Two weeks ago I woke up in a Copenhagen hotel room and picked up my phone to check the time. It was 7 a.m. In six hours I’d be hosting a panel discussion featuring a famous rapper, which would be live-streamed via social media to around 24 million followers. I had a crippling shudder of anxiety and began eagerly fantasizing about a deranged killer breaking into my hotel room and murdering me so I wouldn’t have to take part in the event.
I don’t know why this still happens. In the last eight years I’ve hosted creative events, lead panels, and given hour-long lectures to crowds ranging from 15 to 1,500 people. But for some reason, it never gets any easier. If anything, the nerves are getting worse. What I can’t get over is how it just doesn’t seem natural to stand up on stage and talk to a room full of people. Many of us are computer nerds, hermitty writers, shy illustrators—we’re not actors! We don’t all have “the X factor,” and we most certainly haven’t been trained for this. It’s ludicrous, yet we politely accept the offer and get on with it, sometimes sprouting a few grey hairs and a forehead crease in the days preceding the event.
In Copenhagen, I tried to work out just what it was that I was so afraid of. There’s the classic fear of falling over, burping, inexplicably saying something bad that then goes viral, having your skirt tucked into your underwear. Then there’s the fear that your presentation will be too long/short/boring/lame/weird, which is totally valid. We’ve all been to enough lengthy, monotone, heavy-on-the-bullet-point talks to know that the chances of people drifting off and thinking about what to make for dinner are pretty high.
But the clock ticks, it’s time to go on stage, we rise to the occasion, forehead dripping in cold sweat and hands trembling as we clutch the printed-off notes, dying for it to be over. Autopilot kicks in, then, as quickly as the email inviting you to even speak at the event flew into your inbox, it’s all over. People are clapping. You’ve done it.
I wanted to explore the art of speaking in public, so I decided to contact people in the creative industry who have seen and given enough talks to be considered experts on the subject. What advice can they pass on? Because we’ll gladly take it.
View public speaking as a career skill, not an exercise in potential humiliation.
Danielle Pender, founder and editor-in-chief of Riposte magazine, is one of those unlucky people who really, really hates to speak in public, but has a job that necessitates it. “The first large-scale presentation I did was at an editorial conference in Munich in front of 600 people,” she recalls. “For weeks leading up to it felt physically sick every time I thought about the talk. I prepared and practiced relentlessly. I took Kalms tablets for days before the event and downed sooo much Rescue Remedy on the actual day. I was so nervous I broke out in a rash and thought I was going to be physically sick minutes before going on stage.”
“I force myself to do it so I get used to it, even though it can be a torturous experience,” she adds. “I don’t always feel elated, but sometimes I’m really happy I’ve done it or even just that’s it’s over. It’s like a masochistic drive because I want to get better at speaking publicly—it is such an important career skill to have and to be able to master.”
Experiment in practice, focus on the stage.
Similarly, deputy editor of Gal-Dem magazine Charlie Cuff admits she has no choice but to put her nerves to one side, purely because she’s aware of the value and impact of public speaking. “One thing I’ve honed over the years is working out how to tell a story in the most direct way, leaving out anything that’s boring or irrelevant and only having stuff in there that’s either absolutely essential to the story, or just plain entertaining.”
Embrace the nerves.
Will Hudson, co-founder of It’s Nice That and Lecture in Progress has been speaking at events and putting on conferences of creatives speakers since 2007. “With regards to nervousness, I heard a great story the other day about Bruce Springsteen which is still great and so helpful to remember,” said Hudson. “Someone asked if he got nervous and he said that feeling you get, stomach turning, heart pounding, sweaty palms, that was just his body telling him he’s ready. Ready to go on stage and do that thing he’s really, really good at.”
And finally a primer on what not to do when speaking in public.
Mr. Bingo, an illustrator-turned-traveling lecturer did 50 talks last year. “I speak at big conferences, smaller local creative meet-ups, and also at companies like Channel4, BBC, and Universal Music. This year I told myself I’d do less and spend a bit more time making work, but it’s addictive and I genuinely love it, so the diary is starting to fill up again!” After touring the speaker circuit for nearly eight years, here is his hit list of things to avoid.
- Don’t just show your work: “People can usually already see all of this stuff online, so seeing you show it on a stage is kind of pointless.”
- Don’t be a show off: “Tell the audience about bad things. Failure and uncomfortable situations are part of life and people appreciate you sharing this stuff. It makes you more human, more believable, and people can relate to it.”
- Don’t read your slides: “Avoid word-heavy slides. In fact, if you can do without words in slides at all, that’s brilliant (I’ve never actually managed this). The words should be coming out of your mouth, not being read by the audience from a screen. Slides are visual aids for your speaking, not a book.”
See? Easy. Just remember all these do’s and don’ts and you should be fine. The thing is, we know that hearing advice from professionals is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, you’re still going to get sweaty palms before you step onstage. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to work out how not to be nervous, and maybe that’s a good thing. As annoying, crippling, and embarrassing they are, nerves mean you’re not arrogant or complacent. Just ask Bruce Springsteen.