Public Speaking Prep: How to Leave a Lasting Impression

How to Boost Confidence Before a Big Speech
by Kathleen McAuliffe
Photos Diana Zapata | September 29, 2017
Five minutes before your big speech, you know you're ready. You've rehearsed all your lines and triple-checked the technology. But when you're waiting backstage? "OMG, I'm about to forget all my lines, the server's going to crash and I'm gonna look like such an idiot..."  
Can't handle the wait? You're not alone: we think that anticipating pain is worse than actually experiencing it, according to The Harvard Business Review. And no matter how many times you practiced, you'll probably feel some last-minute panic before the presentation that makes or breaks your career (admit it, it's not that big of a deal). But despite all the doom and gloom rushing your mind, you're already ready. If you can use those nerve-racking final moments to your advantage, you can start any speaking engagement with well-deserved confidence and poise. 

Five minutes before your big speech, you’re stuck standing behind the stage, your palms sweating, your breath shaking, debating whether or not to fake a flesh-eating bacterial disease to get out of it. Ya know, the usual. 

Your stage fright doesn’t have to turn into a stage fail, though. Try these five simple ways to get in the right headspace before stepping on stage. 

1. Accept your anxiety as a normal part of the process

You can’t overcome your fear if you pretend it’s not there or worse, feel ashamed of it. Beat yourself up for feeling afraid and you’ll undermine your confidence when you need it most. So cut yourself some slack. After spending hours preparing to speak, it’d be more concerning if you didn’t care about the outcome.

Besides being OK, a little anxiety can actually help you. Those sweaty palms show that you’re personally invested in your presentation. And those worst-case scenarios bouncing around your mind? They show that you’ve anticipated and prepared for potential problems—so you won’t be blindsided if something does go wrong.

So embrace the fear—it’s as simple as saying,” I’m a little scared—and that’s OK.” Once you admit it, you’ll be able to fight—and conquer—it.

2. Perform some breathing exercises

In the seconds before your big speech, your mind’s helpfully reminding you of everything that could go wrong onstage. Your negative thoughts snowball and before you know it, you’re sure you’ll say something that gets you fired. Slow down that train through some basic breathing exercises. By regaining control of your breath, you’ll be able to lower your blood pressure and rein in those catastrophic thoughts.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to full-on meditate or anything. Just inhale for a count of four—then exhale for a count of four. In, out, in, out. Easy as that.

To loosen up your body, try progressive relaxation: while breathing slowly (same four counts as before), consciously tighten and relax individual muscles, starting with your head and moving down to your shoulders, hips, and legs. That sense of physical control will carry over to more confidence on stage.

3. Repeat Some Positive Affirmations 

I’m going to sound like an idiot. Who said I could stand in public and like, tell people to do things anyway? No matter how well you’ve prepped, you can still fall prey to second guessing when you’re just standing around backstage.

But speaking with authority means speaking with confidence. And that confidence is probably well-deserved. After all, someone decided that your message was important enough to share with an audience—and that you were the perfect person to tell it. So give yourself some credit with some positive affirmations. Even if you can’t convince yourself that you’ll kill it, you’ll at least distract yourself from the doomsday thoughts.   

Some simple examples: “I have so much to say and I can’t wait to share it.” “My words can have a positive effect on other people.” “My message is important and valuable.”

Affirmations won’t magically inject you with charisma. But once you remember why you and your presentation matter, you’ll sell it your crowd on it more convincingly.

4. Nod “yes” to yourself

Disclaimer: don’t do this if you’re in eyeshot of your audience.  

But once you’ve hit a certain stage of self doubt, you’ll twist every thought into something negative. “I have so much to say,” turns into “I have too much to say. What if I run out of time?” That sort of thing. The solution: stop thinking.

Affirm your worth silently by just nodding “yes” to yourself. Research shows that the up-and-down movement, by itself, can improve your confidence in your own thoughts.

5. Paint the Big Picture 

Second before hitting the stage, you’re frantically re-reading your script because if you forget a single word, you’ll forget everything that comes next and just stare in silence for 10 minutes. Right? Of course not.

Besides, the best public speakers speak from the heart, not their notecards. So don’t try to commit every single word to memory. The cram sesh will stress you out when you need to relax. Instead, step back and ask some big picture questions. 
  • What are the most important points you want to convey?
  • What emotions do you want them to take away?
  • What actions do you want them to take as a result of your speech? 
Once you’ve reconnected with your “why,” you’ll be more prepared to speak naturally and authentically on the topic. No more notecards, no more stress.

Do you have any other tips for those nerve-racking moments?