Public Speaking Tips for Self-talk
I sometimes think Public Speaking is like asking someone to do an ink-blot test.
Somehow all a person’s apprehensions and deep-set worries bubble to the surface from apparently nowhere.
What is it that causes an otherwise apparently well-adjusted, confident-seeming adult to disintegrate in self-doubt and anxiety at the thought of saying a few words in front of a group of people?
And it is adults who struggle the most.
I have had the pleasure of running a Public Speaking course for ten-year-olds and it never seems a problem to them.
The class teacher introduces me and tells the class that we will be practising Public Speaking.
‘Hello, Sir’ they say, ‘what do we have to do?’
‘Tell a story and make a point!’
And usually, it is as simple as that. (And that is a TED talk in a nutshell!)
They tell me about their Granddad and why family is so important.
They tell me about an Adventure Park and why everyone should go.
They tell me about the music or dance lessons that helped them perform on stage.
They are still at a stage when what they want to share feels like it is worth sharing and because it interests them it should interest everybody.
When they reach their mid-teens something has happened.
They have become very conscious about their looks and so do not want to stand up in front of people.
They have been told they are wrong and stupid too many times.
They have even been mocked by their peers for being too enthusiastic.
Then when I meet them in their later adult life they have learned to cover up all those insecurities and come across as confident and together, but underneath it is all still there; all those worries and all those insecurities, and all it takes is the thought of Public Speaking and it all bubbles back up.
I remember taking part in Presentation Skills training where the trainer seemed to want us to share, if not deeply personal experiences, at least personal points of learning. It made me feel very uneasy. However, having been a professional musician I was able to talk myself through my discomfort and ‘perform’. However overnight between Day 1 and Day 2, I had very vivid and disturbing dreams, all about exposure and being bathed in a vague sense of dread.
Even though my musical training had given me the tools to handle my discomfort, clearly all my insecurities were still there underneath, waiting for my guard to be down to remind me they had never gone away.
I am not a trained psychologist and would never aspire to be one. My job is to help people become better speakers and I have no business trampling around in people’s subconscious, but it is important to realise that there may be a lot going on under the surface that may feel very confusing to the student.
So rather than delving into the past, which is something they can do themselves if they wish, I can help them work towards a better future.
Two examples that brought home to me how what we silently say to ourselves can have an enormous effect on our behaviour:
Firstly – and this was a very specific example – I was working with a young man, and as I would normally do, I had given him an exercise to introduce himself so that we would have some material as we worked on his style of delivery.
Then rather than giving my opinions I played back the recording and asked him to offer his own observations and feedback.
Typically most students let loose on everything that they felt was wrong and give themselves a pretty savage assessment.
On this occasion the young man seemed to take an objective step back, said that he felt he looked open and approachable, spoke clearly and came across as quite confident – all of which was true.
I then thought about why I was working with him.
He was a young entrepreneur who had been asked to tell his story to a class of business studies students on entrepreneurship. He had started his own business in his teens, had developed it to the level that meant he could sell it on for a vast amount of money and was now starting his next venture.
I realised he was able to see life as a very positive, essentially simple experience: start a business, make a million, sell it on and do it again.
All of our usual ‘I cannot do it’, ‘I am not worthy’, ‘what makes me think I can succeed?’ was absent from his thought process.
Therefore he could look at himself on video and be able to see all the good while still being completely open to any suggestions of how he could improve further.
Secondly – and this is the much more typical situation – the student stands up to speak, head bowed with a pained expression on their face and mumbles their introduction and everyone can ‘see’ what they are saying to themselves and it clearly is not helping! We play the video back and they share everything that they felt was wrong, re-emphasising their worst fears. Often I have to come back and affirm: ‘Actually, a lot of that was very good!’
Shad Helmstetter, as one of the first people to address how important it is to manage our internal dialogue, wrote a book called ‘What to say when you talk to yourself’.
Therefore for all of us ‘normal’ vulnerable Public Speakers, I offer…
10 self-talk Tips for outstanding Public Speaking
Keep it real!
I am not recommending some fantasist script or going to the mirror and pretending you are a lion.
Have a plan.
As the advice goes, if you are of a religious persuasion, ‘pray’ as if success depends on God and ‘work’ as if it depends on you.
If you choose to imagine warm smiles and positive applause at the end of your presentation, what plan do you have to earn them? Too often when people attempt some form of self-talk, it is like someone verbalising each day how they are going to win the lottery. That is lovely but firstly they can have very little influence on what numbers are going to be drawn and secondly, have they even put the effort in to buy a ticket?
Monitor your words
If I am helping a speaker to overcome the tendency to say um and ah all through their speech, first they need to become aware that they are saying um and ah all the time before the can address it. Similarly we need to become aware of what unhelpful words we are saying to ourselves when we are about to speak before we can address them. So take a moment to think what you are saying to yourself before you speak.
Be reasonable with yourself
Just because you forgot your lines in the nativity play when you were six years old, does not mean that you are destined to be a poor speaker for the rest of your life. Coach yourself like you would another person.
‘You can do this.’ ‘It will be fine.’ ‘That was then this is now and I have learnt to be better prepared.’
Be emotional with yourself
In the end you will have limited success being reasonable when the issue springs from an emotional response. Probably the last thing you should say to someone who is scared is that there is nothing to be scared of. You can only get so far with logic. Therefore show a bit of empathy – even with yourself.
The only way to overcome an emotion is with another emotion. Focus on how ‘proud’ you will feel; think about how ‘happy’ you will be; think about how ‘impressed’ your manager, parents, and important others will be (imagine the expression on the face of your surprised negative form tutor from school – and Yes –‘revenge’ is also a useful emotion) – and tell yourself how it is going to be to drown out the less helpful voice.
Make it a stretch – but not too far
Think of two magnets. If the second magnet is within range it will attract the first one; if they are too far away from each other the force will have no effect. So rather than imagining the audience standing on their chairs and cheering at the end of your presentation on last month’s sales figures, which might be a bit too unrealistic, picture nods of approval and an impressed smile from your manager:
‘Today’s presentation will go well. I am well-prepared. When I finish there will be lots of nods of approval and my manager will smile like he is impressed.’
Make a script
This does not need to be complicated. The simplest and often most effective script is to note the negative things you are saying and create a script with the opposite statements:
‘I cannot do this - ‘I can do this.’
‘What if I forget?’ - ‘I always remember my key messages.’
And then read it to yourself
Begin with the end in mind
Start your preparation by looking beyond the end of the speech to imagining how you want your audience to react. Therefore as you prepare the presentation, think about what will you say to cause that reaction? This will help as you start planning the presentation. If you want nods of approval, what is going to make them happen? What does your audience need to hear in order to gain that reaction? Saying to yourself that everyone will nod and smile is fine. That is certainly better than stressing about a possible disaster, but the clearer you are about what you can do to achieve the desired reaction, the more you will feel in control and the less it will feel like wishful thinking.
Allow yourself to feel a small degree of disbelief
If you are telling yourself how you will get nods and smiles and you usually get nods and smiles anyway, then presumably you are already doing whatever you need to achieve it. One could say that is like making a plan to have a baby when you are already 6 months pregnant. If you want to use your self-talk to improve or overcome your anxiety, then it has to feel a little bit unreal, because the words you are intending to say are quite different to the negative words you would normally be saying. The reason you are overwhelmed by the thought of speaking is because you have been telling yourself that you are overwhelmed and so telling yourself that you feel in control is going to feel like a bit of a lie, which it is – until it starts to become the truth!
Focus on the message, not the messenger
Take some of the pressure off by removing yourself a little from the picture. Rather than stressing about how you will or will not come across, focus on what the key message is. Tell yourself that the most important thing is to get that message across clearly. It is not about you, it is about the message.
Keep it going
Keep talking to yourself afterwards.
What went well? Congratulate yourself.
What went wrong? Forgive yourself.
Note what you could improve upon next time and rather than being tempted to run yourself down, continue to speak to yourself with the same level of compassion that you would use to someone else.