7 common issues people face when speaking in public — and how to fix them : Life Kit It can be anxiety-inducing to deliver a speech in front of an audience. How do you capture people's attention? What do you do if you stumble? A speechwriter and a speech coach share their best tips.

Oops, I messed up! 7 common public speaking issues — and how to fix them

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SEGARRA: Hey, everybody, it's Marielle. There's this weird thing that happens to a lot of us. We might be perfectly comfortable talking to one person or within a small group of people. But if we find ourselves needing to speak to a crowd, especially up on a stage or behind a podium, we freeze. Anxiety takes over. And next thing you know, you're up there, saying words, but your voice is shaking. You're sweating through your shirt, and you're not sure you're delivering your message. By the way, this does happen to me, even though I host a show at NPR. When I was walking down the aisle to officiate my brother's wedding, I was so nervous that the thought popped into my head - I could make a run for it. They'll never find me. I pushed through, and the wedding went forward.

But the point is, a lot of us need help becoming better, more confident public speakers. And that's what today's episode is about. Reporter Kyle Norris is going to lead us on this journey, and the advice applies whether the idea of talking in front of people makes you queasy or gets you kind of pumped.

KYLE NORRIS, BYLINE: Rachel Oman (ph) has been terrified of speaking in front of other people for a long time.

RACHEL OMAN: Well, I have had a lifelong fear of public speaking - going back to childhood, I would say. And as I've gotten older, it's gotten worse, and it's gotten to the point where it's crept into even just talking to people that I don't know well one-on-one.

NORRIS: She said that fear got even worse when the pandemic started. It's even affected her ability to socialize and have a good time.

OMAN: And I started finding myself becoming more and more reclusive - not wanting to go to social events or things because I would get so uncomfortable.

NORRIS: Rachel knew she had to do something about her fear of speaking in public. So after seeing a sign promoting a speech club called Toastmasters, she went. One of the things they practice at these meetings is improvising a speech about a random topic in front of everyone. And at a recent meeting in Blaine, Wash., Rachel practically jumped up to the podium as the first person to volunteer.



NORRIS: The topic was the coldest I've ever been.

OMAN: My brother and I had to walk a mile in 60-below weather. It was so cold, we had to walk backwards because we couldn't stand the wind on our face. So we're walking...

NORRIS: So this is our Rachel, who is terrified of public speaking, just winging it in front of a dozen people.

OMAN: I thought I had frostbite, and I was so mad when I got home. But that was definitely the coldest that I've ever felt.

NORRIS: Rachel won first place for her improvised speech.


NORRIS: So here's the thing. At some point in your life, you will probably speak in public, in front of people, about something you care about. Maybe that looks like going up to a podium at a city council meeting and making your point about a particular topic or a toast at your best friend's wedding or a eulogy at the memorial service of someone you loved. In those moments, you want to clearly convey your message and be yourself and feel comfortable. And the idea of speaking in front of people can be nerve-wracking. I mean, you're often physically isolated, getting up on a platform or behind a podium with all eyes on you.

Earlier, we heard from Rachel Oman, who's grappled with a lifelong fear of public speaking. But she's been practicing at her local Toastmasters club. And, no, that name is not about warm bread. It's actually an organization that helps people practice public speaking. They have 14,000 Toastmaster clubs all over the world, so there's probably one near you. Rachel says there's a specific technique she likes to use to help her feel less nervous, and that's to focus on the filler words she's using - words like um and you know - and to try not to use them. Now, this technique might not be for everyone, but Rachel says it helps.

OMAN: Thinking about my speaking from a very analytical, outward perspective has broke me out of the negative self-talk fear that would have been normally going through my head - like, oh, my God, what is this person thinking of me?

NORRIS: Focusing on your filler words might help you slow down and focus, but here's another approach.

LAUREN DOMINGUEZ CHAN: I think we often fear imperfection in our public speaking - filler words, stumbling, that kind of thing. But we would honestly do a lot better to just expect some flaws and remember that they're human.

NORRIS: That's Lauren Dominguez Chan. She writes speeches for a living. Lauren says, in public speaking, you want to set yourself up for success, not perfection.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: I mean, the human voice wavers, and it breaks. And it skips a word sometimes, and that doesn't prevent us from understanding one another in everyday conversation.

