How to Get Podium Power

Here are 6 tips for overcoming fear of public speaking.

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- Posted on Dec 12, 2008

A woman, viewed from behind, addressing a group of people

Twenty-five years ago I received a telephone call from a young minister who was having trouble giving sermons. He felt ill at ease in the pulpit, and since I was an actor and speech-therapy teacher, he wondered if I could help. I was willing to try.

For a year we met once a week. As he practiced his sermons in my apartment, both of us made valuable discoveries about the art of public speaking. Gradually gaining skill and confidence, he went on to become a very successful preacher. Because of that experience, today I regularly lead seminars for preachers and other speakers. Here's some advice that I believe would help anyone giving a speech: 

1. Get rid of your manuscript.
A speaker is far more compelling when he makes eye contact with his listeners and concentrates on his subject rather than the manuscript in front of him. As I told the young preacher, "If you have to read your sermon, just hand out copies to the congregation and everybody can read it themselves."

2. Crystallize your thinking.
Before you speak, ask yourself, "What is the central idea that I want my listeners to take away with them?" Try to put it in one sentence. Then look for examples and anecdotes that illustrate your point. If you keep the purpose of your talk firmly in mind, you'll find that these illustrative points will feed naturally into what you have to say.

3. Know your audience.
Relate to people's everyday lives; address their interests and concerns. Keep it simple and stick to the point.

4. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
A great orator once said that when he gave a speech he did it four times: once when he wrote it, again when he practiced it, the third time when he actually spoke and then a fourth time on his way home when he thought of all the things he wished he'd said.

There will always be things you wish you'd said, but the more you rehearse, the smoother it will go. If you're worried about what to do with your hands, practice with a podium in front of you and use it as a prop. Always rehearse by speaking out loud (even if you have to close the bedroom door). If it helps, work with someone who can give you objective criticism, or watch yourself on videotape and be your own best critic.

5. Speak in a normal tone.
Don't pound your words. If you find yourself screaming to be heard, stop. Louder is not better. In fact, the best speakers make their points by pausing or lowering their voices. Pauses emphasize what you are saying and allow your listeners to absorb each thought.

6. Be yourself. Use firsthand experiences.
Feel free to make yourself the butt of your own jokes. If you get lost in a story or forget what you were going to say, admit it. Say, "I forgot." You'd be surprised how disarming such candor can be. Just look at the few notes you've brought with you and find your place, then start again.

If you believe in what you are saying, the force of your convictions will give you power.

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This man couldn't face the audience—until he got some unlikely help.

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