The idea of speaking in front of any audience – be it for a job interview, as part of the admissions process for a new school or university, or when making a presentation – can be a real cause of anxiety for students. Indeed, even trained professionals get nervous before speaking in public (there’s a reason that the term ‘stage fright’ is so well known!).
However, if you do need to speak in front of an audience, it’s likely that it’s for a very good reason – so it’s crucial to feel as confident and comfortable as you can. If you’re in a public speaking situation in which it’s essential you perform well, the last thing you want to be worrying about is stuttering, blushing, sweating, or – even worse! – forgetting what you want to say and going ‘blank’.
Our expert tutors work one-on-one with students on a regular basis to improve their confidence and help them prepare for interviews and speeches, so we have plenty of tricks up our sleeves! Here are some simple tips that will help you battle performance anxiety.
As soon as you enter the room, settle yourself: perhaps that’s in a chair facing those who will be interviewing you, or at the front of the room on a podium (if you’re giving a speech or presentation). Take a minute to acclimate yourself with your surroundings. Focus on little things: what the arms of the chair feel underneath your hands; the acoustics of the room; how much light there is. Not only will this help you feel more comfortable, it will also bring you into the ‘present’ and get you out of your own head, which naturally makes you feel more relaxed.
In any situation – even if you are being quizzed as part of the college admissions process – there will be ways to prepare yourself. As part of your preparation for a public speaking scenario, take the time to explore what it is that you want to say. When speaking in front of any kind of audience, you will be conveying something about yourself: make sure you know what that is, as well as any questions you might like your audience to think about or answer. Going into the room with a clear sense of purpose will make you feel centred and secure, and as if you have ownership over the process. You can even practise key phrases to make sure you know the best way to articulate what you want to say, though we’d advise caution when doing this – sounding prepared is fine, but you don’t want to cross the line into ‘stilted’.
This may sound obvious, but one of the key signs of performance anxiety is the tendency to rush – or use filler words. If a person isn’t sure what to say, or if their thoughts are jumbled, they might gabble, filling in the blanks with ‘um’, ‘er’, ‘basically’, ‘well’, and ‘like’. Avoid this.
Practise pausing when you feel the need to say those words: take a deep breath, slow your speech, and gather your thoughts so that you’re very clear on what to say. It might seem as if you have been silent for a long time but we can guarantee that it will feel a lot longer to you than to the people listening, and they will appreciate a clear, eloquent statement over a garbled sentence peppered with words that don’t add anything.
First things first: if you’re seated, sit up straight. Posture has a big impact on the impression you give out to the world around you – slumping can make it seem as if you’re not enthusiastic – and it also affects how you feel. Sitting or standing tall, with your shoulders back, and your arms relaxed (but not too loose), will make you feel more confident and empowered.
When it comes to your hands and arms, feel free to gesture to make your point – but don’t overdo this. If you’re not speaking and don’t know what to do with your hands, press your fingertips lightly to your sides (if standing) or place them in your lap or on the table in front of you. Resist the urge to fold your arms: this can appear defensive or ‘closed’.
If in doubt, smile! Smiling triggers a chemical reaction in the brain that enhances our mood. As such, not only does the act of smiling change people’s perceptions of us (as it makes us seem warmer and more welcoming), it makes us feel happier
If you’re about to embark on a public speaking exercise, and you can feel the nerves kicking in, absent yourself for a few minutes before you go into the interview or presentation room. Find a relatively quiet spot – like a toilet cubicle – and practise this simple breathing exercise:
Visuals can be helpful and enhance a speech or public speaking engagement at times, just be careful not to overload them with text, this can stop you from having great body language and just reading off of the slides. We’d recommend only using graphs, images and bullet points.
A clear beginning, middle and end can go a long way to make an ok speech great. Having a clear and coherent structure helps an audience follow your point and can even score those all important marks depending on the situation.
Starting your speech with a strong opening is essential to capture your audience’s attention and set the tone for the rest of your presentation. A compelling hook or a thought-provoking question can immediately engage the listeners and make them eager to hear more. Especially if you’re in a queue of people speaking one after the other.
Dealing with nervousness is a common challenge for many students when it comes to public speaking. It’s essential to recognise that feeling nervous is entirely natural and even experienced speakers often experience it to some degree. The key is to manage those nerves effectively so they don’t interfere with your ability to deliver a confident and engaging presentation and channel them into enthusiasm for your topic instead.
Offering a question and answer session at the end of your speech is an excellent way to engage your audience further, clarify points, and demonstrate your expertise on a topic. It allows the listeners to participate actively, encouraging a more interactive and dynamic experience. We’d always recommend including one, even if the exam doesn’t call for it.
With any public speaking scenario, the most important thing to bear in mind is that no-one is out to get you. Whether you’re speaking in front of admissions tutors, examiners, teachers, employers or even your peers, no-one wants you to trip up: in fact, chances are that they are willing you to succeed. They want you to do your best; to impress them; to engage and inspire them. Arming yourself with that knowledge can really help, especially if you’re not feeling confident: do your best and hold your head high!