How to speak in front of people and enjoy it

I’ll let you into a secret. There’s no such thing as a confident person. No-one is confident all the time. Confidence is something that you may perceive in someone else.  (artist: Aura Lewis)

They may appear to be confident when they are telling a story to a group of people, giving a presentation to a client, or hosting an event on a stage, in front of hundreds of people. They may appear to know what to say, to look relaxed and happy, to be clear and engaged with the people in the room.

But all of those things can be learnt. Chances are, they have practiced and rehearsed their lines, over and over. Told and retold that story. Practiced so many times that now it looks very natural and effortless. 

Think of someone you admire for their composure, their confidence, their charisma. List the qualities you like about them, the things that make them confident. Is it their smile? Or the way they pause to let words sink in with their audience? Is it that they seem effortlessly funny and relaxed? Do they seem as if they have all the answers?

I guarantee you, all of these things they have worked hard to prepare for. Perhaps they had opportunities when they were young to perform, to act or sing, or to be seen on a stage. Maybe they came from a family that encouraged lively debate around the dinner table. Maybe they just enjoy meeting people, giving their full attention and asking questions when they meet someone new. 

When I was a child, growing up in South London, I was a voracious reader. I loved books. Learning lines also came easily to me, so I was often picked to be a lead role in school plays. I loved to play-act and had a very vivid imagination. This was one of my ways escape, as there weren’t many people around to play with when I was growing up. Years later, as an adult out in the world, I found myself losing a lot of that confidence. It became far more difficult to put myself forward, I didn’t feel listened to and became the sort of person who was not simply “leaning out” but giving up altogether in the workplace. 

Setting up SheSays Brighton meant a concerted effort to re-connect to my memory of the very young Rifa. I’d gone through almost the entire process of organising the event, it was coming together nicely, when suddenly I realised I was going to need to be present myself as a part of it! I would need to stand up in front of 50 people – and of course, later, rooms of 150-300 people and become a host host. I would need to introduce speakers and help everyone feel at ease, which meant I needed to convey that confidence and ease myself, which I had not felt since my teens. 

I vividly understood (and still understand today) those sharp emerging pangs of anxiety that many women feel about even attending an event, when they don’t know anyone, let alone becoming the focus of attention. So I would go out of my way to be friendly and open with anyone who came along on their own. This wasn’t professionalism or kindness; it was important to me too – to get my own feelings of fear out of the way, in order to be ready when I stepped up onstage for introductions, to help create this space, to showcase women speakers and inspire others. I’d first had to master getting over myself!  

I realised that everyone feels those exact same feelings of embarrassment and anxiety before they go on stage. It’s simply that the best speakers, comedians and performers, have learnt techniques to feel the fear and get on with it anyway. I am friends with highly successful singers and musicians, with large audiences, who perform night after night and are still sick with nerves just before they jump onstage and slay a thousand people.

I’ve now been the host, introduced speakers, led panels at many events over more than a decade, yet I still have to prepare, control and overcome my self-doubt and simple nerves. They have eased but they won’t ever completely go. 

Here are the techniques that have reliably helped me:

1. Prepare

Whether it’s for a client meeting or a presentation at work, or a talk you’re giving to a room full of strangers, the best place to start is by being prepared. Get all your notes together, check the date and time, get there early, get used to the space, eat and drink some water beforehand. It sounds simple but the more you can do to prepare in advance, the more relaxed you’ll be on the day. We’ve all seen people turn up late, unprepared and stressed – it doesn’t have to be this way. Even the most experienced people forget to do this from time to time. No-one is confident all the time. But you can take steps to make sure you’re as on it as possible. I also suggest using a simple EFT/tapping technique to help keep you focused. Tap a few times on bone just under your eye. It might help with your nerves. 

2. Practice

I’ve seen so many speakers try to wing it in front of an audience and forget their key points, ramble and basically give a terrible talk. I’ve done it myself! Why do we think this happens, even with experienced speakers? Sometimes it’s because the speaker is over-confident in their ability to give a coherent (let alone inspiring) talk. In many ways, being under-confident can be a benefit because you care more about giving something of value to your audience; being authentic to your client or impressing your team or boss. Instinctively, audiences are very smart: even when we applaud politely, we can tell the difference between a speaker who has worked hard to deliver some worthwhile ideas, even if they’re nervous, and a naturally gifted speaker who has walked onstage with nothing important to say. Give yourself the very best opportunity to shine, by preparing and practicing your talk as much as possible.

First practice alone, and then with someone you trust who can give you honest feedback and then with a small group of people. I cannot stress this enough – practice what you’re going to say, until you are sick of hearing your own talk!  I usually write out everything I am going to say, even if it’s just a short paragraph at a client meeting or a 20 minute talk for an event. I then memorise key points but also take my whole talk with me on paper just in case the tech doesn’t work or something else goes wrong. I have the talk as a backup. My nerves sometimes get the better of me and I forget key points, so I always have my notes with me to refer to. Please don’t think that this is cheating or somehow you should know all of this by heart. You will learn through practice, by doing more talks and presentations; the process does get easier, but always give yourself the most help and preparation possible.

