways.
They key is to listen to yourself and be honest with yourself.
When I started teaching at Bentley University, I had to ramp up quickly. I landed the job just weeks before the semester was to start.
My friend and colleague Mari Anne Snow saved the day. She let me steal all of her material. The syllabus, grading policies, and requirements for the final project. Everything.
It was all great material, well thought out, and spot on for what the students needed to learn. I followed that roadmap for a very successful first semester of teaching.
I covered the same topics. I brought in similar guest speakers. I ran the same group final project with real-life clients.
It all worked great. But it wasn’t “me.” It didn’t really fit my style and I was never fully comfortable in that way.
So I changed things.
Ultimately, I redesigned the entire course from the ground up (which was a lot of work, but worth it). I chose different topics, used different reference material, and completely redesigned the assignments.
Where I ended up was much better, not because there was anything wrong with Mari Anne’s material, but because I had made the new design fit my style. It leveraged my knowledge and experience directly. And I was more comfortable with it.
From that vantage point, you can make a much stronger connection with your audience.
Don’t be afraid to change things.
In fact, it’s a requirement.
You should constantly experiment with changing things big and small as you evolve your public speaking.
You could experiment with the way you dress. How you open your presentation. Or how you end it.
You might re-order some points. Or change some altogether. Maybe you should shift the perspective on some of those points. You might include conflicting perspectives, try embedding a video clip, or freshen up your slides with new photos.
Whatever the case, don’t be afraid to tinker. Be afraid to not tinker.
In my case, I tend to favor a mix of aspirational and inspirational ideas with really specific and practical ways to apply it, framed in some way by the latest thinking in psychology and behavioral science. That’s a reflection of my personality and it works well for me. Which ultimately works well for my audiences.
Your style and content should be an accurate reflection of you. Don’t focus on how others do things or what you think you “should” be doing for content and style. Trust yourself and put yourself in there. That’s what the audience wants to see.
Lesson 5: Study the Craft of Public Speaking
Learning is at the heart of improving.
You will learn the most from experience. But you will shape what you learn and what you choose to experiment with next by studying the craft.
You don’t need a PhD in public speaking. But you should always be learning from those who have gone before you. They have some real golden nuggets to share. Helpful insights, great tips, and useful shortcuts.
Read Books and Blogs
Of course, you are already doing this. Right now, you are reading about how to improve your public speaking skills. I did the same thing.
Here are two of my favorite books on the subject.
Give Your Speech, Change the World: How To Move Your Audience to Action by Nick Morgan. This is my favorite and it’s the one I’d recommend if I could only recommend one. Nick covers it all and goes into great detail on storytelling, which is an essential element of any great talk.
I’ve had the privilege to see Nick speak in person and to get to know him (we both live in the Boston area). He’s the best. You might want to check out his blog or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. He’s always sharing gems and insights.
Confessions of a Public Speaker (English and English Edition) by Scott Berkun. This book is fantastic. It’s practical and raw. Scott shares everything you’d need to know about public speaking in a fun an engaging way. The book is full of great tips, awesome insights, and fun stories from Scott’s experience.
Watch Talks Online
You can learn a lot by watching others “do their thing” in public speaking.
I was addicted to TED Talks for like a year. I would watch at least one talk every day. I loved the content and the exposure to new ideas. But I also loved the provocative nature of the talks. I gained an appreciation for their style and power. It’s great to see how effective a well-constructed and well-delivered talk can be.
That doesn’t meant that you are I need to emulate that style directly. But we can certainly take away things we like and learn from the things we don’t like by watching TED Talks or any other types of talks online.
These talks and videos can now be accessed from your home if you have any sort of internet-enabled TV or device connected to your TV (Apple TV, Amazon Fire Stick, Google Chromecast, etc).
TED is fun, but every talk shouldn’t be a TED Talk. Look up some of your favorite conferences or speakers online and watch a wide variety of talks. You will likely find things to emulate from many different places.
Notice that we can pick up a lot of tips from each of these great speakers, but also how much they each have their own personal style. That’s what ultimately works best for them. You should adopt lots of things, but be sure to make the style your own in the end.
Listen to Talks and Advice Offline
Don’t forget about podcasts!
