Even in our first language, speaking in front of a group of people makes us anxious. Whether it is a work or university meeting, in person or online, we worry about saying the wrong thing or running out of things to say. 

In a second language, we have the added stress that we may not always find the right words and sentences. However, there are many things we can do to reduce that anxiety and be more confident.

Why are people scared of public speaking?

For many people, speaking in front of a crowd triggers “fight or flight” responses similar to those we feel when we’re in intense danger. Sweaty palms, increased heart rate, warped perception of time…You’re just preparing to give a speech, but your body is behaving as though it’d seen a pack of hungry wolves. Why?

Well, probably our bodies are trying to keep us safe. Fear of public speaking could be an instinct from when we depended directly on our communities to survive. If you spoke in front of everyone you knew and upset them, then the consequences might have been life-threatening. It would be impossible to survive in nature without collaborating with others every day on finding food and shelter!

What’s more, in Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies, experts estimate you might only have had 20 – 25 people in your immediate community. If you’re presenting to a crowd greater than that, no wonder you’re a nervous wreck! Whilst our societies have evolved and changed beyond recognition, the human brain has not. A fear of public speaking, whilst deeply annoying, is the most natural thing in the world. 

10 tips for public speaking in English 

Public speaking might feel like one of those mysterious skills that people are born with, or without. But it isn’t! The more you do prepare and practice, the better your speeches will be. 

1. Remember that people want you to succeed

People like listening to other people. People are kind and want you to succeed. Anyone who has learned a second language knows it is tough and wants to support you. Anyone who hasn’t will automatically be impressed. It can be easier said than done, but try to see your listeners as your allies and supporters. They are on your side.

2. Speak directly from your thoughts

It is always much more interesting to hear someone creating sentences as they speak rather than reading something written in advance. Unless you are a brilliant actor, it is very hard to read a text in a natural way. When someone is constructing their sentences as they speak, we listen carefully to find out where they are going. Of course, it means more mistakes but this is part of sounding natural and authentic.

3. Prepare speaking notes

Your individual sentences will sound more authentic if you don’t plan and memorize them, but you should certainly prepare notes about your general ideas! Even when you only have a few moments to prepare, write down a few bullet points to structure your thoughts and remind you what to say. If you’re speaking in English or another less familiar language, note down any tricky or important words and phrases on a small piece of paper to hold in your hand. 

Any good plan should include a clear introduction that tells people what you are going to say; this will help them follow your contribution and feel comfortable. It should also include a clear conclusion where your main point is repeated, so that people know exactly what you want them to remember. 

4. Know your audience

Consider who you will be talking to, what they already know and what they want to know from you. If many of your listeners are also using their second or third language, they will appreciate clear and simple messages. Think about what information or experience you have that will be most interesting to them.

5. Speak slowly and clearly 

Speaking fast is a sure sign that you want this to be over as quickly as possible. It makes you more difficult to understand, especially if your accent might be unfamiliar to your listeners. When people do not pause, it shows that they are scared of being interrupted. Good speakers speak slowly and clearly and pause to give emphasis to important points.

6. People love stories

If you have had any personal experiences, use them. It may start with a personal journey, a moment of revelation or a funny story. Speaking personally helps to humanize you and illustrates your opinions. Referring again to your story before your finish will help you to finish well.

7. Look at your audience 

People react naturally to eye-contact. It makes us feel connected. So, even if you have to look at your notes occasionally, maintain eye contact with the people you are talking to. If your audience knows that you are looking at them, they won’t start checking their phones. Focus especially on your friends and those who look interested and are nodding and smiling. 

8. Build up your confidence

If you have the chance, a quiet moment alone can build your confidence. Breathe deeply. Remind yourself that you are strong, that your thoughts are worth hearing. The motto “fake it ‘til you make it” contains a lot of truth. Acting confident will actually make you feel more confident which means your listeners will trust you more.

9. Use your body

Many of the signals that tell us whether someone is happy or confident are non-verbal. In fact, in the 1960s, a pioneering study at the University of California, Los Angles concluded that body language makes up 55% of communication during a conversation. 

Twisting your body to make it as small as possible shows that you don’t want to be seen. Hands in front of faces or arms across bodies make it look as if someone is protecting themselves from an unseen attack. A few hand gestures can add to what you say but hands flying about all the time like little birds are distracting. Stillness is very powerful and makes you seem in control.

If you’re not sure what your body language is saying, try recording a video of yourself practicing the speech. You’ll either spot some movement habits to unlearn, or be pleasantly surprised! 

10. Practice, practice, practice

Whether talking to your dog or talking to yourself, the more you exercise your mind and voice in your new language, the easier it gets. If you know you have to make a verbal contribution, then practice it. A walk in the park is a great opportunity to rehearse, even people may think you have gone mad. You can also ask a friend or a tutor to listen to you and give you feedback. 

Date: 30 Jun 2024
Day: Sunday