How To Overcome Your Fear Of Public Speaking, According To Michelle Obama's Speechwriter
Public speaking can seem like a daunting feat for some. The ability to cleverly write and passionately deliver a speech implies a lot of subtle pressure, making it a nerve-wracking pursuit. But for many of us, it's a skill we still wish to acquire, because as we enter adulthood, public speaking becomes an interwoven, common place factor of our daily lives.
For example, what if we need to stand up and give a speech at our best friend's wedding reception? Or, in order to nail that promotion, we must first deliver a convincing work presentation to your boss? Let's face it: the older we grow, the more inescapable public speaking becomes. It's time to work overcome our public speaking fears.
Who better to learn this skillset from than Sarah Hurwitz, chief speechwriter for Michelle Obama since 2008? She recently addressed an audience filled with the next generation of artists, activists, and humanitarians at the 2018 Teen Vogue Summit on how to get your point across when you're speaking in public.
Below are 27 tips from Hurwitz on becoming the best public speaker you can be, so when it's your turn to take the stage, you can reach your full potential and shine as brightly as possible.
1. Write To Be Heard, Not Read
When you sit down to write a speech, don't use the same grammatical tools that you'd utilize when writing an essay. When you read something aloud, or speak to somebody in real time, there isn't the same emphasis on punctuation that exists on paper. So Hurwitz believes you should write to be heard, and make sure you read your words out loud to yourself, to catch any funny business ahead of time.
2. Don't Expect A List Of Linear Successes
Everyone is an amateur at one point in time, Hurwitz says. Nobody goes from being new at something to becoming an expert overnight. When it comes to public speaking, do not apply any unnecessary pressure by expecting one success after another. In this case, perfect takes practice. Be patient with yourself, and keep working hard and giving your best.
3. Failures And Missteps Are The Keys To Achievement
Hurwitz believes that in order to learn what works, you need to discover what does not. That means that through the process of trial and error, you will eventually discern the path of your own voice. Practice self-compassion as you navigate what humor, poetry, and stat reading works best with your skillset. It isn't failure that determines success, but instead, the ability to reflect upon said missteps and apply that knowledge in the future.
4. Tell Your Most Important Truth In This Particular Moment
Giving a good speech requires connection, and true connection is the product of vulnerability, Hurwitz says. In order to have your point truly resonate with your audience, ask yourself: what is the deepest, most important truth that I can tell in this particular moment? Speak honestly and directly, with as much specification as possible. People can tell the difference between authenticity and performance.
5. Think About What Do You Want People To Leave The Room Knowing
Identify your main talking points, the true crux of your speech, Hurwitz says. Think of these lessons as your corner stone, and cling to them tightly. These facets are what you want the audience to leave the room knowing, reflecting on, and discussing for the rest of the there week. Then make sure to cleverly embed and emphasize these points throughout your speech.
6. Talk Like A Human Being
You know those big thesaurus words we look up online and use in our written work — from essays to emails — in order to sound more professional, but would never use in real life? As a general rule, Hurwitz believes that if you wouldn't typically use a word in conversation, leave it out of your speech. Audience members will have difficulty following or connecting with you if they can't understand what you're saying or you're speaking like a computer. Keep it colloquial.
7. Use Your Own Voice
In the same vein, never try to emulate someone else when giving a speech or attempting to make a point, Hurwitz says. Sure, Winston Churchill was a phenomenal public speaker, but that doesn't mean that a woman in her 20s, should try to sound more like him. Make sure that when you're speaking, you sound like yourself. Use the vernacular and vocabulary you would normally use in the conversation. It will always send more natural.
8. Show Don't Tell
Ah yes, the advice every English teacher has given you since elementary school. But truly, show don't tell is highly effective advice when it comes to storytelling. If someone's speaking with you about their friend Mandy, and they want to communicate to you that she's arrogant., which of the following scenarios are you more likely remember —
A: My friend Mandy is arrogant, self absorbed, obsessive, and narcissistic.
