A public-speaking coach gives 5 tips for nailing your first performance or meeting back in person

woman speaking public speaking
Public speaking doesn’t have to be scary – again.

  • Eileen Smith is a public-speaking coach and frequent keynote speaker.
  • She suggests planning how you’ll project a professional image when returning to offices and venues.
  • Connect with the audience before you speak, make eye contact, and move with purpose, she says.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I can feel the electricity in the room when I’m in front of a live audience. I know if there’s spirited conversation before the event begins, and I can read people’s faces and body language.

Eileen Smith
Eileen Smith.

All these cues feed my energy and how I project it back to my listeners.

Of course, when everything moved online during the pandemic, I had to figure out how to get these cues back. I found myself reaching out through chat rooms and using polls to take the pulse of my virtual audiences.

As we move back to the office again, even if it’s in a hybrid workplace, many of our public-speaking skills might be a little rusty. Here are five ways to dust yours off and excel in that first in-person gathering.

Read more: 10 tips for landing and delivering your own TEDx talk, from a TEDx speaker whose talk has over 15 million views

Remember your performance starts when you enter the room

The beginning of an event or meeting is not the time to tuck into your phone or study your notes. When you enter a venue, your performance has already begun.

Project a strong executive presence by walking in with your eyes up and shoulders back. Say hello to people you know and introduce yourself to people you don’t. Engage in conversation until the meeting begins. Greet everyone like a boss or old friend.

For a more formal speaking event, once you’re set up with your technology and materials, stand by the door and introduce yourself to people as they arrive. If you’re holed away in a green room, you can find your fellow speakers or even a few staffers to talk with.

This approach has a few advantages. First, it gives you the opportunity to ask people what brings them in and what they most want to learn from this event. Then weave their stories or questions into your talk to make it more personal.

Second, keeping yourself involved in conversation until the event begins may help calm your nerves. Otherwise, you might spend those last minutes building anxiety about how your first foray back into a live audience will go.

Third, audience members who have had a chance to say hello will feel more connected to you as a speaker.

Make eye contact

Your goal when speaking in person is to make actual eye contact. Don’t look above your audience at the back wall, don’t stare at a spot on the table, and don’t look at the forest, but miss the trees.

I like to separate my audience into three sections. In each section, I seek out my new best friend. It doesn’t matter whether I’ve met this person before. I’m looking for someone who’s giving me positive feedback – smiling and nodding at what I have to say.

Once you’ve found your three new best friends, one for each section of your audience, take turns making direct eye contact with them while you’re speaking.

Wait until you reach a punctuation mark in your sentence before you move on to your next best friend. This helps you regulate your eye movement. If you switch between people too fast, you risk giving off the windshield-wiper effect. If you linger on one person for too long, it can become uncomfortable.

Gesture with meaning

At home on a video screen, small gestures are the rule. Perhaps you’ve been consciously keeping your gestures within the camera frame so they aren’t lost from view. Or perhaps the low-key work-from-home environment has depleted your inspiration for big gestures.

Either way, in person you can spread out.

If you’re someone who naturally talks with your hands, that’s wonderful. However, make a recording of yourself on your phone so you can check to see that your hands are saying what you think they’re saying. A little emphasis is good. Too much is, well, too much.

An important thing to keep in mind after hunching in your home office for so long is to keep your posture strong and body open. Crossed arms, hands clasped down in front like a fig leaf, and fidgeting with your hands are signs of discomfort.

Look self-assured by deploying confident hand gestures. Steepling “is a universal display of confidence and is often used by those in a leadership position,” Joe Navarro, a retired FBI agent and author, told Insider. You can also try nesting your hands together lightly or holding them separately at your midsection. Hands down by your sides is another confident position. This is a favorite for many world leaders, as seen at the recent G7 Summit

Move with purpose

Moving around when you’re speaking in front of people is an effective way to hold their attention.

Step to one side of the stage or conference room to connect with that part of the audience. Stay there until you finish your thought. Try out that solid eye contact. Then move to the other side of the stage or another spot. Finish your thought before you move again.

Be measured in your movement. When you’re standing still, avoid shuffling, tapping, or otherwise letting your legs betray your nervous energy. When you’re not walking, take a strong stance, keep your posture straight, and hold your feet firm.

Treat nerves as excitement and energy

Keep in mind that your audience wants you to succeed – if only for the simple reason that it’s uncomfortable to watch someone who’s outwardly nervous. Turn that tension into positive energy and project confidence on the outside.

If your nerves are threatening to get the best of you, take a moment. “The breath is a direct line to the nervous system and the brain,” Tara Antonipillai, a corporate wellness expert, told Insider. “Remind yourself that you can turn off the panic response in the brain and turn on that thinking reasoning part of the brain by simply slowing down and deepening the breath.”

Also, try mentally reframing your nervous reaction into excitement. Build your confidence through preparation and practice, print your notes as a safety net in case you forget what you want to say, and focus your thoughts on all the wonderful things that can happen, instead of thinking about what might go wrong.

Eileen Smith is a public-speaking coach, keynote speaker, and former diplomat. Find her tips to help business executives, policy experts, and rising professionals achieve preparation, confidence, and career success at Spokesmith.com.

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