You’re on a mission to convince hearts and minds of your audacious idea to change the world. Don’t let any fear of public speaking get in the way of sharing a compelling story or inspiring message.
Being anxious or nervous in public speaking situations can impact how people perceive and react to your vision but according to Chris Anderson, curator of TED, “Almost everyone is nervous to some extent when it comes to public speaking.” The key “is to understand that fear is there for a reason. Fear is motivation to act.”
In his Acumen Academy Master Class, Anderson offers a set of tools to shake the fear of public speaking by structuring your talk with confidence.
Here, we’ll break down Anderson’s most valuable tips for structuring your talk and share advice from Acumen Academy’s accomplished TED speakers on how they overcame any fears of public speaking.
“Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to look fear in the face and continue to walk forward....Only by nurturing our courage will we prevent our fears from making and then keeping us small.” — Excerpt from Manifesto for a Moral Revolution by Jacqueline Novogratz
This guide will help you stop your fears from keeping your message small. You’ll learn how to overcome the fear of public speaking in order to:
Craft a powerful presentation;
Become a better public speaker; and
Pitch to funders with confidence
With good practice and a handy tool belt of tips, you can build the courage to master public speaking to share your message with the world. Here’s how three Acumen Fellows prepared their talks with confidence and impact:
Craft a Powerful Presentation
Once you’ve mustered the courage to get started, how will you craft a presentation that sparks the interest of your audience? How will your ideas come together to create value and evoke change?
It starts by defining what you’re passionate about and communicating that passion with an authentic voice.
What really matters is that you, the authentic you, speaks. That there’s no artifice in this. That it’s you, taking something you’re passionate about, finding the right tools and using them to communicate that idea as powerfully as possible.” - Chris Anderson, Curator of TED
Finding and communicating your authentic story through public speaking can be challenging. Usually, when planning a speaking presentation, you assume you must set aside your personality traits –– the unique words you tend to use, or the silly ways in which you tell a story to a friend, to make way for a more “professional” or “polished” version of yourself.
We tend to think that public speaking and authenticity cannot coexist on the same stage but this is not the case.
Public speaking is not about using words or facts you think your audience wants to hear. It’s about conveying an idea that matters to you, and doing so with authenticity.
LET AUTHENTICITY TAKE THE STAGE
We brought together a pop-up panel with three accomplished TED speakers from the Acumen Academy Fellowship to share their advice on how to prepare a talk with authenticity and confidence.
Saad Hamid is an Acumen Pakistan Fellow and one of three panelists we convened to share his tips on public speaking. Saad is a Senior TEDx Ambassador and curator of TEDxIslamabad. He has over 10 years of experience directing TED talks with local and global impact, with over 50 million views.
According to Saad, “the number one starting point is authenticity.” He says a good talk is about finding your authentic voice, knowing your own limitations, and doing what works best for you.
Saad HamidSaad Hamid is a technology entrepreneur and digital ecosystem builder. He is currently serving as CEO of SkillsFirst through which he aims to empower 10 million...
While there is no specific recipe to follow in public speaking, there are useful ingredients at your disposal to cook up an authentically flavored treat. It’s a process that requires you to try out different methods and find what tastes best to you.
To start, Acumen East Africa Fellow Noeline Kirabo suggests focusing on “the most important part of the story and driving that message home.” Noeline is the Founder and Executive Director at Kyusa, a nonprofit in Kampala, Uganda, which empowers out-of-school youth in urban slums to turn their passions into sustainable careers. Noeline focused her TED Talk on what matters most to her as an entrepreneur: “Beyond just work, I am living my purpose and my mission.”
Knowing her limitations, she did not gamble with facts she didn’t know. She focused instead on a topic “that I was very conversant with.” She drove her message by “sharing basically what I do, the stories of the young people I work with, and how this is transforming lives.”
East Africa Fellow
Noeline KiraboNoeline is a family therapist by training and a social entrepreneur by design. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Kyusa, a nonprofit that addresses yo...
Acumen East Africa Fellow Doreen Kessy also drew on her personal story to drive her TED Talk with authenticity. Doreen is the Chief Business Officer at Ubongo, a company which creates fun and educational learning technology to scale and revolutionize education across Africa.
She focused her talk on the idea “that anyone who felt passionate about kids and education or revolutionizing education in the continent could get behind.” Doreen told her own story by describing “what was missing, what I wish I had growing up and learning in rural Tanzania.” She left her audience thinking, “what are the possibilities if we did more?”