NORRIS: Lauren thinks everyone can be a good speaker, and that's our first takeaway. Let go of any notions of what it means to be a quote-unquote "good speaker" 'cause you already sound great because you sound like yourself.

I want to dive into this concept of what makes a good speaker. Critiquing how a person talks often masks sexist, racist, and homophobic ideas, just to name a few. Often, we're told that being a good speaker means - and I'm doing air quotes here - "speaking proper English" or not speaking with vocal fry. And I think all of this is code for saying that a good speaker is a white, cisgender, straight male, and everyone should sound like that. This idea is harmful and dehumanizing, and it impacts people, especially anyone who doesn't have that identity and speaks in different ways. So I want to acknowledge that if you have some feelings about your own voice, there are some big forces at play that have influenced how you feel about your own instrument.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: If you feel like, before you speak, you need a better credential or a more mature voice or a lower-octave voice, I would say that sounds like an internal gatekeeper. And unfortunately, no matter how many degrees you get or how much you alter or modulate your voice, that gatekeeper will never tell you that you're good enough to speak. So we got to get rid of that internal gatekeeper.

NORRIS: She says a good speaker sounds like themself and talks the way they would talk with a friend.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: For public speaking, the end goal is really to prepare people to speak in a way where they're free to connect with their audience in the moment.

NORRIS: You can achieve that goal with a little bit of prep work. And the good news is you're not starting from scratch. You are an expert on your life and experiences, and you've got some expertise on the subject you're talking about. Plus, most of us have already done some public speaking. For example, in school, you probably spoke in your classrooms in front of other students and teachers. Lauren says we've also heard a lot of public speaking. She says, growing up, she listened to sermons every Sunday at church.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: And a sermon is, of course, a kind of speech. And the beauty of many churches, including the one I grew up in, is that the congregation gives real-time feedback in the form of clapping or snapping or saying Amen. It's a very responsive format. So I got to grow up learning from both the pulpit, but also the pews around me, about what kind of speech moves people.

NORRIS: Lauren says the big thing you want to think about before you write your speech is figuring out your core message. That's takeaway No. 2. Lauren says, ask yourself this...

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: If my audience could only walk out of this room with one thing, what would that one thing be? It's kind of like the thesis of an essay, but it doesn't have to be this intellectual idea. It can also be a feeling - like wanting your audience to walk away feeling appreciated more than anything else.

NORRIS: Your core message could also be a call to action, like inspiring people to vote. Or your core message could be to celebrate your friends' love at their wedding. One day, I want to give a speech about how I love making paper collages, and my core message would be to inspire audience members to make their own collages at home. Lauren says identifying your core message is key because other decisions will pop up that relate back to your core message.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: And even if it's not apparent at the very beginning, if you can kind of work to identify that one core message or feeling and keep it at the center, it then helps you make every other decision - from the structure to the specific stories and concrete images that you include.

NORRIS: At the start of the pandemic, Lauren wrote speeches for Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in which he informed, educated and also comforted Americans at a scary time. Lauren also wrote other speeches with Dr. Murthy, like this commencement speech for graduating students in the class of 2021 at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.


VIVEK MURTHY: This gathering of promising public health leaders - and yes, I'm referring to you - is a testament to all the reasons we have to be hopeful about the future.

NORRIS: Here's what Lauren identified as the core message for the graduating class.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: My gut instinct was that the speech needed to highlight the importance of their role and make them feel elevated and inspired, and at the same time ground them in the knowledge that they are enough and they can lean both on the expertise that they got in their degree and also the people around them.


MURTHY: I leave you today with a practice you can turn to during those moments of doubt that will inevitably surface during the years ahead. Take your right hand and place it gently over your heart and close your eyes. Take a deep breath and think about the people in your life who've supported you on your journey to this moment. Feel their love flowing through you, strengthening you, guiding you and filling you with peace.


NORRIS: Lauren says she also appreciates how Dr. Murthy did this interactive exercise with his audience. And pro tip - doing something interactive like that can make your presentation dynamic and memorable.

Once you identify your core message, it's time to do the prep. And that's takeaway No. 3. Start with a brain dump. Write down the logistics you know so far. So let's imagine your boss at work asks you to give a short presentation to your co-workers about a project you've been working on.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: I know the idea of staring at a blank page can be pretty daunting. And to that I would just say the page is almost never blank. In this case, you know a lot before you ever start writing. You know about the audience. You know the requested subject matter. You know something about the context. And so I'd advise this person to just get as much of that down on paper as they can.

