If getting up to speak in front of a room full of people is your worst fear, you’re far from alone: polling company Gallup once found it was the second biggest phobia, after snakes and ahead of heights and spiders. While nerves are natural, a lack of confidence can undermine your presentation and plant seeds of doubt in your audience.
But Chris Anderson, the man behind TED talks, says people can worry too much about nerves. “It’s a natural body response that can actually improve your performance: It gives you energy to perform and keeps your mind sharp,” he says. Here are some tips from him and other experts on how to speak confidently, even if you don’t feel it.
Frame your story
Getting confident all starts with how you prepare your material. Anderson says humans are wired to pay attention to stories, and recommends a narrative structure that “loosely follows a detective story”. Present the problem and describe the search for a solution: “There’s an “aha” moment, and the audience’s perspective shifts in a meaningful way.”
Stay focused and don’t try to cover too much ground, he says. Anderson also says to give detail about the things that matter most, but not to overexplain or try to draw out every implication – let the audience draw some of their own conclusions.
Practice until you’re comfortable
Author and TED speaker Nova Reid says you want to aim to be prepared but not over-prepared. “It’s more human when you’re speaking from the heart,” she says, rather than reading from a script.
She suggests practicing delivering your speech from notes and bullet points and filming yourself: it might feel awkward at first, but you’ll get a better sense of how you come across to an audience. “Don’t practice to be perfect, practice to get comfortable,” Reid says.
Look confident, be confident
“There is plenty of hard evidence that explains how you can give the appearance of confidence and competence — even if you’re nervous or timid on the inside,” says Harvard University instructor and author Carmine Gallo. Making eye contact, having an open posture, and using appropriate gestures to emphasise your points all project confidence, he says.
He also suggests practicing to eliminate filler words like “um” and “er”, varying your pace of speech and adding pauses before your most important points. “Most people use filler words because they’re afraid of silence. It takes confidence to use dramatic pauses,” says Gallo.
Keep your slides simple
Some visual aids can help your presentation, but you don’t want to take the spotlight off yourself. “The golden rule is to have one claim or idea per slide. If you have more to say, put it on the next slide,” says Paul Jurczynski, cofounder of Improve Presentation, which works with TED speakers.
Don’t be afraid to put up a blank slide, he says. You can give the audience a visual break and redirect their attention to you.
Be prepared for pushback
“Most people don’t want to see you bomb. They want to hear what you have to say,” says confidence coach Jen Walter. But sometimes an audience of professionals is going to have some tricky questions.
Walter suggests preparing in advance for these, including what you’ll say if you don’t know the answer. “Accept that it’s impossible for you to know everything,” she says. “People have more respect for the person who says ‘I don’t know’ than the person who clearly gives a bogus answer.”