Public speaking for normal people


I just gave a presentation on 42Floors to 150 people.  It went well. I was really proud of:  1) our team, 2) our product and 3) the way we were able to present it.  It was as if we were telling people about it in our living room, but there just happened to be 150 people there.  Afterwards, several people told me that it felt like it was a very polished presentation.  But the reality is we didn’t practice at all.  In fact, three minutes before we went on stage, my co-founder turned to me and said, “Jason, we really should’ve practiced.” I said, “Nah, don’t worry.  We’ll be fine.” And we winged it, and it came off ever so naturally. 

Before I pat myself on the back too much, let me tell you how I felt inside.  Thirty seconds before I was supposed to go on, I was standing there on the side and all of a sudden my heartbeat went from normal to racing like I was in the middle of marathon.  Uggghhh.  I hate it when this happens.  It's kind of like how you feel when you blush: you're reminded how little control you have over your own body.  For a brief moment, I was upset with my body for reacting this way. I was upset with myself for reacting this way, actually.  I should be more confident than this.

For some background, I’ve done a tremendous amount of public speaking. I did speech and debate in high school, I’ve spoken to lots of large crowds, I have given this type of presentation many, many times before. This was also a really friendly crowd, and it was super informal. There was no reason for me to be nervous. But, there I was ready to go on, and I was worried that people standing near me would literally be able to see my heart beating this fast.  

However, in those thirty seconds, from when my anxiety took hold until I started speaking, I squashed that nervousness almost completely.  And that's what this post is about.

The key to public speaking is establishing a routine that solves for the thirty seconds between when your anxiety starts and when you need to go up on stage.  After that nothing else really matters.  Most normal people do not engage in public speaking regularly enough to be able to actually change any of the fundamentals about how they speak.  The very best you can hope to do is to not sound worse than you do when speaking in your own living room.  And that itself is actually a really good axiom to start with:


Don’t try to become a good public speaker, just try to speak like a normal person while in public.  


And the key to speaking normally in public is to squash your anxiety thirty seconds beforehand. Here are a few tricks that I know. Give them a shot.



How to Speak Like a Normal Person While in Public:


Dribble Twice, Spin Once  

So this trick will take a little bit of time to develop, but it’s probably the single most important thing that I’d recommend.  When you watch a basketball player go to the free-throw line with the game on the line, he or she does the same routine every single time. It's always some sort of dribble twice, spin once routine.  With the spotlight on him, he doesn't want to think about some small aspect of his form.  He wants to not think at all.  So he focuses on his trivial routine: dribble twice, spin once, shoot.  The best he is hoping for is to shoot as well as he normally does in practice.  

I do the same thing with public speaking.  I have found a very specific set of physical actions that I do seconds before I start speaking.  For me, it’s a specific stance that I get into where I stand up very straight, my toes are slightly pointed out, I take my hands and I clap them together.  I grasp my hands together really firmly and rub them slowly with my elbows held high.  

I do it this way for one key reason – this is what I usually do anyway.  As in, if you see me in my own living room, surrounded by friends, recounting a story of a time when I did something really awesome, you will often find that I am naturally in this stance.  This is my natural confidence stance.  So, when I’m feeling nervous, I force myself deliberately to take on my confidence pose.

Jumping back to this public speaking event the other day.  At T minus 30 seconds, my heart was beating incredibly fast, but at T minus 25 seconds I had one thing on my mind – hands clasped together, assume the pose, everything else will work out.

You need to find your confidence pose. Whatever your two dribble, spin once routine is going to be, you need to find it long before your public speaking moment.  The single best way to find it is to ask your co-founder or friends to find it for you.  Show them this post, tell them you want help finding this pose, and then at some point in the next several weeks, they will see you do it naturally and can point it out for you.  And then, you need to figure out exactly what it is about this pose that feels good and practice it over and over again.  So the next time when you’re up on stage and you’re getting really nervous and you have that weird feeling where you just don’t know where to put your hands and you just know that in your pockets is like the most awkward thing in the that point – dribble twice, spin once, and shoot.