Podcasts are an absolute boon to education and curious thinking. Your car ride, train commute, or afternoon walk can so easily become a productive learning session.
Download podcasts of talks where you can learn more by observation.
Download podcasts about public speaking where you can learn specific tips from experts.
Download podcasts about related topics like storytelling, creativity, marketing, or business.
All of this content will not only help you to improve your public speaking skills but they will generally up your game. You will learn lots of information. You will gain new perspectives. You will transform your “down time” to learning time.
Check out Steal the Show by Michael Port. He’s a professional actor that now coaches on public speaking and performance.
Search for “public speaking” in your favorite podcast app and you will find a wealth of great discussions on the topic.
Go to Local Workshops
There might be really great resources right under your nose. When I looked around, I discovered things like a workshop on How to Tell a 5 Minute Kickbutt Story. That workshop was put on by folks who are into live storytelling. The same people that organize local “story slams” and work their way onto The Moth radio show or podcast.
Learning how to tell a 5-minute kickbutt story can really help your public speaking skills. They may use the story for entertainment. You may use it at a business meeting. Either way, it’s a great skill to work on.
There are also professional speaking groups, like the local chapter of the National Speakers Association. I attended a great all-day meeting and workshop. There’s nothing like getting up early on a Saturday to join a group that is dedicated to improving their craft. You can learn a lot in a place like that. I did.
Look for these events in your area.
Once you gather all this knowledge and learn some new tricks, put them into your work.
Lesson 6: Strive to “Level Up” and Break New Ground
Research is great, but don’t forget to put it into action. You will learn the most by doing.
I found it very useful to continue to lay out challenges for myself and to keep trying to “level up.”
When I learned about “how to tell a 5 minute kickbutt story,” I put it to use. I challenged myself to incorporate it into a talk.
It was a little intimidating because I hadn’t ever done anything like that before. So I decided to test it out in a low stakes environment.
A friend of mine invited me to be a guest speaker to her graduate school class in business. I would talk mostly about my work experience. And I wanted to set aside a good amount of time for a question and answer session.
To do this well, I thought it would be important to “setup” the conversation well. I used a 5 minute kickbutt story to do just that. I even went a little further and designed a story that seemed to have nothing to do with business. What I did was tap into the same emotion of a business situation by using a more personal story that tapped into the very same sentiment.
It turned out to be a great setup. We had a really engaging conversation. And I heard later that the main point I was trying to get across not only landed well, but was memorable. Because of the story.
As I evolved my speaking, I continued to challenge myself to “level up” and reach new milestones. I went so far as to take on the challenge of delivering a keynote presentation to a crowd of 200 people using no slides and no notes.
It was just me on the stage for 45 minutes. I had to engage the audience without leaning on fancy images or diagrams. There were no slides at all. And I couldn’t read or reference anything. I didn’t allow myself to use notes.
I wanted to make the talk personal, engaging, and memorable. That was the real goal — to make it as valuable as possible for the audience.
But it was great to meet my own performance challenge as well.
The point is, wherever you are at, keep challenging yourself to level up. Don’t become complacent. Don’t settle. Keep challenging yourself to develop new skills and experiences in public speaking.
That could be by changing topics. It could be in terms of audience size. Or maybe you could even try some technologies or techniques that you think might be fun and effective.
You can be pretty free with your experimentation. Just be sure that whatever you try also has a reason to be there. It should be in service of your audience and the material you are presenting.
Lesson 7: Celebrate Your Success
Public speaking can be scary and intimidating and endlessly riddled with challenges. It’s easy and natural to focus on where things go wrong and all the things you want to work on to improve.
After all, that was most of what this post was about.
You should, however, frequently look back and acknowledge how far you have come. You will make progress quickly. Maybe in small steps. But you will make progress, and over time it will be meaningful progress.
Don’t forget to look back and acknowledge that. Feel good about the improvements you make.
You might keep a journal. Or you might just browse back to old slide decks. Maybe you will even have some video or audio recordings. You can look back on any of that memorabilia and see both what you did well and where you needed to improve.
Pat yourself on your back for whatever you did well and whatever you needed to improve and did since those talks were given. And if you still need to work on some things, that’s fine too. You will keep moving forward. But go forward knowing that you will continue to make steady progress.
You are going to be ok. You are a good public speaker and always getting better.