10 Smart Tips For People Who Are Terrified Of Public Speaking


Much like my trajectory at Waze, I was kinda, sorta thrust into public speaking. I was only supposed to go to CES 2013 to take a few meetings. But Di-Ann Eisnor, our VP of Partnerships, had to cancel a talk due to a flight delay. Suddenly, I was expected to fill in for one of the best public speakers I have ever met. No biggie.

My speech teacher at Modesto Junior College once told our class that fear of public speaking “is something you can never get over, you can only control.” After giving a decent amount of talks and presentations I can attest to that fact.

No matter how prepared I am, or think I am, I always freak out just before I go on stage, like:

“omg I’m going to forget everything…I’m way too under qualified to do this…what if I forget Spanish…is there peanut butter on my face…”

But once the first words come out, everything rolls smoothly…for the most part. I can see what Mr. Mullins meant when he said we could only hope to control our fear of public speaking. And since giving that talk at CES (I’m no Di-Ann, but I did alright) I’ve learned a few things that can help the budding public speaker.

1. Backseat Freestyle

One of the first things I learned in my high school speech class (shout out to Ron Underwood) was to never script a presentation or a speech. Outline your points and use those to give your talk. Not only does a scripted speech sound forced, but also it opens you up for mistakes. If you miss one sentence then your whole flow will be disturbed and you’ll lose your spot.

The only time I’ve ever written a speech in full was just before my talk at CES 2013. It was my first time speaking on behalf of Waze in a public forum and I wanted an extra form of reinforcement. But after I wrote it out, I promptly trashed it and went back to my outline.

2. Bumpin My Music

Before high-school game days, our football team used to blast rap music in the locker room. Tupac’s All Eyez on Me was a team favorite. Have you ever come across someone more confident than a rapper? Seriously, put on Rick Ross and tell me you’re not hyped up. Try it. I dare you. About thirty minutes before I go on stage, I’ll put on Kendrick, Kanye or any other of my favorite artists and just jam out. You may not be a rap fan (how can you not?) so find your All Eyez on Me. For me, rap music puts me in a certain mood and reminds me of my days playing football for Beyer (‘05 Til Infinity). But instead of coming out to sit on the bench, I’m coming out to center stage. Oh and unless you’re giving a talk about feelings, try to stay away from Drake.

3. Stick To The Script

Following the same routine has allowed me to get in the zone prior to any talk. I try not to make a big deal about the presentation (counterintuitive, I know). All in all, a talk is just a bunch of people getting together to hear about a common interest. There is no need to make a bigger deal about it. It is what it is. On “talk-days” I’ll get up at my normal time, I’ll go to the gym and I’ll read a bit before heading to the venue. In other words, I treat it like any other weekday. Same to you. You’re taking care of business and you handle your business every day. Brush your shoulders off, kid.

4. Marvin’s Room

This tip came from Mr. Mullins. If you can, the night before or a few days before your talk, go to the site of your presentation. Get familiar with it, walk around the room. Get on stage and explore every nook and cranny. The idea is to get comfortable with your canvas BEFORE you present. Also, it will help you avoid surprises. One time, I landed at 1am in Miami to give at a talk at The Fontainebleau Hotel the following morning at 9am. I asked the front desk lady if she could open the conference room and allow me to have a walk through. She was fine with it and there I was, practicing my talk at 2am to an empty conference room.

5. If Worst Comes To Worst

A great piece of advice I learned from Ryan Holiday was to imagine the worst-case scenario. “In your mind, envision the projector not working, the crowd being distracted, your message going over their heads.” Things will happen. Last month in Brazil my computer froze. But because I had considered that scenario, I wasn’t taken by surprise and I kept the talk moving. Probably not the most graceful transition, but the show goes on.

6. Talk That Talk

Remember, no one in the room knows more about your subject than you do. And if you miss a point or make a mistake, relax. You can always come back to it. At Social Media Day in Panama last year, I missed a big point I wanted to make about Waze’s Ad Platform. But I just kept talking and eventually I worked my way back to the point I missed. I can talk for days on Waze Ads, so all I had to do was to continue talking until I found a seamless way to transition back to an earlier point I wanted to make. If you miss a point, don’t panic you can probably skip it. But if you want to get back to it, then find a way, you know your topic.

7. Paris, Tokyo

The first time I presented in Portuguese, I spoke for five minutes in the most basic form of the language. My sentences were so simple; a drunk 4-year-old Brazilian kid could have done better. So I was really surprised when people came up afterwards to express their surprise and gratitude. People appreciate when you make an effort to connect with them. And even if you’re not presenting in a foreign language but instead are giving a talk in English to a Chilean audience, keep them in mind. Make an effort to learn local customs or local intricacies. Whenever I go abroad, I’ll make a joke about the local soccer teams or I’ll make a pop culture reference. It’s good for a few giggles and it shows the audience that you understand a bit about where they’re from.

8. A Star Is Born

No one is coming to a talk to boo you or to harass you. They showed up to learn something interesting and connect with other like-minded people. So they want to see you succeed. Just imagine and know that everyone in attendance has your best interests at heart and wants you to do well up there. I think to myself that those in the audience are my best friends and can’t wait to high five me after I get off stage. just don’t actually high five anyone after you get off stage. Unless it’s in context.

9. I Got A Story To Tell

Another good tip from Mr. Mullins was to share stories. No one wants you to get on stage and ramble off facts about CTR and pin clicks. no, They want to hear stories about how your product or how your experiences have contributed to others. I used to say that Waze has 50MM passionate users around the world. But that’s not as strong as talking about how Waze helped during Hurricane Sandy or how Waze is working with cities around the world to better the flow of information and traffic. People may remember facts and numbers. But they’ll for sure remember stories and the emotions associated with them. I was never a good storyteller, but I’m getting better at it and it’s in turn making my talks more effective.

10. Own It

Ultimately the key to giving a good talk is to know what you’re talking about. You should walk into a presentation knowing what two or three (or whatever) things you want your audience to take away. Then build your presentation around that, using examples and slides that help you drive your point home. Speaking of slides, don’t put too much stuff on there. No one wants to see you read off of a projector, they can do that themselves. Whatever is on your slides should be minimal and should be used to back up your points. Heck, most of my slides are just pictures of soccer players and quotes by dead philosophers. But they work for me.

The earlier you learn to like and appreciate public speaking, the sooner you’ll get better at it. The only formula for becoming better is to practice. I’ve had plenty of that these past few months as I’ve given talks in five countries and in three different languages. But I have a way to go in terms of skill level. But these tips, along with those I’ve learned from ridiculously smart people (see here and here) have allowed me to get better each time.

Hopefully, they’ll help you too.