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Where Marketers Go to Grow

November 23, 2015 // 6:00 AM

10 Science-Backed Tips for Rocking Your Next Public Speaking Opp

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“I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing. Number two was death. That means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy," jokes Jerry Seinfeld.

And it's true. Experts estimate that 75% of the population has some level of anxiety regarding public speaking.

Now, I'm willing to bet that this statistic is troubling for those who work in an industry where delivering presentations comes with the territory. Whether you've gotten up in front of a crowd 100 times or are about to encounter your first public speaking opportunity, the entire process can feel pretty overwhelming. 

To help you command the positive attention you deserve, we've uncovered 10 science-backed tips for nailing your next speaking gig.

Before Your Speech

1) Practice your speech in front of friends, family, and/or colleagues.

Practice makes perfect. 

You've heard it a million times -- and you'll likely hear it a million more -- but when it comes to delivering a speech, it couldn't be truer. If you're gearing up for a presentation, seek out opportunities to run through your talk in front of a group of people. This type of repeated exposure will help you become more comfortable in front of a crowd, and give you a chance to work out and revise any kinks before the big day. 

"Exposure is hands down the most successful way to deal with phobias, anxiety disorders, and everyday fears of any sort," explains Stanford neuroscientist Philippe Goldin.

In fact, it has been reported that just a single session of exposure therapy has the power to eliminate and disable one's fear of phobogenic objects or situations. While practicing your speech in front of a group of people isn't the equivalent of an advanced therapy session, it'll surely help you shake some of the nerves. 

2) Leverage affirmations. 

"I am going to nail this presentation."

"I am a confident public speaker."

"I have every reason to be successful today."

If you are what you eat, then it must be true that you are what you think too, right? Reciting positive affirmations -- while it may feel a little silly at first -- is a great way to cultivate the motivation and confidence you need to deliver a presentation you can be proud of. 

According to US Navy psychologist, Marc Taylor, found that Olympic athletes who practiced both visualizations and positive self-affirmations were better able to deal with the pressures of competition, and were more likely to succeed. Check out the video below featuring a ton of positive affirmations you can try next time you're preparing for a presentation. 

3) Get a good night's sleep.

While it's easy to toss and turn the night before you're set to deliver a presentation or speech, staying up late might just increase your stress levels

"Not only does sleep help us create and consolidate memories, but it also helps us maintain a healthy immune system, regulate hormones that affect our appetites, and stay energetic when we're awake," explains my colleague Lindsay in her article on the science of sleep.

To ensure that you're feeling your best the day of your presentation, we offer the following recommendations:

  • Avoid eating heavy meals at night. Research reveals that food is processed differently during different hours of the day. Avoid eating around bedtime to keep your body from struggling to process those calories.
  • Put your phone away. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the presence or absence of light determines whether or not your brain releases the sleep hormone that makes you tired. 
  • Exercise the morning before. Studies have shown that exercising in the morning or afternoon can make it easier for you to fall asleep that night.

During Your Speech

4) Check your posture.

Imagine that you bought tickets to see your favorite band in concert, but when you got there, the lead singer sat slouched on a stool for the entire duration of the show. Even if he sounded great, it'd probably be a pretty peculiar thing to look past, right?

When presenting in front of a group of people, there's more to be considered than just what you're saying. The way you stand, sit, or move around the room has the ability to enhance or detract from the strength of your message and the way people perceive you. 

According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, standing in a "high-power" pose for as little as two minutes can stimulate higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). 

To prove this, Cuddy conducted an experiment in which she assigned 42 male and female participants to either a high- or low-power pose group. The results of the experiment revealed that the high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25% and increased testosterone by nearly 19%. As for the low-power pose group, they saw a 17% increase in cortisol and a 10% decrease in testosterone. 

So if you want to look -- and feel -- more confident, try standing up straighter.

5) Be conscious of your voice.

