Top tips for public speaking and pushing past your comfort zone

Hit Leader Hass Leadership, Management Leave a Comment

In life whether you are a leader or not you will probably need to speak publicly at some point. Public speaking is not an easy skill to master. There are so many angles to tackle but it is possible to improve. You can become better, you can even become a great speaker. It starts with fighting fear, stepping out of your comfort zone and following tips and processess suggestions from some great speakers and minds.

Redefining the boundaries of your comfort zone

Public speaking to most people, including me is uncomfortable. I personally feel I am opening up, I am being vulnerable to all the people listening to me. I am sharing a part of myself with them and that is scary because I don’t know who they are in most instances. Some people struggle with opposite, talking to a group of people they do know. The only way to truely tackle these feelings, this nervousness is to practice. To practice extending your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is a behavioural space in which your activities and behaviours fit a routine and or pattern that seeks to provide minimal stress and risk. Your comfort zone clothes you in a state of mental security.

If you are new to public speaking, your comfort zone is probably quite restricted. You don’t have to do much to step out of it. So you can start small. Take one small step out of your comfort zone and build on it. When I was younger I used to go to open mic nights to practice my public speaking by sharing a poem I had written. I believe that was a real confidence builder and usually, it is with a small audience in an intimate setting – this might be a good starting place for those wanting to start small and build up.

Why bother extending your comfort zone – you are comfortable, so why make yourself uncomfortable? Why put yourself in situations that are hard? Why take the stairs instead of a lift?

“Those willing to leave the comfort zone of their expertise have the opportunity to climb a learning curve, forge new ground, and reap the promise of growth.” – Liz Wiseman, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work
Stretching yourself gives you an opportunity to grow. Once you stretch and reach outside your comfort zone, you are transformed – that stretching feeling you feel at first will be gone – you will have grown, you will have been transformed and you will have redefined the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Fear of stepping out

Comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld once said, ‘According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.’
Fear is probably what is stopping you from progressing past the boundries of your comfort zone and growing. You fear failure, messing up, looking a fool, people looking at you and being the centre of attention.
A study conducted way back in 1908 by two psychologists showed that remaining in a state of comfort ensured steady performance – stagnation. However, in order to increase or maximize performance levels, we need to be in a space of “optimal anxiety”, a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This optimal anxiety zone sits just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply. This study shows there is a sweet spot just outside of your comfort zone – you don’t need to stray too far to find an opportunity to grow and improve. In fact, straying too far from your comfort zone can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety that will make you less likely to find growth because it’s too much for your body and or mind to handle. Baby steps, just like anything. Remember this post on goal setting? One of the main principles is to break down your goals into smaller, achievable goals. Small but consistent steps are the key here. Hopefully the picture I have drawn will help illustrate what I am talking about. You want to find your Optimal Anxiety Zone and live there to grow and improve.
Therefore a small dose of fear and anxiety can be an ingredient you can use to improve and grow. You need a bit of fear, it’s completely OK to be afraid – you just need to use it to your advantage, as a signal that you are doing the right thing and pushing those boundaries of comfort.
Sheryl Sandberg put it, “we hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in”.
For me, no matter how small, whenever someone presents me with the opportunity of speaking or doing a presentation I take it, I try to live in that optimal anxiety zone. I try to embrace a little fear or anxiety to help me become a better speaker.


Practice, practice, practice – and… practice!

Practicing your talk or presentation is key to your success. You need to live and breathe it so you don’t worry about the speed you are speaking at, the hand gestures you make, missing a key bit of information or something technical in your presentation doesn’t work. You need to set in stone as much of it as you can. When I am doing a talk I tend to go off the beaten path and improvise which I am only comfortable with when I have nailed down the core content of the talk or presentation.

I asked Ryan Hawk, speaker, the host of The Learning Leader Show for some advice for an upcoming talk and he said this:

“Rehearse the speech a lot. Hire someone to film your speech. You can use the video for future marketing as well as coaching film.”

This is amazing advice. Filming your talk can allow you to share it with others and get their view on it as well as seeing things you would miss reading through or doing it in front of the mirror. It also gives you an opportunity to time it. As far as a marketing video is concerned – check out Vinh Giang’s videos on his website homepage to see an amazing example of what is possible.

Get Psyched Up

Arijit Sengupta, CEO of BeyondCore (financial analysis automation, Fortune 50) – gets himself psyched up for presentations by listening to songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar” while pacing a dance floor in his office. OK so not everyone has a dance floor and not everyone likes Katy Perry – but there are things you can do to get you “pumped”, to get you ready to take on the stage and show great courage. My favourite songs to get me pumped before a big presentation or talk is the “Walk Like A Badass” playlist on Spotify. Awesome.

