At this point in my career, I’ve been asked to speak publicly quite a number of times. It’s not easy still, but with some reflection on this subject matter, I wanted to offer a few tips since I recognize people rank public speaking as one of their greatest fears of all!
Remember Your Audience
Simon Sinek very eloquently articulates here that the best public speakers are the ones who come to give. They aren’t there to inflate their own egos or just sell books. They want to share and offer something to their audience. This tidbit is something I think about often when asked to speak, and it’s served me well—perhaps because it leans
into the next tip…
I used to deliver weekly workshops to university students on how to find work, apply to graduate school, and effectively network. In these sessions, I had to “teach”, so I had my slideshow ready to go. But I also wanted there to be some level of interaction—and keeping in mind that not everyone loves to participate, especially in a larger group, I varied things up.
When facilitating a panel discussion, I think about the panelists and the crowd. What do they each need? The people on the panel undoubtedly want to be heard and feel things are inclusive. The crowd wants a fun or thought-provoking conversation that moves them from Point A to Point B. Therefore, as a moderator, my job is to help guide the panel—without becoming too involved myself—and figuring out when (if at all) to include the audience.
Emceeing a competition (something I’ve done in the last two years a fair amount), I have to contemplate the competitors, the judges, the audience, and any other speakers present at the event to include during “breaks”. I have to consider equal time for finalists – how will I cut them off politely to ensure things are fair? If the judges have a Q&A portion of the event, how will I help them share time and keep things on track, so we can get to the next team? In terms of the audience, how will I help them (and the finalists) feel energized and supported throughout the event? These are things to consider.
Know Your Style
I like to tell a joke – but that’s a gamble. When it lands, it’s awesome to hear a room or auditorium fill with laughter, but if you get silence, that can be disheartening. Because I love that style though, I often “go for it” in my own way. I choose a joke that could actually almost be serious, too. For example, at the most recent pitch competition I emceed, I informed the audience and the finalists that while a 3-minute business pitch sounds tough, they really just have to keep in mind what the judges want to hear, which is only about 1200 things. They recognized how absurd this whole thing was. But even if they hadn’t laughed at my delivery, this is the kind of planned joke I could recover from because… well, I had still just really mentioned the actual judging criteria, so it held true without a laugh.
I also wanted finalists to know we were on their side. So, I almost immediately asked the 200+ people to give them all a “round of applause to send them “good luck” because just making it there was a huge accomplishment.
In a different setting, I might share more thought-provoking and uplifting words. That’s also my style – but again, depends on context and after reading the room, I knew it wasn’t time to get touchy-feely or super deep.
When I was delivering my weekly workshops, a senior colleague said I over practiced. She saw me read through my slides and “rehearse” beforehand, and she felt it was strange to “live the experience more than once”. Now, here’s the thing… and I say this with love… I saw her lead workshops and I didn’t like her as a facilitator. It always seemed like she was guessing and involving her audience too much, so I didn’t know what she really offered to the group.
Preparation is key for a number of reasons. First of all, by reading and rehearsing through things, you can feel more confident in the subject matter. You can also know the flow of things, so that if there’s a tech issue, you aren’t lost without your slides. You can avoid relying on notes during the session, or awkwardly making things up as you go because you have things sort of committed to memory and know where you want to lead the participants. The best speakers often DO prepare; they just look natural on stage because that practice has become muscle memory to them, so it seems easy, but they did in fact put work into it.
Of course, over-preparation is a thing. For example, once I learned those weekly workshops, I stopped rehearsing. I didn’t need to because I delivered the content so much that I really trusted myself after a while with less prep, and I even felt I could take some risks in the moment to switch things up and experiment. But when emceeing the most recent event in front of a few hundred people, you better believe that I pretty much committed my intro to memory, so I didn’t have to read in front of people—notes are fine, by the way, but they shouldn’t be relied upon fully, so you can better engage with the people in front of you.
