30 Jan How to boost confidence in public speaking: strategies and tips – Sarah Lloyd Hughes
Founder of Ginger and Award Winning Public Speaking Coach
Sarah is one of the country’s most authoritative, sought after and leading public speaking experts. An award-winning coach, TEDx conference guest speaker and author of the best-selling book, ‘How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking’ (Pearson), Sarah has delivered hundreds of inspiring workshops that have seen her clients go on to deliver speeches at Parliament, Davos, and TEDx conferences; pick up prestigious awards; publish best-selling books; and become influential game changers in their own right. She set up Ginger to help leaders to grow their vision, voice and visibility – and to rally change through the spoken word. Sarah has a particular passion for championing women’s voices and tackling female leadership issues and this blog is based on a POWERful Connections Breakfast that she ran for aspiring women in energy in December 2023.
I remember my first public speaking experience. I was going for a job and there were 200 people in front of me. I felt awkward, I had the sweaty hair, and I kept thinking about the colleague who had frozen as he was about to deliver his first line.
Reader, I got through it. My public speaking was distinctly average, but it was enough to land me the job. And the critical thing that happened that day was that I overcame my fear of public speaking. Because success isn’t about honing your presentation skills to perfection, it’s about being willing to make yourself visible to give the audience what they want.
And we can learn how to put ourselves forward with confidence and elevate ‘I’m pretty OK’ to ‘give me the mic’.
The gender ‘say’ gap
Unfortunately, there is still a gap between the ability of men and women to be seen and heard. In research 86% of women say they have been socialised to be nice to others, to be a good student and to be helpful, whereas only 44% have been taught to be a good leader and even fewer (34%) to express their opinions.
As a consequence, women take on more non-promotable work. There may be more women in the workplace, but they aren’t getting the credit or reward they deserve.
How do we deal with this tendency we’ve grown up with to sit on the sidelines? Many of us panic when a light is shone on us, so how do we hack the confidence to communicate our value and achieve our goals? We need to renegotiate our relationship with visibility.
Let’s start by exploring what happens when we get nervous. Like a gazelle spotting a lion on the savannah, our wired-in fear response is flight, flight or freeze. In public speaking ‘fight’ can mean tooling yourself up with knowledge and clinging to your notes, ‘flight’ can show as adrenaline-fuelled wobbly legs and garbled speech, and ‘freeze’ can make your mind go blank. All of these create a negative impact and feedback loop.
So how do you make your body realise that a lion isn’t trying to eat you? How can you have an intentional response to this understandable fear stimulant, boost your impact and create a positive feedback loop for future performances?
It’s all about the body-mind connection, where it’s actually the body that’s doing the sensing and information gathering, not the brain. So a pep talk won’t help us feel more confident, but ‘hacking confidence’ by using our physical body will.
For example, claiming your territory by planting your feet, holding your head high, rolling back your shoulders and looking out to your audience says: “yes, you can look at me, I’m safe, I’m in charge, I have authority and status”. And it signals this to your own mind too.
So in situations where we know we are going to get triggered by the ‘predator’ in the room, if we are able to give our body the sense of “I’m fine here, I’ve got it” then that helps us calm nerves and access the best part of our brain, to speak and perform better.
Three confidence hacks
Here are strategies I’ve found work especially well for women:
- Speak in service of others. When we focus on ourselves, we feel nervous, but when we focus on others, we feel a sense of purpose and can get over ourselves. Ask yourself: how can I help those in the room understand my purpose? What would I risk (such as the prospect of difficult questions) to make this purpose come to life? The more the purpose sits within your heart, the more powerful the energy you’ll put towards your speaking.
- Inspire others by being yourself. We don’t need to be anyone other than ourselves to succeed, because humans trust and admire other humans. If we want perfect, we’ll have a well-edited video, but it’s not as impactful as hearing from a person with all their fallibilities – in fact, it’s those imperfect moments that often create the best connections. A missing quality in leaders is a bit of goofiness, which gives people space to laugh and learn. So, don’t focus on following your plan to the letter, make sure you let the audience in.
- Speak NOW, before you’re ‘ready’. In leadership comms, we say that “done” is (usually) better than perfect. I encourage my clients to just get on with it – don’t wait until you are ‘ready’ to make yourself visible, get comfortable being imperfectly perfect and step forward onto the stage (real or virtual). A hastily done short video on LinkedIn saying what you are working on right now will be much more engaging than any perfectly crafted blog.
“Crossing a river” – structuring your story
Once you’ve decided to go for it, you can increase the power of your communication by structuring it well, using the metaphor of “crossing a river”. Craft your speech as a simple journey from A to B: from where your audience is now on one side of the river to where they want to be on the other.
Once you’ve articulated the current problem and why change is needed, use three stepping stones to cross the river (these are your three main headings or chunks of information and can be sub-divided into further groups of three). Use just the right amount of information to achieve your goal, which is to shift behaviour and knowledge, and paint a positive picture of the paradise destination everyone can reach.
Dealing with difficult situations
Something that can put people off public speaking, however, is the prospect of facing difficult questions. If you find yourself catastrophising, play out what’s the worst that can happen, and laugh about it. Your planning could include trying to anticipate the questions, by researching the audience’s expectations and the likely mood in the room.
But there will inevitably be questions that you can’t answer, and that’s OK. Strategies include responding with a pull: “I’m not sure about that, how would you answer it?”. Or if someone is being aggressive or grandstanding, try to diffuse the energy – sidestep the missile and let it enter the field of investigation with something like “let’s look at this together, anyone got any ideas?”. But if they continue to take up too much space, just say you will take the topic offline. The audience has come to hear you, not them!
For those situations when you’re talked over on a panel – we’ve all been there in meetings too! – I go back to the mind-body relationship. Use your body language to increase your visibility and demand your space to be heard. Signal that you want to speak by leaning forward, gesturing and opening your mouth to interrupt. Remember that this isn’t arrogance, it’s in service to your audience.
Visibility only increases when we are active about it, so let’s encourage each other and hold for each other on this. I hope you find these tips helpful, and if you’d like to find out more about my public speaking coaching, contact me through www.gingerleadershipcomms.com