Follow this 5 step guide to preparing yourself mentally inspired by the work of Dan McGinn:

  1. Reappraisal – redefine what you are feeling. Instead of trying to shift from nervous to calm, find something closer, look for excitement. Turn your nervous energy into excitement. Am I scared? NO, I AM EXCITED!
  2. Be Centred. Centring is an ancient technique that was made popular through the Japanese defensive martial art Aikido. Centring teaches you to focus on the here and now, to drop negative thoughts and external inputs. It’s about reigning in your focus and using your breathing to help you relax. This video is cheesy but does a good job of explaining it, skip to the end for the practical techniques.
  3. Pre-performance Routines. If you have a “ritual” or habits you can establish before doing something scary like public speaking it can help your body and mind feel more comfortable – in essence, you establish a comfort zone associated with the scary thing. Maybe try something like this? Personally, I spend the 5 or 10 minutes before a big presentation or talk listening to the “Walk Like A Badass” playlist or just doodling in my notebook the other things not related to the presentation or talk that are on my mind.
  4. Power Poses. This one is my favourite. A social psychologist called Amy Cuddy has a famous TED talk in which she discusses how the act of physically doing something can change our minds and how we feel. Crazy Right. Just doing something like lifting your hands in the air for five minutes as if you have won a race can make you feel more confident. This post has more details on this in the “Your body language can change who you are” section.
  5. Music. Eye of the tiger baby. Enough said.

Read more on how you can mentally prepare before going on stage to speak or standing up at the front to present in this awesome book “Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed” by Daniel McGinn. Grab a copy on Amazon UK / Amazon US. Also worth checking out this podcast episode with Dan McGinn, “How to Tame Your Nerves Before the Big Meeting, Presentation, or Exam, with Harvard Business Review Senior Editor Dan McGinn”.

Voice prep

Julian Treasure does an awesome TED talk about how to speak so that people want to. He gives some advice on what to do to prepare your voice, warms up your tongue and vocal chords before giving a talk or presentation.

  1. Lift your arms up, take a deep breath in and then let it out in a sigh – “Ahh”
  2. Purse your lips together and do a “Ba” sound a few times
  3. Make a “Brrr” sound by rolling your lips together
  4. Do short and sharp “La”s
  5. Roll your r’s and tongue
  6. Make a siren-like noise with “Wee” and “Aww”

Additionally, make sure your throat is not dry is also super helpful – stay hydrated and keep water nearby when doing a long talk or presentation.

The Speech

Notes or no notes? I tend to keep notes to a minimal. My goal is always to know my talk, as much as possible, by heart. My notes therefore just become sign posts to make sure I can see where I am going if I get lost. I absolutely hate going to a talk where the speaker just reads from their notes and makes no eye contact – try not do that! Here are some tips for the main event:

  1. Be approachable – smile, flash your eyebrows up, open your palms towards the audience and keep your arms out not into your chest.
  2. Show your passion – show energy, use the stage and move around
  3. Face the audience, make eye contact
  4. Speak clearly and use the full range of your voice. Is this exciting? Sound excited, increase the pase and pitch of your voice. Do you want to speak with authority? Speak from your chest. Is this point very important? Speak slow and quietly
  5. To be silent is better than to “um”. Embrace silences and use them
  6. Engage with your audience early on – give them an opporunity to interact – “Hands up if…”
  7. Have a main theme that runs through the entire talk, have one big point that runs throughout
  8. Some great advice from Andy Kaufman, speaker and host of The People and Projects Podcast “People rarely remember the data or the facts or the main points. More often, they remember the stories. Remember that the stories are not to glorify the speaker–they’re to reinforce the points you’re making.” The reason this is important is that people react to stories through emotion – they have an experience. You want to create as many experiences like this as possible.
  9. Another great one from Andy, “The temptation will be to have too much content, which will require rushing at the end. No one will feel bad if you get done early. Nearly everyone will be concerned if you go over.” Timing is key. Time it, record it and practice it.
  10. Bring your personality to the talk – be yourself. That’s what makes it unique.


Feedback is vital, if you can invite someone you know, a mentor or someone you trust to be candid and ask them to take notes to provide you feedback. Some talks are recorded and you can ask for a copy which you can review.  Remember, if you mess up it gives you feedback to do better next time, don’t give up.


It takes practice, no one starts as a great speaker – you become a great speaker. “Becoming” means there is a starting point, so wherever that is for you, take small steps, challenge your comfort zone, practice and you will improve. Guaranteed.

  1. Step out of your comfort zone and into your optimal anxiety zone. Fear and anxiety in small measures can help you to push yourself to grow and develop and push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Pretty soon, what felt scary will feel normal.
  2. Preparation – practice, practice, practice. Make sure you have most of your speech comitted to memory, use your notes as sign posts. Video it if possible and review it.
  3. Get psyched up – prepare mentally. Reframe your emotions, centre yourself, use rituals and habits, power pose and use music.
  4. Prepare your voice – warm up your lips, tongue and through.
  5. Be approachable and engage your audience. Show your passion, energy and embrace the silence.
  6. Feedback, get feedback on your actual talk. Use the feedback to improve and better yourself. It isn’t failure, it is a chance to grow.


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