I also think that when facilitating a panel or emceeing a competitive event, you should meet with speakers and judges beforehand. It’s nice to let them know what questions you have for them, and get their sense for how they’d like to proceed. Once, I had a pre-call with three female entrepreneurs for a women’s empowerment event and we discussed things like “should every panelist get a chance to respond to each question – or do we feel okay not having everyone chime in for all things?” I also told them that part of why they would receive the questions in advance was so they could think about their responses already and do their best to keep answers to about a minute. After that pre-call, a panelist phoned me separately and expressed feeling uncomfortable with another panelist. That helped me plan the order I would call upon people during the conversation, so that people felt safe on stage. Without a pre-call, that panelist may have learned the hard way that she felt uncomfortable with someone else during the event, and she could’ve shut down. Or maybe I would’ve accidentally moved on to another question abruptly without knowing they all really wanted to chime in. I may have badly mistimed things and worked in too many questions. Thankfully, lots of these issues were solved before they became problems.
They Don’t Know The Plan
One nerve-wracking thing for me is when something goes off schedule because of the pressure to respect everyone’s time… but it’s helpful to remember that your audience doesn’t know what was planned. For the competition I’ve referenced several times here, I went a bit long with the Q&A because our very chatty judges really couldn’t manage the 3-minutes, and neither could the finalists. It was very hard to keep 4+ voices on track when there was a lot to unpack. I also didn’t want to be so rigid in cutting people off that people felt unheard, and the crowd felt robbed of seeing good interaction. Then add on that I didn’t want to compete for control in front of audience because that could be awkward for them (and embarrassing for me if I was overpowered by a stronger voice), so I did my best, and as mentioned, just went slightly over time on those q&a rounds. By the end of it though, we still ended on track, overall, and I was even told I should’ve let things go longer by some in attendance! See, the audience didn’t see the big clock that I could on stage, so they weren’t necessarily aware when the 3-minutes ended exactly, so they couldn’t tell if we went over by 10 seconds, or a full minute. Only those of us on stage knew, and we also knew there was a bit of buffer time built in, anyway… So, while I was still hard on myself for not being perfect, my crowd didn’t really know for sure what happened.
I think it’s important to remember that while you may be hard on yourself, so often people are more forgiving. Of course, I’ve received negative feedback—don’t get me wrong. Sometimes people don’t like the content of a workshop I’ve delivered, or they feel I spoke too quickly (without me meaning to for a joke), or they wished I had stopped or started something sooner or later. You really can’t please everyone. However, it’s definitely affirming that so often, you will see positive comments, as well. And when you’ve doubted yourself, that really goes a long way. So, in the aftermath, maybe keep a folder of positivity in your inbox where you can file away compliments for a down-day, or when you get scared to get back on stage again. Below are a few kind comments I’ve received from participants and event organizers over the years via email or from feedback surveys. They’re a reminder again that many times, people just don’t see the flaws that you do!
Kayla was great to speak with & had great interpersonal skills & made it comfortable 🙂
The host (kayla) was very friendly and helpful
All my questions were answered. Kayla is very nice and easy to talk to. It truly was an informative workshop!
CONGRATS for yesterday. Your hosting was so well done, I was so impressed! Must have been so nerve-wracking to em-cee, but you were so clear, confident, funny & did a great job keeping everything on track!
You rolled with any curveballs so seamlessly and did a great job of keeping us on time and on point, while still allowing the personalities of our judges to shine through. I know the emcee role is a tricky one and you managed it with grace and fantastic energy!
And when all fails, remember: public speaking is feared for a reason. It’s vulnerable and tough. Everyone has an opinion; as noted, they aren’t always nice. Learn what you can from your experience and constructive criticism that’s presented helpfully. But don’t dwell on your shortcomings or the opinions of people who haven’t been in your shoes with microphone in hand at the front of a crowded room. Remember, even the most outgoing people who make careers out of performing feel the jitters, too!
Check out Oscar winners, Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett talk about their own stage fright around the 26:30 mark: