Jennifer Hennings

In a world where robots may one day drive us to work and fold our laundry, public speaking is one skill we still need to master for ourselves. No matter how automated work and life become, we have to communicate with each other to get things done. Whether your employees are giving a formal presentation, making a sales call, sharing ideas in meetings, or navigating a “hallway ambush” with their boss, they need to speak clearly and confidently to move business forward.

As organizations navigate a digitally transforming world, L&D leaders need to help their workforce master the soft skills at which we excel over robots. Udemy’s recent Humanizing Learning research report found high-performing organizations nurture uniquely human traits in their employees, including creativity, public speaking, storytelling, and collaboration.

If public speaking makes your employees nervous, take heart. On one hand, I’m a presentation coach who’s helped thousands of leaders, entrepreneurs, students, and professionals, both at startups and large organizations like Salesforce and Google, tell powerful stories and deliver effective presentations. But I’m also an introvert who spent 20 years terrified of public speaking, despite teaching college courses on the subject and presenting on a daily basis. And I can tell you that public speaking is truly a skill that anyone can learn.

To help, I teach a public speaking course on Udemy called Speak Like a Pro: Public Speaking for Professionals, in which I walk learners through each step of designing and delivering a presentation. We talk about how to craft content, how to deliver confidently, how to think and speak on your feet, and how to manage nerves. Here’s an exclusive preview of five of the top tips I teach in my course to help speakers build confidence, credibility, and connection.

1. Know your people

When you find out you have to give a presentation or lead a meeting, what’s the first thing you do to prepare? Clients typically tell me they open up a slide deck or start drafting their speaker notes, which are common mistakes. Before you decide what you’re going to say, you need to consider the people you’re addressing. Think ABC: Audience Before Content.

It’s easy for people to get stuck in their own heads, asking themselves questions like: What do I need to cover? Or What will the audience think of me? Instead, they should ask: Who is my audience? What questions do they have for me? What parts of my message will make them hesitant or skeptical? These audience analysis questions, along with several others I teach in my course, take only a few minutes to integrate into the work day and will help learners craft messages that stick in people’s minds long after the presentation ends.

2. Know your stories

In Silicon Valley, where I’m based, big data is king. It’s easy for people to assume that stories don’t matter and that as long as you’ve got the data, you can make your voice heard. But if data is king, then stories are queen—and like in chess, the queen ultimately runs the show.

Research by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests that stories are 20 times more memorable than facts alone. If you want people to remember your data and take action on it, you need to embed it in a powerful story to make it more relatable to your audience. The good news is that storytelling is a skill that you can develop, first by learning how to structure a story and when to use it, and then by practicing aloud to tell it effectively.

But what stories should you tell? In my course, you’ll learn how to build a story bank, which is a collection of stories to use to get important points across. These stories can be from your own life, from your customers, or from other people. One key to telling a great story is to know the point you’re trying to make and to make that point crystal clear to your audience.

3. Know your body

Think slides are your most important visual aid? Think again. The most powerful visual aid in your possession is you. Why? Body language has a tremendous impact on how an audience perceives a speaker, especially if there’s any disconnect between what they say and how they’re saying it.

Picture this: You ask a colleague for their opinion on your project and they say, “It’s great!” But as they say it, they avoid eye contact with you and cross their arms. Which do you believe: Their words or their body? Their body, every time. The same holds true when people give a presentation: If their slides are great but their delivery is awkward, the audience will lose confidence in them.

In my course, I cover how to harness the power of body language so your body is working for you rather than against you. Participants learn what a speaker should do with their hands (pro tip: make those gestures bigger!), how to stand like a speaker, and many other ways to inspire credibility and leadership with physical presence.

4. Know how to manage your anxiety

While your fear of public speaking may never completely go away, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard studies performance anxiety and found that people who reframe their anxiety as excitement tend to perform better than people who simply try to calm down. In my Udemy course, I help learners convert their nerves into excitement. I also introduce a variety of other tools to help manage this fear, like deep breathing exercises to regain focus and reframing self-talk to be more positive.

For clients who like a comprehensive approach to managing fear, I have them write out all of their fears on a whiteboard and then come up with a list of coping strategies of how they could respond to each problem. By proactively tackling anxiety, they can move forward and speak with greater confidence. One client told me he felt a tremendous sense of relief from this exercise even before he used any of his coping strategies. “I just feel better knowing that all of these strategies exist,” he said. “It makes me feel hopeful that I can tackle my fear.”

5. Know how to practice

If you prepare for presentations by sitting at your desk and thinking through your slides, know this: Thinking through a presentation is like thinking about going to the gym. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Instead, if you want to nail your next presentation, open your mouth and practice out loud.

A lot of folks might be thinking: “But I don’t have time to practice!” My course is designed for busy people, and I’ll show you how to get the most value out of limited prep time. Students learn how to sound more natural (tip: ditch the script and use talking points), how to organize thoughts quickly, and how to structure answers to unexpected questions.

No matter what industry you’re in, effective public speaking skills can make your employees more influential and persuasive, helping them get things done and ultimately be more successful in their careers. To learn more, check out my course Speak Like a Pro: Public Speaking for Professionals.

Page Last Updated: March 2020

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