Does the thought of giving a presentation at work or a toast at a wedding make you feel wobbly or even a bit sick? You’re not alone. Speaking in public is still one of the top fears we all have.
The problem is that talking to groups, whether by way of formal public speeches or informal ones, is an increasingly important skill to have. With many of us working from home today, speaking on group video calls and podcasts is a mode of communication we need to embrace.
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Why public speaking is a valuable skill
Even if your job doesn’t involve regularly speaking to large groups, public speaking is a valuable workplace skill. That’s because you need to be an effective communicator—in terms of both verbal and nonverbal communication—to be a good public speaker.
And it's a skill recruiters are looking for.
In its annual survey of corporate recruiters, the Graduate Management Admission Council finds that communication skills are one of the critical hiring qualifications for employers. In fact, “of the five top-rated skills, four fell within the communications category: oral communications, listening skills, written communication, and presentation skills.”
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But I don’t do public speaking!
Actually, if you talk at work, you do public speaking.
We asked Allison Shapira, the founder and CEO of Global Public Speaking, how she addresses the disconnect between perceived and actual public speaking in the workplace. She told us:
“When I first started my company teaching public speaking, I remember having a phone call with someone who said, ‘I don’t do public speaking, but I give presentations every day.’”
Presentations, she notes, are one of the most common types of public speaking. Shapira goes so far as to define public speaking as any time you speak to an audience of one person or more in the service of a goal.
“Therefore, speaking up in a meeting (either in person or virtual), having a 1:1 conversation with a client or boss, or meeting someone at a networking event are all examples of public speaking,” Shapira explains. “Given that broad definition, public speaking is one of the most important skills you need in order to be effective at your job and move up in your career.”
Her company recently conducted a survey of how business professionals use public speaking skills. The results indicate that these skills are seen as overwhelmingly important in the workplace—in addition to mattering greatly in other aspects of our lives:
More than 95 percent of respondents felt public speaking skills were important to advancing in their career.
85 percent of respondents felt their speaking skills would help them inspire others.
74 percent felt they could make a positive impact on the world.
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Tips for being a good public speaker
Public speaking takes mental strength and courage.
Editor-in-chief at Verywell Mind Amy Morin should know. During her TEDx talk, The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong, which has become one of the top 30 TEDx talks of all time, Morin says her “voice cracked and shook almost the entire time.” Six years ago, public speaking was not only new to Morin, it was one of her biggest fears. Since then, she’s been named one of the top 100 leadership speakers by Inc. magazine and is a popular keynote speaker.
So how do you conquer that fear?
In her masterclass on overcoming performance anxiety, American gymnast Simone Biles says to go back to fundamentals. In the case of a presentation, that means you’d rely on the fact that you know the subject matter extremely well; you’re an expert—that’s why you’re talking about it. You should also try to view each talk as a new opportunity, instead of as something to dread. And finally, Biles says to visualize the outcome you want and project confidence, even if that means faking it at first.
Tone matters too, according to former FBI lead hostage negotiator Chris Voss. A playful or soothing tone is always better in a negotiation than one that is declarative. It stands to reason that the same holds true for public speaking. You don’t want your audience to respond with defensiveness, especially if you’re giving a talk to persuade them to see your point of view.
How you can improve your public speaking skills
Generally, the more you speak in public, the better you’ll be. However, there are some specific things you can do right now to be a better speaker.
Eliminate filler words (um, ah, like, you know) and verbal tics.
Practice your body language, so that it’s neutral, confident, and relaxed.
Use short phrases and pauses. Your audience has a short attention span and needs time to catch up and understand what you’re saying.
Don’t write out your presentation in full and read it. Practice ahead of time and use bullet points for reference.
Shapira sees public speaking becoming increasingly important: “Now more than ever, as our in-person communications have moved to virtual, the way we communicate has a direct impact on our relationships, our productivity, our career path, and our community.”
About our source
Allison Shapira is a former opera singer, a Harvard lecturer, and the founder/CEO of Global Public Speaking, a communication firm and woman-owned small business that helps people speak with confidence and authenticity in their meetings, pitches, and presentations—both virtually and in person. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review and is the author of the best-selling book Speak with Impact: How to Command the Room and Influence Others (HarperCollin Leadership).