We know, we know—there is nothing more frightening than speaking to an audience. But, like it or not, it’s an inevitable part of advancing your career: While you might not ever have to speak in front of thousands, you’ll likely lead a large meeting or present at a conference.
Like many things, the secret to public speaking is to look like you know what you’re doing. Here’s our guide to presenting like a pro.
1. Don’t Read
You’re speaking in public because you know your stuff and you have something to say. So, harness that confidence and speak from your mind, not from a paper in front of you. Put in enough time beforehand to think through what you’re going to say and memorize your main talking points. If you do find yourself in a situation where you need notes, don’t carry single sheets of paper—they crinkle, flop, and make a shaky hand easy to spot from across the room. Use a notebook, clipboard, or thick cardstock instead.
2. Get Your Hair out of Your Eyes
If you’re going to be presenting, it’s time for an up-do. Even the strongest hair spray can fail you on stage, and you don’t want the distraction of having to mess with your hair while you’re speaking. Give the audience an unobstructed view of your face so you can engage them with eye contact. If you really, really prefer it down, be sure to clip it back out of your eyes.
3. Prepare for Technical Difficulties
If you’re already nervous, a broken projector or microphone on the fritz can seem like the end of the world. But if it happens, my friend—a performer who frequently emcees conferences and corporate events—recommends making a joke or lighthearted comment to ease the tension in the room and win over the audience. Can’t be funny under pressure? Prepare something in advance as a contingency plan.
4. Plant Your Feet
Nothing is more distracting to an audience than a speaker who’s rocking, pacing, or fidgeting with her feet. Awkward as it may seem, do your best to plant your feet in a comfortable stance and keep them there while you’re speaking. Whatever you do, do not cross your legs while you’re standing. Not only does it instantly erode your authority, but it makes you unstable. Tipping over in the spotlight? Not cool.
5. Get Your Hands out of Your Pockets
In a scary public speaking situation, it may seem comforting to put your hands in your pockets. Don’t do it. Not only does it look unprofessional, it redirects the audience’s eyes downward, calling attention away from your face. Your hands should be loosely by your sides unless you’re making a purposeful and confident gesture.
6. Speak with Confidence
Public speaking is 10% what you say and 90% how you say it. It doesn’t matter if the audience is two people or 2,000—if you’re presenting, it’s because you have a reason to be there. Embrace that authority and deliver your content like you’re the best person for the job, even if you don’t fully believe it. Speak up, enunciate, and smile proudly—it’ll make even a boring speech seem much more engaging.
7. Make Eye Contact
What’s the best way to connect with your audience? Look them right in the eye! Don’t let your gaze wander aimlessly around the room—it makes you look shifty and untrustworthy. If you find eye contact difficult, try this trick: look directly at one person for each full sentence you say. When it’s time for a new sentence, move on to someone nearby, and so on. Avoid the temptation to dart back and forth between opposite sides of the room; transitions from person to person should be smooth and steady across the audience.
What if you Mess Up?
1. Don’t Touch Your Face
A common reaction among presenters is to bury their face in their hands and sheepishly apologize upon making a mistake. Remember, public speaking is about confidence. Resist the temptation to say, “I’m sorry,” unless you really have reason to be. If you don’t call attention to your flub, the audience may not even notice it. And even if they do, your grace under fire will impress them.
2. Take a Second…or Two
If you lose your place or make a mistake, just pause, recollect your thoughts, and resume speaking when you’re ready. Audiences are surprisingly tolerant of a quiet moment—it’s better than the alternative of awkward stammering. Silence can be your friend, so just take a breath and let your mind catch up with your mouth.
What are your best tips for public speaking? If you want more, also check out our tips on “How to be the Best Speaker on a Panel!”