3. Feel the Fear

When someone first asks me to be on a panel or give a presentation, immediately I jump on a little mental rollercoaster of emotions. By the time this compulsory ride has ground to a halt and I’m climbing back out, I have felt excited and flattered, then anxious and worried, then sometimes even annoyed. And I basically try to create a bunch of excuses as to why I can’t do the event. It’s too far. I don’t have time, I’m too busy. Nobody will come. No-one is interested. It’s not the right event for me. I’m not qualified. It’s too much hard work. Everyone will laugh at me. I’ll get challenged and look stupid…. the list goes on and on.

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Now, I appreciate that this is all part of my process. Many other experienced speakers go through something similar. I recognise my subconscious is trying to protect me – my heart is beating fast; my adrenalin is through the roof and it’s down to me to consciously relax and use logic to reassure myself. 

By listing out all the things that could possibly go wrong (the hall catching fire, me falling off the stage…) and writing down (even physically) the solution or positive outcome beside each fear, I clearly observe that I can unequivocally control many aspects: what I do, wear, say, how I breathe, how early I go to bed the night before, how much caffeine I drink. I can also see the things that I can’t control and reassure myself with a plan of action if something bad does happen. Take a look at some of the world’s best performers falling off stage and you’ll soon realise that it’s not what goes wrong that matters but how you deal with it. 

You could do a talk with someone else and bring some friends in the audience for moral support. And make sure someone tells you how great you were when it’s over. Don’t fixate on any small things that didn’t go to plan.

This is one reason I worked so hard on (and I’m proud of) the incredible positive cheerleading (almost all women) audiences at SheSays Brighton events. I vividly remember one terrific speaker, who modestly put herself down as part of her talk (as particularly women often do) and was immediately lifted up by the audience, who literally heckled her that she was better than she’d just claimed. 

4. Look the part

Okay ladies, get in formation. If your outfit – wearing a particular flattering dress or heels – is going to help you feel more confident, then wear that. If you want to feel comfortable and relaxed, wear your fave things. Get your hair done (or at least wash it) but don’t try something new for the first time, in case that might make you feel self-conscious. Debut the pink look after your presentation is over. Wear your most badass jacket and boots if they make you feel badass. Some women swear by wearing red lipstick to boost their confidence, they feel smarter and sassier when they wear it (Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a master of dressing well) but don’t do a Theresa May and wear something that doesn’t feel right for you (such as her infamous Frida Kahlo bracelet). If you’re not used to wearing bright red stilettos, now’s not the time to try them out. 

There are some practical things to consider when going on stage: if you will need to wear a remote microphone, the battery pack is usually designed to go on a waistband behind you and to clip on to a shirt or jacket lapel. So a dress might not work, in which case maybe a hand-held microphone is best for you. If you’re on a stage with lights, don’t wear a white shirt or dress, it makes everything see-through (unless you want to make everything see-through!). Check all your labels are cut off, your buttons and zips are done up. Better still get a friend to check that nothing is inside out, upside down, stuck to your shoe, or tucked in your pants. Just saying. In fact, it’s worth making checking your outfit a part of your pre-stage ritual, because the distraction itself can help with those nerves. 

5. Breathe

My bestest and toppest tip is to learn to breathe deeply. It’s surprising how often in moments of tension – let alone under the pressure of public performance – you’ll find yourself holding your breath, without even realising. And that’s not good. So, here’s the ritual: breathe deeply into your stomach and hold it for five seconds. Then breathe out for five seconds, slowly, through your mouth, as if you’re blowing a bubble or blowing out smoke. Keep doing that until your heart rate goes down. You might feel fine for a bit and then the anxiety comes back – so do the breathing again. This really works. And it’s not cheating. Many stage actors practice this breathing technique every time they go on stage. Start practicing deep breathing on your morning commute and at your desk.

6. Celebrate

When it’s all over, do something nice for yourself to celebrate. You’ve done something that most people find more terrifying than death (or at least, moving house!). Don’t pick over what went wrong with your talk or presentation. Focus on all the things that went well. Do NOT watch the video back or listen to the audio straight away. Give yourself a few days to recover your emotional side, before you face the challenge of assessing objectively what went well, or badly (though you should do that at some point). The finest sales people don’t dwell on the rejection of a lost sale, beyond a simple objective assessment; emotionally they quickly re-focus attention and energy on the next pitch. It’s worth thinking about the things you could do better next time. But straight after you’ve given your talk or did a great presentation at work, celebrate your win – maybe with a glass of bubbly or a lovely meal. Or at least call a trusted friend who can give you the cheerleading you deserve. 

Most importantly: very experienced people feel nerves too, before giving a new talk, or speaking to a new audience. The greatest trick is to understand those nerves, ride them, even turn them into a positive, not to let nerves stop you from contributing in a meeting or from giving a killer presentation.

Check out the latest SheSays Brighton talks (Oct 2019)