NORRIS: Lauren says, as you do this, other questions might emerge to ask your boss - like, how much time do you have, and can you show visuals? While you're at it, write down what you know about your audience and the context of your speech. The point of jotting all this down is to get the ball rolling because these logistical details will help shape your presentation.

Now let's talk about takeaway No. 4, and that's to come up with what Lauren calls a bunch of sticky stories. She defines these as honest, vivid stories with details that really engage the senses - think sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. And you want to make sure your sticky stories relate to your core message.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: People remember these stories and images, and it's OK to have way more than you can possibly include at first, just so you have material to choose from.

NORRIS: Lauren says lean on that idea of show, don't tell. So let's say you want to give a presentation about country musician Loretta Lynn. Instead of saying she cared for her friends, say she was known to call up her friends, like musician Tanya Tucker, and ask them if they needed money. So be specific and detail-oriented. Once you've got your core message and some sticky stories, Lauren likes to make an outline.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: And I think you do want to find a structure for the presentation, which you can think of as kind of, like, a roadmap for yourself and for the audience, where the main points are, like, big landmarks. And then the stories and the details will make it vivid and textured, and you can sort of figure out how all of these things fit together, what might not make the cut in the end because you have limited time.

NORRIS: If you want to experiment with structure, Lauren has this tip. Print out a copy of your speech. Get out the old scissors, and cut it up and rearrange it on the floor to try different structures.

As for writing your speech, you want to write for the ear, and that's takeaway No. 5.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: I think that, actually, a pretty big part of writing for the ear, I've learned, is trusting short, simple words and short, simple sentences. You don't have to use the biggest word you know in a speech. And, yeah, the short, simple ones are often the most powerful.

NORRIS: Most of us learn to write in school, where we wrote for the eye, meaning someone read our words on the page. In speeches, we write for the ear, meaning people will listen to our words. So the big difference is that, when you write for the ear, you want to keep your sentences short and sweet and write conversationally. As for how you write your speech, Lauren has no hard and fast rules, like bullet points versus memorization or using small cards versus paper. She says, figure out a system that works for you. Once you've got your final version of your speech and you do end up printing it out, use a font that's big enough to read, and really space things out on the page.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: And then, finally, try to have text on just the first two-thirds of the page so that it's easier to look up and make eye contact if you're, you know, at a podium.

NORRIS: Lauren says you can even get creative, especially if you get nervous. She says put a special note at the top of the page or, you know, a sparkly heart sticker to remind yourself that you've got this.


NORRIS: OK. Now it's time to practice. And that's takeaway No. 6. Hey, I find it comforting in remembering that professional musicians practice their scales every day. And world-class athletes do their basic drills and practice techniques all the time. So if you want to improve at public speaking, practice public speaking to train your body and your mind. And even though public speaking seems like a solo event, it's not. Public speaking is about connecting with other people, so Lauren says you want to engage with other people throughout the process.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: Ask a friend or a family member to listen to you as you practice. You can ask them, does this sound like me? How was the pace? How was this part that I had a question about? So practicing with other people is my favorite way to do it. You can also record yourself - like, just pull out your phone, take a voice memo and play it back to yourself.

NORRIS: She says this helps you get used to the sound of your voice and how it feels, and you can make changes based on what you hear. Lauren says, you can also practice in front of a mirror. Or do what Rachel Oman did and find a supportive group of people who want to improve their public speaking skills, like her Toastmasters group.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I did note that we began one minute late, but that's OK. We can make that up.

NORRIS: At this Toastmasters meeting, they run a tight ship. The meeting is timed down to the minute. When you give a speech at Toastmasters, it's someone's job in the club to listen to your content and give you feedback, and then it's another person's job to listen to your grammar and give you feedback. And someone else listens to the number of times you use filler words, like um, and let you know that number. And these are things you could also ask your friend to listen for, too. The whole point is for you to get concrete feedback so you can improve. Rachel's advice for anyone who wants to get better at public speaking is to find a supportive group of people.

OMAN: Where you know that you're not going to be laughed at so that you can make your mistakes there because we're going to make mistakes - but someone that will point them out to you in a nice way so that you can get better.

NORRIS: The first time Rachel came here, she convinced her 12-year-old daughter, Brynn (ph), to tag along.