East Africa Fellow
Doreen KessyDoreen is Chief Operations Officer at Ubongo Learning, a social enterprise that creates edutainment content for primary school aged learners in Africa. Based in...
Letting your authentic story take the stage is one part of the puzzle to becoming a better public speaker. Another is learning to craft that story with structure and power.
Noeline recommends Chris Anderson’s book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide To Public Speaking, to help you structure your talk in a way that takes your public speaking skills from ‘just speaking’ to ‘adding value.'
Here we’ve gathered Anderson’s top advice so you can structure your talk with confidence.
FIND YOUR CENTRAL THROUGHLINE
According to Anderson, a powerful presentation starts with a central throughline.
A central throughline is a connecting theme that links all of your ideas together. It’s like a rope along which to tie all of your thoughts and build upon them. Once you’ve identified all of the ideas related to your talk, you’ll need to connect them with a central throughline.
Anderson suggests you start by summarizing the connecting theme, or throughline, of your talk in 1-2 sentences. Then, look over all other elements you want to include in your talk and connect them to your throughline. Use this to build your outline; start with the main idea, and add other elements as sub-ideas with a brief explanation of how each connects to the main idea. Finally, think about how to arrange everything in logical order to lead your audience through a journey. It might take a few attempts, but that’s okay. This framework will help you to deliver a coherent and impactful message.
Be disciplined to ensure that everything you have to say connects to your throughline. If you have an element you are tempted to include, but it doesn’t connect to your short throughline statement, then it needs to be cut.
When Brene Brown gave her powerful TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability, her throughline was “vulnerability is something to be treasured not hidden from.” Every part of her talk latched onto that single idea.
Here are some sample throughlines from popular talks
Defining your central throughline will help you build confidence knowing that your ideas are concise and effective. Taking advice from experts in the field on how to structure a compelling talk also confirms you are heading in the right direction.
FIVE COMPELLING WAYS TO STRUCTURE ANY TALK
Anderson offers five compelling ways to structure any talk. While some include just one, most talks can include several of these elements.
Invite your audience on a journey with you. They may be skeptical at first, but adding elements such as vulnerability, humor, or meaningful eye contact, can break the barrier. Building connection is especially beneficial for talks about complicated topics.
Talking about the environment, for example, can feel like an abstract concept. Ralph Underhill, author of the Framing Nature Toolkit and former officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) suggests connecting your audience with the joy of the mission. In this case, the joy and beauty that nature contributes to our lives.
Narrating your story can be a powerful tool because it gives your audience the opportunity to imagine something they may have never seen or encountered before. Hundreds of years ago our ancestors sat around campfires sharing stories about adventures never imagined, in faraway places never before seen. Stories are how we’ve coevolved; they are our gateways for a shared experience.
There are many ways to narrate a story. Our Learn the Art of Storytelling to Tell Stories That Matter guide shares more examples of how you can use plot and narration for powerful storytelling.
Chris Anderson describes explanation as “the construction of an idea in someone else’s mind.” Metaphors are a powerful way to communicate ideas like these. A scientist looking to describe a complicated genetic coding process might explain the idea as, ‘a word processor that cuts and pastes genetic code’ to help this concept come alive.
While explanation can be a helpful tool, be mindful to test your talk with different people to ensure it’s clearly understood by everyone.
Persuasion is like the opposite of explanation. If explanation is a tool to construct an idea, then persuasion is a tool that challenges a pre-existing idea your audience might already hold.
Acumen West Africa Fellow, Kelvin Hughes, recalls how one discussion about the issue of marginalization left many in his cohort feeling differently than when they came in. “It was such a powerful, powerful expression,” Kelvin recalls. “Almost everyone left that room having their own thinking challenged, their own biases…I was angry at people. I was sad for others. And we had this incredibly rich conversation.”
West Africa Fellow
Kelvin HughesKelvin is CEO of Clean Team Ghana (CTG). CTG is a social business delivering household sanitation services to low income homes to save households money. Prior t...
Sometimes it’s helpful to consider your talk as revealing an idea to an audience through the power of words. This tool works well for talks about technology, where showing the action can reveal more about the idea than words themselves, or for talks that share a vision for the future.
