8.1 Building Confidence as a Presenter

Monika Smith and Suzan Last

“Even the greatest was once a beginner.”

Muhammad Ali

“All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In this section, you will find some practical steps for becoming an effective public speaker, based on the principle that no matter how much of a novice or an expert you are, there’s always something to learn and room to improve. If you feel anxious about speaking in front of others—and, admittedly, most people do—then the steps, information, and additional resources provided here will help build your confidence, give you some stage tools to work with, and direct you to resources to further solidify your learning.

Since there is an enormous amount of information on this topic available on the internet, and since “showing” is often more effective than “telling,” links to several online resources are included to help you sort through and find credible and authoritative sources of information and sample presentations to help you learn more and develop your own presentations.

Before you begin the process of building skills, consider these preliminary steps.

Preliminary Steps

1. Acknowledge the Challenge:  The first thing to acknowledge up front and centre is that, aside from extroverts (a minority of the population), most people dislike, if not actively shudder at, the idea of public speaking. For many people, even those who have to speak as part of their job, the mere thought of speaking in front of a crowd can evoke feelings of doom and gloom: furrowed brows, shaking hands, trembling voice, palpitations.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Figures from a range of sources show you’re in good company:

  • From a 1973 study by polling firm, Bruskin-Goldring: 45% of those surveyed feared public speaking the most; 30% feared death[1]
  • From the 1977 Book of Lists: the #1 fear cited by 41% of those surveyed was speaking to an audience[2]

Hence, if you’d like to become an effective public speaker but feel anxious at the prospect of actually doing public speaking, you’re not alone.  Your fear of public speaking isn’t a personal failing; it’s a common human response.

The good news, of course, is that fear of public speaking can be overcome. Some of the most famous voices we know initially struggled as speakers: James Earl Jones, for one, the voice of Darth Vader, overcame tremendous personal and social anxieties to “find his voice” and in doing so, got to the point where he could comfortably and confidently speak up and speak out.[3] You can too.

 2. Recognize the costs and benefits:  acknowledge the personal and professional costs of remaining stuck and not tackling the challenge that speaking before others can pose. Unfortunately, even if an employee has strong technical skills, an admirable work ethic, and intelligent, innovative ideas, if they struggle to speak confidently and coherently in a public or workplace setting, they may find it difficult to make a strong positive impact in their workplace. For example, fear of public speaking can

  • Lead people to believe they’re less competent and worthy than they are
  • Keep their ideas from being heard and acted on
  • Become a glass ceiling in a person’s career, thwarting advancement.

Being unable to persuasively communicate your ideas in front of a group or audience means that, more likely than not, your ideas, skills, and potential—qualities that could have helped solve a problem and made a positive impact—don’t get heard.

All these negatives stand in sharp contrast to what can be achieved with a strong, persuasive, confident voice. Once you commit to developing your voice as a presenter, you’ll find that speaking up is both liberating and empowering:  it not only allows your ideas to be heard, it enables you to accomplish the goals you set. Putting effort into developing your professional speaking skills will pay off in the long run, maximizing your potential as a professional.

3.  Commit to Learning:  Whether public speaking makes you anxious or whether you enjoy taking centre stage, everyone can learn how to become a better public speaker. Regardless of where you are on the public speaking spectrum, you can always develop your skills by learning about and practising the tips, techniques, and strategies that successful public speakers use to inform, persuade, and even inspire their audiences.

  1. “What are Americans Afraid Of? The Bruskin Report," July 1973. Cited in Lilyan Wilder, 7 Steps to Fearless Speaking, New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1999
  2. D. Wallechinsky, I. Wallace, & A. Wallace, The Book of Lists. New York: Morrow, 1977.
  3. J. E. Jones and P. Niven, James Earl Jones: Voices of Silence, New York: Scribner Book Co., 1993.


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Technical Writing Essentials Copyright © 2019 by Monika Smith and Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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