Public speaking for young professionals

For anyone just starting out on the professional road

What happens to you when you speak in public?

It’s a vital professional and social skill, yet so many are nervous of public speaking and this can affect your personal impact. Being looked at and judged and worrying about failure, letting people down and losing face can make you feel under stress, even under threat.

Your system reacts and the ‘fight or flight’ threat response kicks in. A shot of adrenaline jolts your heartrate up, pumping oxygen round your system, causing overheating, blushing and sweating, hands tremble, breathing speeds up, you can’t think or speak clearly …

Sounds familiar? You’re not alone – you may not realise that everyone who has to speak to an audience, a camera or a mic, including actors and other professional speakers, feels nervous, too.

Whether it’s a one to one with a client, giving a presentation about your work to an audience or speaking in court, you need to feel, project and inspire confidence in yourself and your abilities. It all starts with you.

Think positive … If you’re a young person in the early stages of your legal career, a lack of life and career experience could mean establishing yourself among older more seasoned professionals and your clients is a challenge. Remind yourself that you’re bright and new, you’re trained and qualified with your whole future ahead of you and a recent learning habit to draw upon.

Be self-aware … Your personal impact is first visual, then vocal and finally verbal. Deportment and diction may seem old-fashioned concepts, but paying attention to how you look and sound affects how people think of you, your skills and your firm, and will support your developing professional brand.

Relax … Too much tension will affect your visual impact, as well as your voice.

If you’re standing, here’s an easy way to achieve an elegant yet relaxed public posture: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your back straight and your chin parallel to the floor, shoulders comfortably dropped, elbows a little away from your waist and your hands lightly clasped in neutral at elbow height in front.

If you’re sitting, keeping your feet flat on the floor, your behind against the back of the chair and sitting up straight, not leaning on the chair back, will have the same effect. Stillness plus considered movement and gesture add gravitas.

Breathe … Of course you can breathe – but are you doing it properly? Controlling your breathing is essential for anyone who uses their voice professionally.

Stand or sit as you’ve practised and just observe yourself breathing for a few moments. Now place your right hand on your front where you feel you’re doing your breathing. Where is it? If it’s high up on your chest, it could be you’re in the habit of shallow breathing, which we do when we’re scared, sick or running – all stressful situations.

Next put your left hand at your diaphragm where your ribcage ends and breathe deeply in through your nose so your left hand moves and your right hand stays still. Practice shifting the focus away from chest breathing to diaphragm breathing for more power, more fuel and a greater sense of calm.

And speak … Clear diction and precise speech imply precise thinking and make you easy to understand.

Tongue twisters are fun to do, and will make your speech more agile and eloquent. Here’s a link to some exercises you can practice as part of your personal development, and just as actors would do, try them as a warm-up before you go out to a client conversation or to deliver any speech or presentation:

Practice them for articulacy and clarity, paying attention to opening up your mouth, and pronouncing the consonants clearly till you’re very precise, then try saying them as quickly and accurately as possible. Take care to pronounce every element of each word, avoiding any tendency to swallow the ends of words and sentences.

Younger professionals sometimes retain some teen speaking habits that can undermine their impact:

Australian Question Intonation? That rising tone at the end of a sentence? Even when you’re not asking a question? This can make you sound unsure and insecure and will make your listeners feel the same way about you. It can also make you sound like a car alarm, which is not a good sound.

Vocal Fry, that creaky-croaky languid ‘Made In Chelsea’ tone, is hard to listen to and hard to project. Here’s Kim Kardashian demonstrating extreme Vocal Fry

And ‘like’ – the teen ‘um’ – only, like, reinforces youthfulness and can, like, infuriate.

They’re just habits. Time to move on and let those fashionable habits go, so the polished and professional authentic you shines through.

Your voice will develop throughout your twenties – if you record yourself speaking now, and again in five years’ time, you may well hear differences as you mature.

Enjoy speaking well in public – it’s an essential skill and will be a real asset to your career.

Philippa Hammond