Death to Powerpoint

Powerpoint is this devious device that takes reasonably good speakers and makes them painfully bad. Traditional bullet-point laden Powerpoint decks are only useful for communicating your ideas with visuals and emailing them to people. They are not useful for aiding you in your speaking ability.  And that’s why most really good speakers stopped using Powerpoint in the traditional way. Throw away all slides that have more than ten words on them (or move them to an appendix).  

It’s okay to use slides when they takes almost no focus off of you, the speaker.  That’s for two reasons.  The first is, the focus really should be on you, so having an Apple-like slide with one or two words on it is totally fine because it communicates a point and gets the focus back on you.  (Note—the only exception is when you demo your product.  Then you do want the attention on the screen.)  The second reason is even more important:  Powerpoint bullet slides take away your attention from your audience.  When you turn around to read a slide, you are forcing yourself out of your own rhythm. 


Speak to Two People

Remember our goal is to speak like a normal person in public.  The best way to speak like a normal person is to actually talk to a real person, and not hundreds of people.  So, as I stand there about ready to speak – in my stance, rubbing my hands together – I look to the left side of the room and to the right side for a random person that seems comforting.  When I actually start speaking, all I want to do is speak to those two people. I’ve never met them but I want to lock in on those two people and just tell them a simple story as if they were sitting in my living room.  I can pace back and forth and look left and right in the crowd, and yet all I’m really doing is going back and forth between my two people.   It’s super simple; it totally works.


Embrace Your Ums

Um is a verbal tick.  It is unconscious and nearly impossible to remove.  If your career is going to be an actor, public speaker, politician, whatever . . .  go work on your ums and this post was never for you anyway.  If you are a normal person, you are not going to get rid of them.  And anyone who harps on you because of them is actually doing you a disservice because they are forcing you to speak differently than you speak as a normal person.  Paul Graham is one of my favorite public speakers, and he says um all the freaking time.  But, he’s a powerful speaker, he’s lucid and most importantly, he’s authentic.  Focus on what really matters.


Don’t Memorize

Memorizing does absolutely nothing for you.  The only thing worse than a scripted, memorized speech is a ‘read’ speech.  So, don’t ever read your speeches, either.  You are pitching your start-up and trying to inspire people to believe in your vision.  It doesn’t matter what the actual words are, they’re all judging you anyway.  And when you memorize your speech, or read your speech, you are communicating that you suck at this.  And you don’t.  You’re a normal person – you have the capacity to speak like a normal person.


Practice with Live Ammunition

Over-practice can really hurt you, especially if you do it in a fake way.  One of the worst things you can do to prepare is to practice over and over again alone.  Because that is nothing like the situation that you are going to be in.  We speak very, very awkwardly alone.  When you are making passionate speeches inside of your car, you look like a crazy person and you feel like a crazy person.  Your performance there will be nothing like your performance on stage. Your goal, always remember, is to get back to how you speak in your living room.  So do that.  

Ask your co-founders to put you on the spot in front of groups of people.  So, if you guys are at some random party, empower your co-founders to play this little trick on you:  Without giving you warning, they can yell out for everyone to get quiet because you want to tell them something.  You will have zero time to get nervous, you will have to start immediately, and you will do the best job that you can.  And if you do that five times before your big public speaking engagement, you will be far better prepared than if you had spoken to the mirror a hundred times.


One final note to that group of 150 people that just saw me speak:  Yes, I was absolutely, totally, freakin' nervous.  If that’s you as well, you already know how to reach me, let’s practice together.

Find discussion of this post on Hacker News


And please come check out my new startup, 42Floors

We're fixing commercial real estate.  Forever.

Sign-up to learn more at, and like us on Facebook, and follow us on AngelList, and follow us on Twitter.  We're now showing-off screen-shots on our AngelList page.


