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8 Useful (And Free) Public Speaking Tips From Comedy and Improv Coaches
You know that old Jerry Seinfeld bit about public speaking?
It goes like this: Speaking in front of a crowd is the number-one fear of the average person, even above death. So, “if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Put this plainly, public speaking is a ridiculous thing to be afraid of. Still, it remains at the top of the list.
“I think people are afraid in general,” said Patrick McInnis, an improv performer and teacher in Florida. “Communication is a fearful thing, in general. Being authentic is scary.”
When you’re in front of a group of people, all eyes are you. That’s tough on self-esteem, said David Abolafia, a stand-up comedian and comedy coach.
“Over the course of our lifetime, we have been told, over and over again, that we can’t do something or we shouldn’t do something or we’re not good at something, and we take that in,” said Abolafia. “It affects our self-image, to the point that getting up in front of people to speak (is overwhelming).”
Les McCurdy, a veteran performer and instructor at the Humor Institute at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre in Tampa, points out, “Fear of public humiliation, I believe, is stronger in a lot of people than the fear of physical injury.”
Given the choice between humiliation in front of a group of people or being punched in the face, McCurdy says he thinks “most people would gladly take the punches.”
How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking
I talked to these performers to learn how they overcome the fear and take the stage every night. Here’s what they teach students who are getting up for the first time to perform stand-up or improv comedy.
1. Be Confident
One of the most important public speaking tips is one you probably hate to hear: Have confidence in yourself. Sorry, you’re hearing it again.
I know — just knowing you’re supposed to be confident doesn’t make you confident. What you need is to be prepared and know whatever you plan to present is enough.
“Trust that what got you there is already sufficient, and you’ll be OK,” said McInnis.
That means even if you forget your lines, don’t get a laugh or trip on your way to the podium, be happy with yourself. It means if you’re an intern presenting an idea to the executive team, know you’re good enough.
Your confidence and comfort makes the presentation better.
“If you are having fun, so will the audience,” said McCurdy. “If you tighten up and get insecure, it will show, and the audience will start to feel what you are feeling — and that's not good.”
2. Know Your Audience
“Listening is the biggest thing that I teach,” said McInnis.
In improv, that means listening to your partner or team on stage so you can react accordingly. In public speaking, it means paying attention to what your audience needs.
Some of that “listening” will happen while you’re on stage, as you adjust to the reaction of your audience. But mostly, it should happen in advance.
“If you’re a good speaker, you’re going to have written your speech based on what people are wanting to hear,” said McInnis. “ If you’ve listened to their challenges, then you’ve come up with the right talking points. If you’re starting from a place that you think is important, then more than likely, you’re not going to be speaking to the audience on their terms.”
Before speaking in front of an audience, make sure you understand them. Are they college students or your co-workers? Do they want to pick a career or just learn how to use Gmail better?
Tailor your presentation and demeanor to match their goals.
3. Speak to One Person
I have heard more than one political expert gush over what makes President Bill Clinton such a great public speaker. One thing I often hear is he makes you feel like he’s talking directly to you — even in a crowd of thousands of people.
That doesn’t mean he’s making eye contact with only you the whole time. The trick, McInnis points out, is to “prepare as if you’re communicating this message to one person.”
Write your presentation as if you’re having a conversation with just one person, not putting on a show for dozens or hundreds of people.
That should make the audience comfortable and put you at ease, too.
4. Don’t Say TOO Much
Another part of confidence in yourself is confidence in your material. McInnis explains:
“Newer improvisers or challenged improvisers … are afraid they haven’t said enough, they haven’t been funny enough, and as a result, they’ll make choices like step on their scene partner’s line or drive the scene… because they fear that what they’ve done isn’t enough yet.”
I catch myself doing this in presentations all the time! Can you relate?
Afraid the audience won’t understand something the way we said it, we keep adding to it — usually off-script. It’s usually not necessary.
Trust in what you’ve planned. If you understand your audience and what they need from you, it should be enough. If you over-explain, you’ll more likely lose their interest than gain their acceptance.
5. Slow Down
“When people get on stage, they tend to talk too fast,” said Abolafia.
Your adrenaline is flowing, and you want to power through to the end of your presentation. But if you talk too fast, your audience won’t have a chance to hear, understand and digest what you’re saying.
When you write your speech or presentation, build in pauses and places to breathe. They give you time to pull back and relax, and they let your audience take in what you’ve just said.
6. Focus on Your Main Point
My biggest fear when speaking to a group? Forgetting my lines.
If you don’t have a teleprompter or notes to guide you, what do you do when you draw a blank in front of all those people?
McInnis advises, “Go back to what you started with.”
That is, remember what you promised the audience from the beginning.
“In any show, movie, play — and any improv scene, and any speech — there’s a promise made at the top,” he said. “We make a promise as to what we’re going to talk about, what our character’s beliefs are, or what our roles are within each relationship. … Should you ever get lost in a speech, going back to your original point should always bring you back to where you want to be.”
That speaks to a basic tenet of speech writing: Tell the audience what you’re going to talk about, talk about it, then tell them what you just talked about.
Keep that singular focus. If you forget what you’re supposed to say next, return to the purpose of the presentation. Ask yourself, what else can I say to achieve that purpose?
Maybe it will help you remember the next line. If not, it will at least help you get on with the show. After all, the audience doesn’t know what you had planned.
7. Make Sure You Care About the Material
“You must commit and give (the performance) 100% of your energy,” said McCurdy. “If you back off, you never give it a true chance.”
Phoning in a presentation is tough. The audience can usually tell when you’re not all there.
Make sure when you climb on stage, step behind a podium, stand up in a board room — whatever it is — you commit your words, mind, body language and energy to what you’re about to say.
That’s a lot easier to do if you actually care about it.
“Anybody can get up on stage and tell a joke, but unless the joke means something to you, the audience is not going to appreciate it at the level that you’re going to want,” Abolafia explained about performing stand-up.
“If you’re engaged with the material … emphasize that, so that people understand and people appreciate the fact that you have a passion about what you’re speaking of.”
8. Engage With the Audience
Finally, if you’re confident in your presentation, passionate about the topic and understand your audience well, convey that by engaging with them.
You may not solicit suggestions from the audience, like an improv performer, or respond to a heckler, like a comic. But comedy training (or at least thinking like an improv or stand-up performer) can help you be more comfortable and organic on stage.
“Sometimes you have to be able to look away from (what you’ve prepared) and engage with what’s going on around you,” said Abolafia.
You can ask questions directly — or not. You can point out reactions from audience members — or not. When it comes to public speaking, unfortunately, there are no clear rules of engagement.
But thinking of it like a conversation should help.
Your audience might not talk back, but they’ll laugh, applaud, scoff, shift in their seats or nod along, for example. Engagement means you adjust your demeanor according to that reaction.
Skip the line you wrote that says, “You know what I’m talking about!” when everyone shakes their head and definitely does not know what you’re talking about.
Pause for a breath if your audience becomes emotional. Let them feel it.
And let them laugh — even if it’s unexpected! It’s usually a good thing, so don’t try to talk over it.
“If you stomp on laughter,” Abolafia said, “people will stop laughing, because they do want to hear you.”
Your Turn: Are you afraid of public speaking? How do you deal with it?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).