I think it’s safe to say that I’m the world’s biggest scaredy-cat when it comes to public speaking. Oral presentations at school made my heart beat so fast that I thought it might bounce right out of my chest. There’s a reason I chose a career that involves sitting behind a computer, quietly typing words, in a room by myself. Except, the problem with life—regardless of how clever you think you are when choosing your career path—is that you’ll have to speak to other humans. Whether it’s to the person on the phone calling you to pay that bill you forgot about or to your colleagues in a team meeting, chances are, sometime today you will have to speak. We all will.
So, when writer, stand-up comedian, podcaster, and TV/radio host Vic Groskop’s new book all about public speaking ended up on my desk, I was intrigued (and terrified) by its premise. After tentatively taking a peek inside, I was instantly hooked. How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking starts by reflecting on why we love listening to women like Michelle Obama, J. K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey speak. It then proceeds to lay out what to do when you open your mouth to speak and only silence comes out. And, it gives tips on how to get over performance anxiety (contrary to my assumption, I’m not a freak of nature—apparently, most people suffer from some degree of this).
And maybe you’re not like me at all, and you love getting up in front of a crowd to speak. Maybe, you’re a CEO or a movie star. Either way, this book has something to teach everyone about the art of speaking. So, be sure to grab a copy of the book for yourself here, but in the meantime, here are five lessons I learned from reading it to help you get through your next speaking-related interaction.
1. “Monitor your breathing.”
Let’s get this one out of the way at the very beginning. Don’t forget to breathe! I know, this might seem obvious. However, forgetting to breathe deeply and intentionally during a speech or a lengthy debate can cause you to rush so quickly through your words that you start tripping over them. And later in the book, Groskop also points out that the speed of your speaking will match the speed of your breathing. So, if you’re speaking too quickly and sound like an energizer bunny, breathe slower.
2. “If you want to project presence, you need to focus on how you feel internally.”
Groskop taps into the mindfulness trend and brings it back to public speaking by stressing how achieving inner peace beforehand will translate into outer confidence. She suggests downloading a meditation app such as Headspace or buddhify and using one of these to calm down and focus on being present in the moment.
3. “Anything you can do to bring in personal ‘pictures’ that the audience can see in their minds’ eye will create warmth and empathy.”
We’re visual creatures. And we can also be self-centred. Not always in a bad way, though. It’s just that when things connect to us in a relatable way, it will likely resonate with us more. In any speech (or conversation), it is important to connect with your audience, and often, by being personal, you will reach them much more intimately than by listing statistics and zipping through those graphs on your PowerPoint slides. But be careful and choose your personal anecdotes appropriately: bring humour into lighthearted conversations but stay serious with sensitive subjects.
4. “If you’re speaking for longer than five minutes, build in a moment when you’ll drink.”
I love this one. It’s a perfect example of a speaking tip that is not just relevant when you are giving grand speeches, but also if you’re simply having a long conversation with someone. I recently had a video conference interview for a freelance writing gig and halfway through blustering my way through my life story, my throat almost closed up and stopped working. Luckily, I had a glass of water at my desk. But if you are giving a formal speech, Groskop suggests intentionally adding a place in your notes where you know to take a pause and drink a sip of water.
5. “You don’t have to be a great speaker to give an amazing speech.”
At the end of the day, Groskop says, it’s okay to be a “good-enough speaker.” It’s okay if our performance sucks, if we mumble our words, and if we fiddle with our hair. She cites J. K. Rowling as someone who humbly admits to hating public speaking and nervously reads through her script and yet captures everybody’s attention because of what she has to say. Sometimes, you just have to cling to your notes and get through it, as long as what you say is personal, memorable, and you’re being yourself.