B: When my friend Mandy takes me shopping, she makes us stop every five minutes so she can check herself out in the mirror and asks me photograph every outfit she tries on, to share with her "fans".
You've probably already forgotten the list of adjectives, but chances are, you'll hang on to at least one of those two anecdotes. Hurwitz believes in the power of the narrative.
9. Don't Abuse Adjectives
Related to the previous point, when it comes to speech writing, Hurwitz says that adjectives can often be your enemy. It can seem easy to fill up a page with decorative language, but overusing adjectives and adverbs only adds fluff to your argument and makes it even harder to get your point across. Write clean, concise copy, and speak as directly as possible, to keep your audience engaged. Save your adjectives for written work instead!
10. Rigorously Fact Check
In an age when "fake news" has become more than just buzz words, how does one portray themselves as honestly and truthfully as humanly possible? By fact checking, Hurwitz says. Every sentence you write, every claim you make, every story you reference — research, research, research. Even when it feels tedious or a waste of time, you'll be thankful you did it in the long run. Being able to defend your point is the best way to defeat the phenomenon that is fake news.
11. Get To Know Your Audience
Hurwitz believes that before giving a speech, you must always ask yourself who your audience is and learn as much about that group of people as possible. Never go in blind, or give the same speech to two very different audiences — tailor your work to your spectators. Reach out to members of the community you'll be speaking with in advance: ask them questions and run your ideas by them. Be respectful of those you will be addressing, and speak with conviction and consideration.
12. If You Say Something Memorable, It'll Get Picked Up
We live in the era soundbite. That means that if you take a risk in your speech by saying anything slightly controversial or particularly memorable, chances are it'll get picked up by your community or the media. In this day and age, news travels at the literal speed of light. With that being said, that doesn't mean you need to necessarily shy away from the spotlight. But be cognizant when writing your speech of what could potentially happen, all the variables, and then take calculated risks accordingly, Hurwitz says.
13. Practice As Much As Possible
You know in the movies, when a character is slated to give a big speech, but decides to wing it and speak from the heart instead? Don't do that. Apparently, in real life, going in unprepared and improvising rarely goes well. In the world of public speaking, Hurwitz says that practice is your friend. Don't attempt to memorize a speech, unless you have a phenomenal memory. Rehearse reading it aloud. Work out all the kinks in advance. Instead of going in blind, go in prepared.
14. Figure Out The Right Format For You
Don't force yourself to follow a format that you don't feel comfortable with just because someone insists its the most effective, Hurwitz says. Formatting is subjective, and it's important to find whatever works best for you. Perhaps reading the speech verbatim makes you feel most at ease. Maybe you fare best scanning bullet points in order to trigger your talking points. You might even choose to abandon your piece of paper and opt in favor of note cards instead. Whatever works!
15. Utilize The Top Half Of The Page Only
This is actually a super neat trick. If you're choosing to read your speech or refer to notes from a piece of paper, only use the top half, or first two-thirds of the page, instead of top to bottom. This is because when you're reading from the entire page, often times when you reach the bottom your force to crane your neck in order to see the sentences. This not only hides your face from the audience, but causes you to swallow your words! Avoid this upset by only utilizing the first half instead, Hurwitz says.
16. Know Exactly Who You Are
Remember: the audience can smell fraudulence a mile away. Hurwitz believes that authenticity can feel like a rare device when it comes to the public sphere, so take advantage of what makes you uniquely who! Ask yourself, who am I and what do I want to say? Why are you the person to say this, at this particular point in time? If you are secure in who you are as a person and what you stand for, the audience will feel safe and more likely to trust you.
17. Address A Hostile Audience With Respect
Your audience is not always going to agree with what your belief system or what you have to say, Hurwitz says. In fact, most people have to speak to a hostile environment at least once in their lifetimes. The key is to speak to people with divisive belief systems with respect and consideration. Be the biggest person in the room, and always assume that whoever you are speaking with is not acting maliciously and is well intentioned. Treat them the way you would want to be treated.
