9 Talking Tips that Fit (Almost) All Anxious Situations

Communication tips for surviving public and private speaking.

Posted May 20, 2018

I’ll never get over my fear of public speaking. But hanging out in front of large audiences has given me some tools for communicating better with people in my personal life. Here are nine things I’ve learning during my public speaking career that may guide you not only in public speaking, but also in private speaking—especially when talking to the  difficult people in your life, or when the topic at hand is not an easy one:

  1. Establish a connection with your listeners by schmoozing about the easy stuff before leaping into a difficult idea that makes you (and others) nervous. If you can make people laugh early on, so much the better.
  2. Make clear that the subject at hand matters to you, but keep in mind that talking about a serious subject doesn’t require you to convey your message in heavy, morose tones.
  3. Let others draw their own conclusions. If you address people with missionary zeal—suggesting that if they don’t agree with you they’re deeply misguided and may go straight to hell—you’ll lose them.
  4. You’ll also lose them if you go on for too long.
  5. Figure out when you can be spontaneous and wing it, and when to do your homework, prepare, and even rehearse.
  6. Meet people wherever they are. Yes, you can make the exact same point to your cousin who is the administrative director of the Berkeley LGBTQ Student Coalition and your uncle who heads the Christian Coalition for Family Values. But you can’t make that point in exactly the same way. It’s not that you’re aiming to be a wishy-washy, accommodating chameleon. But if you want to be heard, you must help others feel at ease.
  7. Treat every question and comment with respect. It never helps to shame people or make them feel stupid—even when they’re trying their darndest to do that to you.
  8. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. It’s fine to say, “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll think about that one.” People actually like it when you indicate that you’re human. 
  9. You can’t make anybody hear you. Your daughter may be paying rapt attention to your every word, or she may be fully absorbed in contemplating the ceiling or entertaining her private sexual fantasies. Your primary focus should be on what you want to say and how to best say it, rather than on needing a particular response from the other party.

Addressing a large audience—and talking one on one to your difficult brother or friend—may appear to have little in common. But sometimes the same advice may apply!