How Not to Practice Public Speaking

Michael Gives a Preso
I’m pretty good at some things. I’m a fast reader, I can bake really delicious gluten-free peanut butter cookies from scratch, and I’m excellent at making up answers to questions I don’t actually know much about. If anything, I am sometimes overconfident in my abilities. Yet any ideas I have about having gift for public speaking are entirely fantasy.

Knowing this, I deliberately pushed myself to find an opportunity to speak publicly for my job earlier this year. I applied to be on a panel at a conference, wrote an abstract and then a full conference paper, and yet, once my paper was accepted, I was horrified that I would actually have to present in front of real, live people. It’s not just me (and perhaps you)—public speaking is often cited as the number one fear that Americans face. The intimidation public speaking leaves more people awake at night than death, or even the fear of an ebola epidemic.

Friends, fear not! Today, I will help you conquer your fears of public speaking, and in just three simple steps. Trust me, I’ve done them all myself and this approach worked pretty well:

1. Avoid.
Every time I am scheduled to give a presentation, I always tell myself the same thing: that I will start early, plan it out, and practice it several times, perhaps even in front of friends or coworkers. But I never do. I avoid it. I spend zero minutes actually preparing far in advance. In fact, the farther away the presentation is, the more I tell myself that I will start early, and the later I actually start. By avoiding preparing, you don’t have to do anything, including facing the fact that you have no idea what you’re going to talk about or—more importantly—how to make it interesting.

2. Delude Yourself.
Instead of actually preparing or practicing, it helps to delude yourself into thinking that you’ll be great. Before each presentation, I spent countless minutes daydreaming about how comfortable and eloquent I’ll be, and how the audience will love it and ask interesting and engaging questions at the end. Sometimes I find myself almost talking aloud as I walk down the street—in my mind, I’m answering their questions with witty responses (the audience laughs with delight!). Sometimes, an audience member even comes up to me afterward to compliment me, not only on the content, but also on how dynamic I was as a speaker. When you imagine how awesome you’ll be when actually at the podium, you can then think, “Why would I need to practice? I’m killing this!” It’s certainly helps with step #1.

3. Wing It.
Since, by the time it comes to actually give your speech, you’ve been too busy avoiding and deluding that you won’t have practiced, you’ll need to wing it. Don’t worry, it’s always best when speakers are natural, so just relax, act natural and see what comes out.

After all of the avoiding and deluding, when you go to finally wing it, if you are still nervous when you’re at the podium, there is always the commonplace advice of imagining your audience in their underwear. That might take your mind off the fact that you have just gotten up in front of dozens if not hundreds of people and are totally unprepared. Has this worked for anyone? Honestly, it’s never worked for me, but I’m not the world’s best public speaker, except in my own mind.


The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Steph Stern works in energy and environmental policy in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about careers and life choices at Small Answers (or follow on Twitter: @smallanswers).



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