It’s been nine (!!!) years now since I was invited to serve as a panelist for Paul Carrick Brunson’s Modern Day Matchmaker live event in Washington, D.C., which means it’s been nine years since the first time I spoke in front of a large audience. And also it’s been nine years since I was so terrified about getting in front of all those people that I took five shots of Hennessy—a flagrantly overrated drink that people pretend to like because Tupac drank it—a half hour before the show just to calm myself the fuck down.
In the years since then, I’ve grown progressively more comfortable with doing that sort of thing. I belong to a speakers bureau now, and I’ve spoken at several different colleges and universities this year alone. On Thursday night, I was one of the panelists for the Lovett or Leave It live podcast in Pittsburgh, which was held in front of 1,500 people. And two weeks ago, I gave a 25-minute talk for Creative Mornings Pittsburgh, centered on the concept of “game.”
When I’m asked to do speaking engagements, I make it clear that I prefer moderated talks and/or interactive Q&As to stand-alone talks where I’m onstage by myself. I’ve said that this preference is due to my belief that moderated talks keep the audience more engaged. Which is truish, but it conveniently neglects my other reason, which is that being up there by myself scared the shit out of me.
The Creative Mornings talk was the first time I ever did that. But this time, instead of five shots of Henny beforehand, I just needed a mimosa with a shot of Henny in it (which is actually surprisingly good) to “prepare.”
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the public-speaking anxiety hasn’t completely left me, and most likely never will. But if you, like me, are a person who prefers writing things and having people read them to saying things and having people hear them, there are always ways to minimize that anxiety, ways to work around it, and ways to channel it into something less paralyzing and more empowering. These tips might not work for everyone, but they’ve been extremely helpful for me.
1. Be extremely discerning about what you choose to talk about.
Perhaps after you’ve grown more comfortable in front of crowds, you can agree to speak about subjects on which you’re not an expert, but the best way to alleviate anxiety is to know what the fuck you’re talking about. You want to have a vault of knowledge to be able to pull from, because knowing that you possess that will give you a confidence that you might not have if speaking about something you’re less sure about.
Do extensive research and take extensive notes on what you’re asked to and/or are planning to speak about, even if you don’t intend to use them. If you’re doing a moderated talk, go over the discussion points and questions with the moderator beforehand, and tell them what you’re comfortable and uncomfortable with discussing. If on a panel, do the same thing and research the panelists to be prepared for the type of energy/expertise they’re going to bring. It wouldn’t even hurt to introduce yourself to them beforehand, just to build a rapport.
Preparing also means knowing what type of setup will be used. Will the mics be handheld or clip-on? Will you have stools? Seats? A podium? How close will the audience be to the stage?
The more you know, the less anxious you’ll be.
3. Be yourself.
Of course, by “be yourself” I don’t mean act like you’re in bed with a bowl of dry Cheerios and watching shark-attack clips on YouTube. (Although doing that in front of an audience would be some top-notch performance art.) But if you’re dry, be dry. If you’re sober with occasional bouts of silly, be sober and silly. If you’re not funny at all ... well, this isn’t the time to force yourself to be. When I first started speaking in front of large crowds, much of my anxiety was due to a self-induced pressure to perform. But while you do have to be engaged and you should try to speak above a whisper, allowing yourself to be yourself alleviates some of that pressure.
4. Remember that you’ve been in audiences before.
And when you were in those audiences during those panels and those talks, did you hear and remember every single word the people speaking said? Of course not. And when you speak, your audience won’t, either.
So don’t fret too much about points maybe not coming out exactly the way you wanted them to. I know it’s annoying not being able to edit the same way you can when writing, but that’s fine. (And, if so inclined, you can actually go back while speaking and clarify a sentence or an analogy you didn’t articulate the way you wanted to the first time. You have the mic and the floor, so you can do whatever the fuck you want!)
5. Don’t feel compelled to bullshit.
If you’re on a panel or doing a Q&A and you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, or are presented with a subject you don’t have much expertise in, just be honest. Don’t feel compelled to drum up something just because you were asked.
Also, in a favorable irony, if you actually say, “You know, that’s a very difficult question, and I honestly don’t have an answer,” it somehow makes you look smarter. The audience will go away thinking: “Shit. He just said ‘I don’t know.’ This dude’s a fucking genius!”
6. If you can, wear a book bag while delivering your talk.
Ah, never mind about that. I think this is one of those things that just helped me.