When you speak in front of a group of people, your voice has the ability to make or break your delivery. Your tone, inflection, tempo, volume, emphasis, and nervous habits all influence the way your message is perceived. For example, the wrong tone might give your audience the wrong impression. An inconsistent tempo might make your presentation difficult to follow. And too many "ums" and "ahs" could prove to be seriously distracting. 

According to psychologist Albert Mehrabian, there are three elements that inform first impressions when we are deciding whether we like or dislike someone: words, tone of voice, and body language. He calls this the 7%-38%-55% rule, where words are 7% of the message, tone of voice is 38%, and body language is 55%. 

To ensure that your delivery is well received, you'll want to avoid things like using an upward inflection towards the ends of statements or employing a sarcastic tone when discussing something rather serious. While these crutches often occur as a result of nerves, being more aware of them should help you be more in control.

For more tips on improving your delivery, check out this awesome resource on speaking voices from Toastmasters.

6) Look for a smile.

People always say that when you're nervous about delivering a speech, you should imagine the entire audience in their underwear. Turns out, finding a friendly face in the crowd will do the trick ... and spare you the weird mental image.

According to research on anxiety sensitivity and public speaking, the peak anxiety time for most presenters is the first moment of confronting the room. That said, receiving positive reinforcement during this initial confrontation can help eliminate some of that nervousness. 

So if you're feeling extra nervous, ask one of your friends or colleagues to take a seat up front. Before you begin, look for them in the crowd and make eye contact to help yourself relax. 

7) Crack a joke. 

Humor in public speaking can often go one of two ways: horribly wrong or delightfully right. However, while there are risks involved in cracking a joke during your presentation, humor can function as a great tool for reducing anxiety, improving mood, and relieving stress, according to Dr. Matt Bellace.

Our advice? It's not the tool, but the way you use it that will make a difference. For example, before you pull out your best one-liner, keep in mind that the success rate of a joke is highly dependent on context. If your audience is made up of many different cultures or age groups, it's best to avoid jokes that require background information in order to resonate. 

8) Be empathetic. 

When delivering a speech, keep in mind that the feelings you convey will often influence the way your audience reacts. 

In a study designed to test the influence of empathy on speech ratings, the results revealed that speeches containing high levels of empathy were rated higher than speeches containing low levels. Further analysis of these findings revealed that the empathetic speeches evoked stronger feelings of empathy within those who were asked to rate them, leading them to give the speakers a higher score. 

This type of behavior can be tied to the mirror neurons in our brain, which allow us to experience what others experience. For example, when we see someone smiling, it's often difficult for us to not smile back. In contrast, when dealing with a friend that's really upset, it's not uncommon us to become upset ourselves. 

So think about ways to be more empathetic with your audience and your subject matter -- it could pay off in spades. 

9) Make eye contact.

Have you ever been in a situation where the person you're speaking to refuses to make eye contact with you? There's something about their shifty eyes that's a little unsettling, wouldn't you agree?

While too much eye contact during a presentation might come off as overbearing or intimidating, failing to connect with your audience has the potential to make you appear uneasy or insincere. 

In fact, an analysis of patients' complaints by a large country hospital revealed that 9 out of 10 letters included mention of poor doctor-patient eye contact. For patients, this failure to connect was generally interpreted as a "lack of caring."

To avoid this notion in your next presentation, make it a point to look up from your slides or notes and connect with people in the audience. While you don't want to stare down one person in particular, studies have shown that instances of uninterrupted eye contact have the ability to increase likeability.

10) Use visuals.

According to the Social Science Research Network, 65% of us are visual learners. Given this statistic, it should come as no surprise that visual aids serve as a powerful tool for enhancing the impact and influence of a presentation. 

Think about it: Would you rather a presenter rattle off 20 statistics about her latest research project, or organize the information into a visual that can be more easily interpreted? 

To help you get a better grasp on how to create more visual presentations, check out the following resources:

What are your favorite tips for presenting in front of a crowd? Share them with us in the comments section below.

download 20 examples of top-notch powerpoint presentations  

Topics: Business Leadership Professional Development

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