Public Speaking Tips & Tricks for College Students
I am sweating and shivering at the same time. I start my speech, and immediately my mouth goes dry. I make it through my whole introduction... then my brain freezes. I stand before the class for a few more seconds in awkward silence, then quickly return to my desk, teary-eyed and ashamed.
Sorry, you caught me reliving my first presentation in high school speech class. This was not my first public speaking slipup, nor has it been my last. I have plenty of embarrassing presentation stories, and not all of them are my own. Even the most experienced and outgoing of us can struggle with public speaking. Take this blunder from producer and director, Michael Bay, for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4rMy1iA268
While public speaking can be tough, even for the professionals, it is nearly impossible to avoid. Whether it is interviewing for a job or internship or simply sharing your ideas for a group project, speaking skills are necessary for success. Luckily, I have some advice.
I will let you in on how I went from panicking in high school to surviving project critiques in my Graphic Design classes. Speakers face two major obstacles: speech anxiety and bad form, both of which can be overcome with the following tips and tricks!
Tips for Self-Assurance
The fear of public speaking is the most common phobia (even above death!), inflicting a whopping 73% of the population. If speech anxiety is holding you back, these tips are for you!
Practice. I am sure you have heard this one before. You should always go over what you are going to say. The trick you may not have heard, however, is not to memorize your speech.
Memorizing your speech can fool your mind into thinking it can only be presented a certain way. If your speech veers off track, you will not be able to recover. Instead, write your speech out in bullet points and sort out the overall structure. Practice improvising and prepare for the worst. If you have a plan for possible mishaps, you will feel more confident with your speech. This, in turn, can prevent the dreaded brain freeze or stumbling over premeditated words.
Counteract speaking symptoms. When we are nervous, our fight-or-flight response is activated, causing a variety of symptoms. If your anxiety has side effects, prepare solutions. For example, breathing methods can help combat a racing heart. You should take a deep breath in, hold it, then slowly let it out. If you suffer from dry mouth, bring a water bottle. Sweating is also a common symptom. Wear breathable clothing that will mask sweat patches to avoid an embarrassing situation.
Point-of-view. Our emotions are the root of our anxiety. To overcome our fears, we need to change our point-of-view. Having nerves can be a good thing. Use your nerves as passion, turning your topic into something you truly care about. I tell myself that I am not nervous, I am excited! This is my chance to share my thoughts. I begin looking forward to my speech. If you want to reinforce this feeling, challenge yourself to keep a smile on your face. Smiling tells the brain that you are happy, and eventually, it will happen on its own.
One cause of public speaking anxiety is the fear of being judged. This problem also comes from our point-of-view. While we are always thinking about ourselves and what people think of us, everyone else is doing the same. The audience wants you to succeed. It would be awkward for them too if you fail. While you might get a couple of laughs, you are not going to be shunned for giving a bad speech.
Imitate others. One useful speaking method is to watch others. Observe what works and what does not and implement your discoveries into your speaking. I like to pretend to be an actor, borrowing their confidence and mannerisms. Once you are comfortable, start adding bits of your personality and your story into your speech. This makes you feel more invested in your presentation, forgetting your fear.
Experience. Even practicing all of the above methods, it will take time to improve your speaking skills. Instead of avoiding public speaking, you should seek more learning opportunities. While it will be hard, the more you speak, the easier it gets. For example, I did forensics in high school. While it was not always a pleasant experience, the take away was valuable practice in speaking under pressure. The only way to beat your fear is to face it. Classes and activities such as forensics, debate, and speech allow a learning environment where you can improve your speaking skills before they are needed for real-world situations.
Tips for Impressing the Audience
Even if you are not nervous before a speech, your presentation can still leave a bad impression. If bad form is holding you back, these are the tips for you!
Organization. Your speech should have a clear structure. Try dividing it into three parts (the introduction, three main points, and a strong conclusion). The best speeches open with an attention getter and end with a review of your points and a call to action.
Content. Write your speech with one goal in mind. Having too many messages can confuse the audience. Studies show that using metaphors and rhetorical questions are both excellent ways to add flavor to your speech and draw the audience’s attention.
Verbal Behavior. You should be conscious of the tone, volume, and speed of your words while speaking. If you want to avoid sounding like a robot, vary these elements with the emotions you are trying to convey. Rehearsing with a pencil in your mouth can help with annunciation. Practice adapting to feedback from the audience (e.g. pausing for laughter). Most importantly: avoid filler words! Even a great speech littered with ums will sound grating to the ears.
Nonverbal Behavior. When giving a speech, every movement should be smooth and intentional. Watch out for needless pacing. While intentional walking can reinforce points in your speech, constantly swaying or strolling leaves the audience dizzy and distracted. Keep your arms uncrossed and out of your pockets. If they refuse to stay at your sides, try implementing unobtrusive hand gestures.
I Have a Dream
This list alone is not going to turn you into the next Martin Luther King Jr.; public speaking takes practice and patience. While you work towards becoming a better speaker, know you are not alone. Many historical figures suffered from the same issues as you, from Winston Churchill to Abraham Lincoln. However, they overcame their fears and mistakes to help set an example. Keep dreaming, and your speeches are bound to inspire.
Mild-mannered student by day, writer by night... but typically by day, I’m Bailey Werner, current junior and graphic design major at Fort Hays State University. With a passion for storytelling that stemmed from 3rd grade writing hour, I’ve been crafting worlds and characters as a hobby for over a decade. Now, as a part-time content creator for the school, I’m living out my dream of writing professionally. If I’m not in my room reading, gaming, or making art, you can find me at the lake. I strongly believe in the power of storytelling, and I’ll continue to use my writing skills after graduation, in my work as a graphic designer.