Yet we look at those who appear confident in the limelight as if they possess a superpower gifted only to the few. The rest of us are fated to sweat, stutter, and lose sleep before the big day arrives when we must stand and face our public.
But it does not have to be like that.
Viv Groskop (pictured), journalist, comedian and author of books including How to own the room: Women and the art of brilliant speaking, says feelings of stress and anxiety are common to everyone. Those on stage, owning the room, have learned tactics to cope with their nerves and have developed their own style of public speaking that plays to their strengths, not someone else’s.
In the final Women’s Executive Finance Forum (WEFF) Executive Briefing of the year, Groskop was invited to help the audience of around 30 women face their fears of speaking up in public.
“Don’t hold yourself to some crazy standard” says Groskop, who is an enviably confident public speaker and a woman who exudes compassion and warmth. Within minutes of meeting her I found myself confessing to being terrified of chairing the event and when it was over, she gave me a hug.
Groskop admits to being obsessed with the subject of public speaking. “It breaks my heart to see outwardly confident women suffer with public speaking because of their own internal struggle,” she said. “We all have an inner voice that we allow to bring us down.”
Lean on your strengths
Groskop says women should think about what they do well and lean on those strengths. Women, or any would-be public speakers in fact, tend to overemphasise the parts of public speaking they struggle with the most; stress and anxiety.
Instead, says Groskop, focus on what gives you a head start without you having to do anything. This can be your tone of voice, the speed at which you speak, which might be fast and engaging or soft, slow and welcoming.
Happy high status
Happy high status is a heightened form of confidence that involves quashing your ego and letting everything be.
Groskop says: “Happy high status is an openness to all ideas, criticisms and any situation that might be thrown at you. It is throwing your shoulders back and making it look effortless and not taking things too seriously.”
Michelle Obama, says Groskop, has happy high status.
To explain this state of confidence better to the WEFF attendees, Groskop used an example she says is given to actors and comedians as a way of teaching status on stage.
“You have to imagine you are going to a party after the Oscars,” she says. “It’s a black-tie party, you’re late and you are waiting to get to your friends. You tap a waiter on the shoulder and say I am just going to see my friends could you bring me the champagne over here.
“You go and find your friends and you can feel the person following you. You turn around and as they are handing you the champagne, you realise that the person you have mistaken for a waiter is a man in black tie – it is George Clooney.”
Groskop says the expression on George Clooney’s face is happy high status which is, “this is totally okay, it was an easy mistake to make let’s just have a laugh about it”. She adds that women should look for this confidence in themselves and others.
A technique to be practised in privacy is adopting a power pose. Groskop raised the audience to their feet and instructed them to spread their feet hip width apart and place their hands on their hips. By pushing your elbows back and sticking out your chest you complete the pose.
“Think Wonder Woman,” she says. “Do this in the disabled toilet before you go on stage to release tension. It is difficult to feel anxious in this pose.”
Power poses are not for “public consumption”, warns Groskop. Do not take inspiration from the likes of George Osborne, Theresa May and Sajid Javid pictured by the press in their awkward-looking Tory power poses.
Direct the audience
A few members of the WEFF audience wanted Groskop’s advice on what to do if they lost their train of thought mid-way through their presentation.
Groskop says think of a presentation as a piece of theatre and use nearby props to direct the audience’s attention.
“Even when you’re in a meeting room with five people, it is theatre when other people are looking at you,” she says.
“If you’re talking and talking and you have completely forgotten what you are going to do next you can say, ‘I know that has been a lot to take in, so I am just going to give you a moment to think about it.”
If you are holding a pen, use it to indicate the pause and then go off and check your notes or have a drink of water while you gather your thoughts, she explains. Then when you are ready, indicate to the audience, using your pen or you finger, that you are ready to start speaking again.
She adds: “The audience take its cue from you. Whatever you say or do they think it is normal.”
Or you can “style it out” says Groskop and say in an unflustered way, “sorry I have completely lost my train of thought”.
Preparation and feedback
Groskop was asked how much preparation she does before speaking in public and what kind of groundwork she puts in place. Surprisingly, she does not recommend that speakers spend weeks getting ready for the event.
“Don’t build it up to be a massive deal,” she says. “It’s just one of hundreds you will have to do in your career. And hardly anyone watches themselves back afterwards.
“It is about trusting that it is not Live at the Apollo and it is not your Michelle Obama moment. It is the Q4 marketing report and you just have to get through it the best you can.”
Groskop says the type of preparation you do, depends on your style of public speaking, adding: “Do what makes you feel confident.”
She says you may decide to read from a paper or use bullet points. Or if you are speaking for 15 or 20 minutes you may want to ad-lib it but learn the first and last things you are going to say, word for word and memorise three content points you are going to hit in the middle.
An audience typically struggles to take in more than three points, Groskop says.
She advised the WEFF attendees not to scrutinise their performance afterwards.
She says: “When it is over, write down three things you did well and three things you would change, and move on.”