Many of the leaders I coach have similar experiences with public speaking. They rise up through the ranks in their careers, making their way to senior leadership positions that require speaking in a multitude of settings, from board meetings and conferences to acting as a public face for their companies.
These situations could make anyone apprehensive, but they are particularly challenging for speakers tasked with addressing audiences in a language that is not their native one.
As a non-native English speaker myself, I frequently face these challenges. But, I have found several practices that help me thrive in front of audiences of all kinds.
Here are some tips that can help native and non-native English speakers alike boost their confidence and success as a public speaker.
Non-native English speakers often worry most about their grammar — is this the right tense? Am I pronouncing the word correctly? They focus so much on grammar that they miss what’s really important: getting their points across effectively. Don’t worry about passing as a native English speaker. You don’t have to be free of an accent or use perfect grammar to connect to an audience. Focus instead on delivery and the clarity of your key messages.
When people are anxious about public speaking, they tend to speak quickly, wanting to get through a speech as fast as possible. This can result in speech that’s difficult to understand and a one-note pace that can cause an audience to disconnect. Instead, try slowing down. This doesn’t mean slowly enunciating every word; it means emphasizing key words as a way to vary the pace of your speech and the fluctuations of your voice. This variety helps keep an audience interested and engaged.
Filler words are the words we use to fill the space while we’re searching for the next word or phrase to say. I didn’t realize my filler word was “OK” until I watched a recording of myself delivering a speech. Why did I sound like I was saying “OK” 500 times? Try replacing filler words with silence. It will feel awkward at first – in American culture, especially, we feel that silence is uncomfortable. But, from an audience’s perspective, that brief pause catches our attention. It invites us to listen for the words outside of the silence.
When we smile, we send a signal to our brain that we are feeling content and relaxed. Our brains, in turn, tell our bodies to feel the same. Smiling also projects confidence. When audience members smile back, we get in-the-moment positive feedback that boosts confidence, too. Eye contact works in similar ways. When you’re speaking, try holding eye contact with individual audience members for 10 to 15 seconds at a time. Avoid scanning the entire audience – this can make you feel dizzy.
Eye contact is important in virtual settings, too. Try looking at people as you speak. Even if you’re not exactly making eye contact, you’ll still get that feeling of connection. If you can’t see your audience, push yourself to look directly into the camera while speaking. I put a small sticker underneath my camera to remind myself to do this. Otherwise, my eyes might drift to my notes, disconnecting me from my audience.
People often write out their speeches and read them, delivering them word for word. To an audience, this can feel rigid and unnatural. Instead, try organizing your speech into key talking points that guide you from one moment to the next. Talking points help your speech sound more natural and conversational, which is much more engaging to an audience.
Many of my colleagues, some of whom are non-native English speakers, make public speaking look so easy. But, they achieve that ease and comfort through hours of practice. After you have solidified your talking points, practice your speech — in front of others, in front of a mirror, and record yourself, too. Then, on the day of your speech, don’t practice. Trust that you’ve prepared as best you can and step onto the stage with a smile, eye contact, and the confidence that you can relax into the moment and engage your audience, no matter your native language.
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