I'm Jason Freedman.  
I've got a sweet-ass new company: 42Floors.  
Previously, I did FlightCaster.
I welcome connections on Linkedin,  FacebookAngelList and Twitter.
32 responses
Great points here. I would say YMMV for the not memorising though. I personally tend to talk frighteningly fast and ramble when nervous, so I script everything, run it through several times to check for coherency, figure out any structural issues, trim, then print out the notes as a prop.
Great post. As far as not memorizing goes, the answer for a lot of people is to make an outline, and practice putting the ideas into words. One way is to recite the point from the outline ("the third way of using this product is online") and then spontaneously explain what you just said.
Try standup comedy... take a workshop. Once you've tried to make people laugh, standing alone on stage, pitching anything and anyone becomes much easier. Bonus points - be a busker for your show and convince people walking by on the street to come see your show...

For me, memorization is essential... I learned quickly with the standup that I can't count on (what I thought was my great) ability to ad-lib. You'll be far more confident, and able to pick up after interrupted.

Great points.

On not memorizing - I definitely agree. That said, I do think it makes sense to plot out a few talking points. Knowing you have a starting hook, some middle points, and an ending gives some structure to your talk, keeps you from wandering, but also gives you the freedom to give your talk as if it isn't memorized.

One more little trick I used. Whenever possible start speaking while sitting down at your place (some times you speak to smaller audiences, that are round a conference table and you can do it). It helps with that dreadful moment when you have to stand up and everybody looks at you. You can get up after a few moments once you feel a bit "more confortable".
Great post. I do most of these, I find "speak to two people" particularly useful. And the most important point: practice! Try to speak in public at every opportunity. Ask questions at a conference, after a talk. Explain something to a group of friends or colleagues. Say yes to every speaking opportunity that comes your way. This will get you ready, over time, when that big-time, your-life-depends-on-it talk comes around.
What I usually do is - I come to stage knowing that I'm connected to the people who are going to listen to me in some way or the other. A complete awareness of my spiking heart beats and my breath brings both of them back to normal.

I also summarize the key points on a piece of paper and I glance over that just to ensure that I can come back 'naturally' to a missed point later.

Thanks Jason. Although I agree on most, I must say that it must be recognized that becoming a great speaker is a process (like you rightly say it takes practice). We always advise that notes be used for complete novice speakers and as your confidence grows you phase them out. Same with the "ums" - start by not worrying about them, but as you grow in confidence you have to start focusing on removing it from your speech delivery.
Has anyone heard of Toastmasters?? They are in every community and can fit anyone's schedule. They are the original "public speaking for normal people"s club, started in 1924 and going strong today. Even though I like you have been able to have positive experiences in my public speaking, I joined because I knew that there are skill sets I needed to learn, practice is always valuable and positive feedback will lead to improvement. I encourage everyone to at least visit a club in your area.
Here is the website link:
The better version of memorising a speech is called knowing the hell out of your stuff. If your aim is to talk like a normal person you can't write 2,000 words and say it over and over again until you can do it by rote.
This is wonderful. I am feeling more confident now because i feel it works.
Great post and subsequent comments. I agree that you should always seize the opportunity to speak in public or take part in a conversation when networking for example, even if you are not on a podium in front of an audience. Be yourself, certainly, and just as important, really believe in what you're saying and clear in your mind about the message you want to get over. I believe everyone's nervous (?) before starting but once you're started, enjoy it! Good tip about finding your confidence stance - I'll try to indentify mine.


I love the authenticity that comes across in this post -- it was completely humanizing to hear that you go through the same motions of nervousness!

People also tend to lose pitch and tonality when they speak. Ever noticed how people sound deadpan on stage? I've been working on forcing my voice to make variations in pitch (just like normal people speak), and the crowd truly responds to that energy -- try it next time you speak. It also makes any (attempts at) jokes funnier :)

I agree with Stevie Stevo above - I'm a novice but I would definetly say knowing your "stuff" has to rate high on the list of being a successful public speaker
Love the comment about PowerPoints. I don't care for them.
I also love the comment about reading your script. It's real boring to watch someone read everything that they want to say. Stay ingaged in your audiance.
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