OMAN: She was kind of reluctant, but I made her go because I didn't want her to be saddled with the lifelong fear that I had been saddled with, I thought.

BRYNN: I thought she was like, so Brynn, there's this cool speech club I'm - that I want to go to, and you're going to come with me. And I'm, like, trying to take a second to process this. I'm like, what?

NORRIS: Brynn was not on board, but she went. And that first night, Brynn volunteered to improvise a speech. Rachel says, in that moment, she watched Brynn fall in love with public speaking.

BRYNN: When I was up there, I was, like, having a full-on panic attack in my mind. In my soul - I felt like I was being stared into my soul. I was really nervous. But when I went and sat back down, I was like, whoa, that was fun.

NORRIS: Brynn is now an honorary member of the Toastmasters club. And, as a family, they practice at home all the time. Her mom, Rachel, has come a long way, where, during her first speech at Toastmasters...

OMAN: My voice was a little wobbly. I thought everybody could hear it, and that was going through my head the whole time - like, what a fool I was looking like because of my nerves.

NORRIS: But afterwards, everybody said they didn't notice she was nervous.

OMAN: It's helped me to relax because I think we blow these things up in our mind, and we think that it's, like - that you're out there just shaking like a leaf. But it's actually very subtle, and it seems much bigger to you than it does to the people watching.

DOMINGUEZ CHAN: And, you know, even if someone does notice, that's OK, too. You're just going to keep the audience moving with you at the pace that, you know, you're going to move best at.

NORRIS: Rachel says, when you force yourself to do something scary, it can change you.

OMAN: Then, when you finish and you sit back down, there's this thrill, right? There's this moment - especially when you get such a positive reaction and you're in an environment where you feel safe and you know that people are there to help you. When you sit down and you know that you've faced that fear, there's this - almost an elation - right?

BRYNN: Yeah.

OMAN: That is kind of addicting.

NORRIS: And if you do stumble or lose your place, Lauren says, take a beat and take a breath.


NORRIS: OK, so let's recap what you can do to improve at public speaking. Takeaway No. 1 - know that anyone can be a good speaker because a good speaker sounds like themself. And you already sound like you.

Takeaway No. 2 - identify what you want your core message to be. That's the big thing you want your audience to remember. Your core message could be an idea or a feeling or an action.

Takeaway No. 3 - it's prep time, baby. That means write down all the logistics that you know about the events, like how long you have to talk and who you'll be speaking to. And even the vibe - I mean, is this a suit-and-tie thing or a shorts-and-sandals thing? - because those logistical details will help shape your speech.

And go out and find some sticky stories that relate to your core message. That's takeaway No. 4. Sticky stories are specific and have details that help the listener see a little movie in their head of what you're talking about. And remember to show, don't tell.

When you start the writing process, write for the ear. That's takeaway No. 5. That means keep your sentences and your words short and sweet. And if you get stuck, here's a hack I love. Close your eyes and imagine you're talking with your friend who's right in front of you. Then, actually say what you want to say to them out loud. Then write down what you said word-for-word.

Takeaway No. 6 - you're going to want to practice because that can help you feel less nervous or anxious. So practice in the mirror, record yourself and listen back. Get feedback from someone supportive or go to a place where people practice public speaking, like a Toastmasters club. Even though public speaking can seem like a solo activity, it's not. Lean on people throughout the process to help you practice and fine-tune your presentation. And remember, the whole point of giving your speech is to be present and be yourself and share your message so you can connect with other people.


SEGARRA: That was reporter Kyle Norris. For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to give a toast and another on how to tell a good story. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and you just cannot get enough, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also, we love hearing from you. So if you have episode ideas or feedback you want to share, email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode of LIFE KIT was produced and fact-checked by Audrey Nguyen. It was edited by Meghan Keane with help from Sylvie Douglis. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan, and our visual producer is Kaz Fantone. Our digital editor is Malaka Gharib. Meghan Keane is the supervising editor, and Beth Donovan is our executive producer. Our production team also includes Andee Tagle, Clare Marie Schneider and Margaret Cirino. Engineering support comes from Cena Loffredo. Special thanks to Erin Norris (ph), Jim Norris (ph), Neda Ulaby, Eva Margarita (ph) and Kevin King (ph). I'm Marielle Segarra. Thanks for listening.


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