How to Reduce Your Public Speaking Nerves Through Practice

  Clients often “practice” their speeches by sitting in front of their computer screens thinking about what they want to say. This is not the most effective way to prepare. In this post, I'll give you some pro tips that  really work  to help overcome pre-speech jitters. - Jennifer Hennings  |  Executive Presentation Coach

Most people know that practicing a presentation can help reduce your public speaking nerves. But when I ask clients how they practice, they often describe themselves sitting silently in front of their computers, scrolling through slides and thinking about what they’ll say.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Thinking about what you want to say is about as effective as thinking about exercising: It doesn’t make you any stronger. To truly boost your confidence and make your presentation more effective, you need to open your mouth and practice out loud.

I know practice takes up precious time you may feel like you don’t have. But if you really want to nail your next presentation, you need to carve out time to practice out loud.

Since I’m sure you’re busy, here are three ways to make the most out of your next practice session:

1. Focus on your introduction.

Speakers often feel the most anxious in the first 30-60 seconds of a presentation. Unfortunately, this is when the stakes are highest: Your audience is forming their first impression of you, and you can’t afford to look or sound nervous.

What’s the solution? Devote more of your practice time to nailing your introduction. A powerful introduction does four things:

  • Gets the audience’s attention

  • Tells them why they should care about your topic

  • Establishes your credibility (if they don’t already know you)

  • Gives an overview of where your presentation is headed

Practice your introduction out loud multiple times and don’t try to memorize it. Instead, speak conversationally and try out different wordings each time. Your introduction will become like a story you know by heart: Your words may change each time you deliver it, but the main elements remain the same.

Once you get off to a good start, you’ll usually feel more confident delivering the middle of your presentation, even if you’ve spent less time rehearsing it. This is because the middle of your presentation is typically where you share your “real” content -- maybe a product update or your team’s latest research -- and you can relax because you’ve reached your comfort zone. So if you’re pressed for time and feeling nervous, focus on acing your introduction.

2. Ditch the mirror.

It may be tempting to practice in front of a mirror because it seems like a good way to see how you’re doing. And for a few folks I know, the mirror is a useful tool. But for most of us (me included), practicing in front of a mirror provides distracting visual feedback that can raise your anxiety instead of lowering it. Looking in the mirror may lead you to obsess over minor issues like what your left eyebrow is doing instead of focusing on more important things like delivering a clear and engaging message.

So I encourage you to step away from the mirror and practice in an empty room instead. Stand up and face your imaginary audience. Move and gesture the way you will when the room is filled with people. If you can practice in the room you’ll actually be presenting in, all the better. Simulating the actual presentation situation when you practice, even if just for a few minutes, will help you feel more confident when your big day rolls around.

3. Practice all the way through.

After you’ve sketched out the outline of your entire presentation and have a general idea of what you want to say, pick a section of your talk to practice. Whether you decide to work on your whole presentation or just your introduction, promise yourself that you will practice that piece all the way through without stopping.

This means practicing like your audience is in front of you.

Don’t stop after 40 seconds and start over because you don’t like the way you introduced yourself.

Don’t stop to edit your slides.

If you make a mistake or your mind goes blank, take a breath, find your place, and keep going.

Here’s where the magic happens: As you repeatedly practice recovering from your mistakes, you strengthen what a client of mine calls your “mind-to-mouth” muscles, or your ability to translate thoughts into words. Do you worry about what you’ll do if your mind goes blank? Well, if you’ve practiced out loud repeatedly, chances are you’ll have blanked out a few times and practiced recovering. If you blank out in real life, you’ll know what to do, and you’ll recover more smoothly.

So next time you’re preparing for a major presentation or board meeting, harness the power of practicing out loud. Whether you craft your introduction on your drive to work or do a dry run in the conference room, your nerves -- and your audience! -- will be glad you put in that extra time.

Want an experienced coach to help you become a more skilled speaker?

JENNIFER HENNINGS

Executive Presentation Coach
Over the past 17 years, I've helped thousands of clients understand how to manage their stress levels when the spotlight is on. I train executives and teams to craft engaging presentations with ease and to deliver motivating messages with relaxed clarity.

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