Several years ago, I helped judge a college speech contest. The reason I remember that event specifically is because of a memorable student I met there named Rodrigo, from Brazil. After doing well in the contest, Rodrigo approached me to ask for help with his speaking. “I already have done a lot of public speaking in my own country,” he said. “But it is still a struggle for me. I thought it would get easier as I kept doing it, but still I get very nervous. Do you have any advice for me?”
Usually, my first advice for any nervous speaker is to practice, practice, practice—preferably in front of an audience such as a Toastmasters club. Rodrigo appeared practiced enough to win a speech contest, but still his nerves were getting to him. So I moved to the next suggestion. I said, “Try looking at your speech from the audience’s point of view. Instead of thinking of it as a performance you have to put on, think about what the audience needs from you most. How will your message make a difference to them?”
Rodrigo struck me as a young man concerned about making a good impression. By my estimation, he was putting his need to look good ahead of his listeners’ needs. I think he was also putting himself and his personal victories up on a pedestal, rather than making them relatable to his audience. That’s why I thought his next step should be to focus on the audience.
That, in a nutshell, is the advice of this post. The more you focus on what you are doing for the benefit of your audience, the less you will focus on your own nerves, anxiety, or feelings of inadequacy. How do you focus on your audience? Start with knowing the purpose you have in serving them.
Yes, you read that correctly—I said serving them. How are you there to make a difference in your listeners’ lives? To master your nerves and gain confidence in your speaking, you must start with a commitment to be of service—to make a difference to others. That commitment does not begin with your data or evidence. It begins with knowing your specific purpose.
If I were to ask you your purpose in speaking, you would most likely answer with two words, such as “to inform,” “to educate,” or perhaps “to persuade.” If your purpose can be stated in two words, it is a general purpose. To truly know how you are going to serve your audience, you must know your specific purpose. Your specific purpose is the answer to this question: “What do I want my listeners to think, do, or feel differently when I am done?”
Every time you prepare a speech, you should keep this question in mind. Once you know the answer, it becomes the yardstick by which you measure every phrase, sentence, or paragraph: “Does this advance my specific purpose?” If you don’t know what difference you are there to make in your listeners’ lives, you are not yet ready to speak – no matter how polished you think you might be.
Rodrigo was a polished speaker who new, instinctively, that something was missing. That’s why he felt nervous. Focus on your audience and what you are there to do for them, and some of that pressure you put on yourself to “look good” will begin to dissipate. Try it!