A common example of the power of revelation at work is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. In it, he offers an alternative vision for the world, using the lyrical power of words. He shares his idea by describing his vision for the future, and in doing so, he revealed to millions the urgency of much needed change.
If one or more of these elements jump out at you, try using them to frame your presentation.
If you want to explore other storytelling techniques and frameworks, dive into Acumen’s free Storytelling for Change course to learn more about communicating your personal story.
DRIVE YOUR MESSAGE WITH A POWERFUL START AND ENDING
Knowing how your talk will start and end can help you stay guided. According to Anderson,
“However you deliver the rest of your talk, I strongly encourage you to script and memorize the opening minute and the closing lines. It helps with nerves, with confidence, and with impact.”
Even if you don’t plan to script your whole talk, you should write, rehearse, and memorize the beginning and the end.
TIPS FOR A POWERFUL START
Here are four tips to start your talk strong.
Drama: If your talk were a movie or a drama, how would it open? What is the most compelling or dramatic part of your idea?
Ignite Curiosity: What surprising question could you ask about your topic? How could you frame your topic in a surprising way?
Show a compelling slide, video, or object: Are there any glorious, impactful or intriguing pictures or videos to illustrate your idea? “The image you’re about to see changed my life….”
Tease, but don’t give it away: What kind of language will seduce the audience into wanting to come along for the ride? How could you signal where your talk is going without giving it all away?
Think back to the advice from our TED panelists on how to stay authentic. Then try out a few of the tips above to see if one feels right for you.
IDEAS FOR A MEMORABLE ENDING
Similar to your start, think through how one of the following ideas below can help end your talk with power.
Three ideas to consider:
Big Picture Endings: After explaining your idea, how can you pull back and show the audience the broader context or set of possibilities? Or, how can you turn what you’ve discussed into an inspiring or hopeful vision of what might be?
Active Ending: Invite your audience to act on your powerful idea and give them a specific way to do so. Making your own personal commitment to take a meaningful action in front of your audience can also encourage them to act upon your idea.
Satisfying Endings: Use narrative symmetry to loop back to something you discussed at the beginning to give your talk a pleasing conclusion. Or, neatly reframe or summarize the case you’ve been making.
One way to consider each option is to think, ‘how do I want to leave my audience feeling at the end?’ This can help you stay authentic to your central throughline.
Become a Better Public Speaker
To become a better public speaker you must gradually replace fear with excitement. This requires practice, discipline, and endurance. But what awaits on the other side is an opportunity to share your vision and grow your impact.
Just as crafting a powerful presentation requires authenticity, so does your practice and preparation. There is no right way to give a talk. You should do what feels natural and allow your honest self to emerge on stage.
“We’re talking about really powerful skills that involve human to human connection through the way that we look at people, and through body language, and tone of voice and so forth.” - Chris Anderson
Here are a few strategies our TED panelists recommend trying out:
LOOK YOURSELF IN THE MIRROR
Practicing your public speaking skills in front of a mirror might feel awkward at first, but it can help you find the right body language.
Saad says practicing in front of a mirror will help you determine your movements – being too stiff can make your talk feel awkward, but moving too much can be distracting. Try practicing in front of a mirror to find the right balance.
Doreen also suggests recording yourself on audio and identifying the way you talk. She says, “I would listen to myself on audio on my way to work. I would do this to improve and improve upon the next version.”
Similarly, Noeline suggests asking yourself, “what’s that position that makes you come alive?” For her, it’s a smile. That’s what helps her connect with her audience. Finding the right composure and feeling comfortable in your tone and gestures is an effective way to fight the nerves and feel more confident.
WRITE IT OUT
Writing out your talk can help you establish direction and eliminate doubt. Knowing how your talk will unfold can help you feel in control on the big day.
According to Saad, you should practice by writing one paragraph for every minute of your talk. “If you’re giving a 10 minute talk,” he says “you should have around eight to ten paragraphs, and you should know how those paragraphs start and end.” He says, “you don’t have to repeat it out loud word for word, but you should have a very clear indication in your head about what is going to happen in each section.”
You should also take this time “to learn what you don’t need to tell the audience,” which is usually the hardest part. Saad says that in most instances, a 60-minute talk is much easier to write than a 10-minute talk because you must be precise.
