If public speaking scares you, you are far from alone. Public speaking is the single most commonly feared situation in the population. People don’t even fear death as much as the idea of having to stand up in front of a group of peers or strangers to give a speech or presentation.
As a student, and particularly as someone who wants to get into medical school and go on to become a doctor, public speaking is something you cannot escape. You’ll face medical school interviews, class presentations, presenting your research findings, residency interviews, not to mention the fact you’ll also need to regularly interact with patients and their families once you become a doctor.
While you can’t escape it, there are ways to make public speaking more tolerable and even enjoyable. In this post, we break down 6 strategies for improving your public speaking.
1 | You Can’t Get Around Practicing
As with most things in life, if you truly want to improve, you need to practice. Without consistent practice, you will remain afraid and continue to believe yourself incapable of speaking in front of a crowd.
There isn’t a magic trick. You won’t one day wake up with the skills and confidence you need to succeed. You also weren’t born lacking something that all other people have. Good public speakers only got that way through regular practice.
Sure, some may have a bit more natural confidence, but engaging, inspiring speakers got that way by working hard and refining their skills over time.
Practicing public speaking doesn’t mean you have to get up in front of a large crowd and give a speech every weekend. There are plenty of ways you can practice in the comfort of your home or by joining groups or clubs that have an element of public speaking.
Start small by volunteering to answer questions during class. Try being the presenter of your group’s classwork, or offer to give a toast at a family gathering.
Take it one step further by joining an improv group. While it may be intimidating at first, improv groups do don’t take themselves seriously and are very welcoming. Plus, improv will teach you how to think on your toes and be witty on the fly—an invaluable skill for public speakers to possess.
Practicing at home isn’t as effective, but it’s certainly better than nothing. If you’re practicing alone at home, we recommend filming yourself so that you can pinpoint what you can improve.
2 | Watch Yourself to Learn How to Improve
Recording yourself and watching it back may be a painful experience, at least at first, but it’s the best way to capture a realistic view of what other people see.
Watching yourself speak has two chief benefits. First, it allows you to see what you’re doing well. We’re often our very worst critics, and we may think a presentation or speech went terribly, when really, it wasn’t actually that bad.
You’ll also be able to pinpoint your public speaking weaknesses. Do you speak too fast or too slow? Do you slouch? What do you do with your hands? Do you frequently put “um” or “like” in between your thoughts or sentences? Once you’ve isolated a few weaknesses, pick out a couple specific things to work on next time.
3 | Present Confident Body Language
Even if you don’t feel confident, if you look it, many people won’t realize what you’re actually feeling on the inside.
Poor body language, such as slouching, keeping your hands in your pockets, fiddling with things in your hands, or looking at the ground instead of in people’s eyes, can make you look nervous, timid, apathetic, or annoyed. And not only that, it can make you feel that way too. Slouching and slumping your shoulders both makes you appear and feel shy.
Your body language speaks volumes. What you say often takes a backseat to how you say it. Effective body language requires time to refine, so get started right away, regardless of your current confidence level. Be proactive about improving your body language by standing in front of a mirror as well as recording yourself and watching it back.
Intentionally reset your posture. Stand up straight and raise your hands up to the ceiling. Then roll your shoulders back and allow your arms to slowly fall to either side. Your chest will likely feel unnaturally puffed out, but this is actually proper posture, and it will make you both feel and look more confident.
Meet your own eyes in the mirror and practice smiling and nodding. These nonverbal cues let the person you’re speaking with as well as your audience know that you’re listening, you’re engaged.
Ask roommates, friends, and family about any bad body language habits they’ve noticed in you. What can you do to improve?
4 | Expose Yourself to Discomfort
Consistently exposing yourself to discomfort and stepping outside of your comfort zone will help condition you to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Most of us avoid all forms of discomfort and stick with the familiar because it’s, well, familiar. It’s easy.
But the more we stick with what we know, the less confident and the less capable we feel. “I could never do that!” “That’s not me.”
If you keep telling yourself you can’t do something, you’ll believe it. Shake things up by facing your fears and doing something you wouldn’t ordinarily do. You are capable of much more than you think. Take a dance class. Go scuba diving. Play a sport you’ve never tried. Try carpentry—whatever you find intimidating.
The more you face the unfamiliar, the more capable you’ll realize you are, and slowly but surely, you’ll build your confidence.
Remember that confidence isn’t born; it’s made. The more you build a diverse set of skills and prove to yourself that you can do whatever you put your mind to, the more confident you will feel. Before long, public speaking won’t seem like that big of a deal because you’ll know all that you’re capable of.
This kind of skill building and tolerance for discomfort and resilience will carry forward into all aspects of your life.
5 | Use Breathing Exercises to Calm Your Nerves
Public speaking is nerve-racking, so in order to get your nerves back under control, utilize slow and intentional breathing to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and calm down your sympathetic nervous system.
When we get nervous, our fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system) is triggered, so our body tries to get our muscles as much oxygen as possible in preparation to either fight or flee. The trouble is, public speaking requires neither of those things. While we can take in all the oxygen we want, our bodies cannot produce carbon dioxide at the same rate, so our oxygen and C02 levels become imbalanced, sparking our anxiety.
We can bring our levels back to normal with slow, intentional breathing.
There are many, many breathing exercises out there. A simple one we recommend is 4 by 4 breathing, also known as Box Breathing, which is popular among Navy SEALs. Start by inhaling slowly for four seconds. Hold that breath for four seconds. Then exhale for four seconds. Hold that and do not inhale for four seconds. Then inhale for four seconds and repeat the process four times.
Box Breathing will calm you down and enable you to focus before your presentation or speech. And while you’re speaking, don’t forget to breathe!
6 | Warm Up Before Speaking
Just like you would do before exercise or playing sports, warm up your voice before stepping on the stage or in front of your class. If you don’t warm up your voice, you’re much more likely to mumble or get tongue tied. If you don’t warm up your face, it will appear dull and indifferent as opposed to confident and engaged.
To get your mouth moving, perform tongue twisters before your presentation, such as “red leather, yellow leather” and “she sells seashells by the seashore”. Don’t stop until you can clearly enunciate each syllable. Start slow and focus. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by rushing through the tongue twisters. Your insights will be lost on your audience if they can’t understand what you’re saying.
It’s also essential to warm up your face. Our skin tightens when it’s dry, which stiffens our face and makes us appear apathetic and disengaged—both of which are deeply unappealing in a public speaker.
To get the blood flowing, open up your mouth and eyes as wide as possible, as if you’ve just seen a ghost. Then, pinch your mouth and eyes as if you’ve just bitten into the sourest lemon imaginable. Alternate between these movements multiple times. (If you’re wearing makeup, look in the mirror to make sure you haven’t made any lines.)
This will liven up your face and make you appear more engaging.
For more face and vocal warm ups check out our article: Face and Vocal Exercises to Perform Before an Interview or Presentation.
Speak With Confidence
Doctors must communicate with confidence. While you may not be a doctor yet, learning how to appear and feel confident when speaking is essential to success in medical school and your future career.
Public speaking isn’t a magic trick or skill only some people possess. Great speakers hone their skills with preparation, practice, and experience.
If you’re preparing for your medical school or residency interviews, Med School Insiders offers mock interviews with former interviewers to help you hone your voice and ability to answer questions under pressure. All of our mock interviewers have served on admissions committees and interviewed hundreds of applicants. Each session involves a mock interview followed by structured feedback and deep insight from people who have been on both sides of the medical school interview.