18. Address Any Tension In The Room
If you're entering a tense environment, with a divided audience who already firmly stand by in what they believe (a debate would be the perfect example of this type of scenario), Hurwitz believes that you shouldn't try to ignore it or sweep it under the rug. Address the tension right off the bat. Acknowledge and validate the opinions of those you disagree with — show them that you understand where they come from. Then give them another way of looking at things for their consideration.
19. The Devil's In The Heartbreaking Details
When it comes to telling a good story, Hurwitz believes that the greater attention to detail, the better. The whimsical tales that resonate with listeners for years to come, always have the crux of good ghost stories: a haunting specificity that will linger in your mind. Don't just talk about your interaction with a woman one time: what was she wearing? Which day of the week was it? Where was her mind at? That one detail that is so crystal clear it'll break your heart: that's what you're looking for.
20. Use Analogies To Further Understanding
Sometimes when two people have conflicting opinions, or are from completely different cultural backgrounds, it can be difficult for them to see eye-to-eye. In order to further the lines of communication, Hurwitz suggests using analogies, metaphor, and allegory to help explain what you're trying to say, and help your audience understand your point on their own terms, using their own rhetoric.
21. See The Speech In Its Entirety
Just because in today's day and age soundbites have become inevitable, does not mean you need to focus on procuring them — in fact, quite the opposite. Hurwitz says that your entire speech cannot be made up of soundbites: it won't flow well, sound cohesive, and will ultimately fall flat. Instead, focus on the entire speech as a whole. Listen to it as a movement, from top to bottom. Treat it like a good song: no great piece of music is solely made up of hooks.
22. Speak To People Who Know Nothing About Your Topic
When you're an expert in your field, you take certain knowledge for granted and use a very specific vernacular, Hurwitz says. But knowing too much about the topic that you're speaking about can be incredibly dangerous. If you're a fish fully immersed, swimming around in water, you no longer know the water is there. To avoid such a problem, speak to people who know nothing about your topic. If they can't follow what you're saying, you'll know that you have a problem.
23. Know When To Cut It Short
Not everyone is naturally charismatic. If you know that you're someone who thrives off of surveys and statistics, but doesn't particularly enjoy engaging with and warming up a crowd, don't put yourself in pain! Hurwitz says to cut the poetry, and stick to speaking directly and honestly instead. Make sure your piece doesn't drone on and on, and that it pinpoints exactly what you're trying to say in a certain of time, in order to resonate with the audience.
24. Take A Strong Stance
Body language truly can be key for some public speakers, Hurwitz says. If you are someone who struggles with anxiety or stage fright, use this trick to settle your stomach: plant both feet firmly on the ground, to the extent that if a gust of wind were to suddenly blow down the door and enter the room, you'd remain unshaken. Use your stance as a means of grounding you in your self awareness and confidence.
25. End With Actionable Advice
Hurwitz believes that words have persuasive power: the ability to inspire reflection, meditation, and conversation. But how do you speak to a group of people with the intention of provoking action and change? End your piece with actionable advice: something that audience members can physically do as a token of their support. Whether it's texting a number to join a newsletter, or pledging to donate $5, make sure each person has done something to contribute before they leave the room.
26. You Cannot Rely On The Audience
There are moments when public speakers will get an incredible, supportive, and receptive crowd, that will cry alongside of them, and laugh when appropriate, and cheer for everything — those moments are rare, and should be savored. Hurwitz believes that you cannot rely on the audience for your energy, because every so often, no matter what you do, an audience will completely fall flat. Derive energy from your own passion and purpose instead!
27. Find Something Bigger Than This Moment
To slow down pre-speech jitters, Hurwitz suggests focusing on something much larger than yourself. It can be any kind of spiritual practice or regimen: from meditation, to yoga, to organized religion. You just need to believe in it, and remind yourself that the universe is so much larger than this one speech. Use it as a cornerstone, to ground you in your purpose. Then exhale. Let it all go. The pressure will be released.
Remember: no two speakers are alike. There is no "right" way to address an audience — as long as you treat them with respect, integrity, and compassion, and speak from a place of honesty, passion and conviction. You can't go wrong.