How to be a confident public speaker

Public speaking tips from a pro

We caught up with the Head of Curation for TEDxSydney, Fenella Kernebone, to discuss storytelling, getting over nerves and whether you should picture the audience in their underwear (spoiler: you definitely shouldn’t).

Knees weak, palms sweaty? For most of us, just the thought of giving a speech in front of a crowd can result in a serious case of the jitters. So what can you do to nail a speech and keep your audience engaged?

To answer this question, we enlisted the advice of public speaking veteran, Fenella Kernebone, whose day job has had her speaking in front of large audiences – sometimes more than 5000 people – every week. She shares the tips and tricks she’s picked up over the years on how to keep an audience engaged. 

What kinds of public speaking gigs do you do?

Fenella: All kinds – as an MC, a presenter, an interviewer, a panel moderator – you name it. At TEDxSydney this year, there were more than 5000 people in the audience, and I recently was the MC at Xerocon in Brisbane, so I was talking to an audience of 3500 people.

One thing I’ve found is that the principles of public speaking are the same, regardless of your audience’s size. You need to find a way to connect with people through storytelling and body language, whether it's 50 people, or 5000. 

So, how would you prepare to speak in front of a large audience?

Fenella: There are three important things to consider when it comes to preparation: scripting, planning and delivery.

First, carve out some time to prepare. Write down the structure of what you want to say and really script it out. Think about your introduction, your hook and your conclusion. When coming up with your conclusion, work out what you want the audience to walk away with.

Then, you need to think about the delivery. And that means rehearsing. Take time to practice how you’re going to say something, the words you’ll use, the stories that you want to tell. All those things are vital when preparing for a talk.

I think the most important thing to remember is that the audience is on your side. They’re there to hear what you have to say.

How do you rehearse?

Fenella: I tend to wander around my apartment when trying to memorise ideas. I prefer to rehearse on my own, because I look like a real goof wandering around and talking to myself.

Once you feel confident with your material, it’s worth practicing in front of people whose opinions you value, such as colleagues or friends. For example, if you’re presenting ideas that haven’t been expressed before, it’s great to practice in front of people and get critical feedback. Ask them if they understood, if they found the talk interesting, and what would make it more interesting. This is your personal market research, and a great way of testing if you’ve gotten your message across.

Were you always good at public speaking, or was it something you had to work on?

Fenella: Not really, I was a pretty shy kid. When I first started out in my media career, I was more than happy to speak on the radio but was terrified to speak in public.

But as with everything in life, public speaking is a skill you can acquire. There are a few people who are naturals when it comes to public speaking, but for most of us, it's difficult. Standing in front of an audience is pretty terrifying, so the key is to build confidence that you feel like you can do it.

For me, the nerves are still there, but it’s not as crippling as it once was.

As with everything in life, public speaking is a skill you can acquire. There are a few people who are naturals when it comes to public speaking, but for most of us, it's difficult.

How do you do overcome nerves?

Fenella: There are so many little things you can do to overcome nerves. If you’re prone to nerves, preparing is vital. Make sure you know exactly what you want to say, and then you prepare for contingencies. If there’s Q&A, ask around for the weirdest questions you can possibly imagine on this topic, and prepare answers. 

The other thing is to use breathing techniques. I’ve had experiences where I’ve gotten on stage and felt so nervous that it was hard to breathe. Now I make time to do some breathing exercises to centre myself. Warming your voice can be useful, drinking some water, make sure you use the bathroom ten minutes before you go on stage. Get to the venue early so you have an idea of the space you’ll be speaking in. Make sure you do all the little things you need to do so you feel comfortable.

Also, make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothes. If you like wearing heels, that’s great. But if you’re wearing those heels for the first time before a 45-minute talk, it’s painful. Trust me on this one. Once you find a comfortable outfit, rehearse in those clothes so you know they will work.

Let’s say you stumble; how would you recover?

Fenella: I think the most important thing to remember is that the audience is on your side. They’re there to hear what you have to say. 

So, if you stuff up, the best thing you can do is to acknowledge it. You could say “I got that wrong, here’s how I should have said it.” We do it in conversations all the time, so why not in speech? 

And finally, you know the old tip to picture the audience in their underwear – what are your thoughts on that?

Fenella: Nope, that’s gross. The idea behind that is to make you laugh and calm down. It’s not something I’d personally want to imagine before getting up on stage.

Rather, I’d suggest asking for the lights up so you can see people’s faces. Try to make eye contact with people in the crowd. Ask a friend to sit near the front, so you have a friendly face to look at. In fact, imagine the whole room is full of your friends. You don’t need to imagine people without their clothes, you just have to imagine that what you have in that room, at that very moment, is an audience of intelligent and switched on people who want to hear from you. 

Learn from the best

  • Want to hear great speakers in action? Check out our Raising the Bar podcasts where 20 of our best and brightest discuss heatwaves, happiness and everything inbetween. 


Top image reference: TEDx Sydney 2017. 

5 October 2018

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