“Plan your talk. Then cut it by half. Once you’ve grieved the loss of half your talk, cut it by another 50 percent. It’s seductive to think about how much you can fit into 18 minutes. The better question for me is, ‘What can you unpack in a meaningful way in 18 minutes?” ––Brene Brown as quoted in TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson
The writing process can feel like a tedious task, but you’re likely to reap the benefits if you persevere. Noeline confesses that writing out her talk “felt like a lot of work at first” but she later learned “it made it easier for me when making the final presentation.”
According to Doreen, writing made her feel “too robotic.” One way she overcame the risk of sounding inauthentic was to ask her friends and family to sit in the front row on the day of her talk. “Every time I got nervous I would look at my friends and that made me feel like I was just talking to a friend,” she says.
If you can't have your friends or family present on the day of your talk, then practice by imagining it more like a discussion where you’re talking with a friend about something you’re passionate about. Visualizing that you're at a cafe chatting with a group of friends can help make the environment feel more comfortable.
BUILD A CULTURE OF PRACTICE
Practicing your talk is one sure way to build confidence and set your fears aside. Building a culture of practice from the start helps you refine your skills, get comfortable with your topic, and shake the nerves over time.
After I had done the writing, I kind of felt like I knew it. Then towards the end the pressure began to mount up. So if I was to do anything differently I would have put more hours of practice right from the start. - Noeline Kirabo, Acumen East Africa Fellow, Founder and Executive Director at Kyusa
Noeline practiced her TED Talk for several months before the big day, putting in about four hours of practice a week at the start and about eight hours a week during the last month. Despite the hours she put in, Noeline says “if I had the chance to do it again, I would put in more hours practicing.” She recommends building in your practice right at the start and giving yourself enough time as opposed to waiting towards the end.
She recommends “building a culture of practice.” So “if you’re a blogger, blog more often. If you’re into public speaking, do podcasts and do videos. Building a culture of practice prepares for when that day comes. And then you just need to sharpen your skills and you’ll be ready to go.”
But how do you know when you’re ready to go?
According to Doreen, a good way to measure your practice is to gage your emotions. She says, “when you can’t wait for that day to come because you’re so excited and so ready, that’s a good point to shoot for.”
Gauging your emotions is an important tool to overcome the fear of public speaking. Being aware of how you’re feeling throughout your practice can help you manage your emotions on the big day.
EMBRACE THE FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING
The truth is, you’re likely to feel somewhat nervous no matter how well you prepare.
Doreen says you can shake off the nerves by expecting to feel nervous on the day of your talk. “That way,” she says, “when you feel anxious, you know you saw it coming and you can breathe.”
Sharing how you’re feeling with the audience can also help build a meaningful connection. If you’re honest with them, they’re likely to respond to your authenticity and vulnerability.
When feeling nervous, Saad says he just talks it out with the audience by “addressing the elephant in the room.” His advice? You don’t need to start your talk right away. You can take a few deep breaths to give yourself some time to feel the room, make eye contact with people you might know, and “let the talk come to you.”
Public speaking is a powerful vehicle to drive change. An authentic talk that evokes emotion, honesty, and vulnerability makes your message real. If you get out of your head, and get authentic, you’ll gain the confidence to take your message to the next level.
Since speaking on stage is one of the most anxiety-inducing formats for sharing your story, once you learn to feel comfortable in those situations, you can apply this new confidence to other areas that will benefit your social endeavours.
Pitch to Funders with Confidence
Mastering public speaking and effective communication skills can help you meet your fundraising goals. Once you’ve practiced and overcome the fear of public speaking, you can use your new skills to impress potential funders with your story and secure funding to scale.
Acumen’s free Nonprofit Fundraising Essentials Course dives into the strategic approaches nonprofits can adopt to communicate and fundraise more effectively.
Regardless of your organization’s legal structure, for now here are a few suggestions to get you to deploy your new confidence speaking in the world of fundraising..
BE AN EFFECTIVE STORYTELLER
It's just as critical to develop a narrative when speaking to a potential donor as it is when presenting on stage. Sharing a concise strategic story of your business gives the funder a clear picture of what your organization does and how funding will help it grow. You can adopt Chris Anderson’s “five compelling ways to structure any talk” listed above, and apply them to your fundraising pitch.
Here’s one example of how you can use narration to pitch your mission to a funder:
Acumen India Fellow Yogesh Kumar is the founder of Even Cargo, a female-driven goods delivery company in Delhi. For Yogesh, the mission is to “create a gender-just society, to challenge gender norms by allowing women to have equal opportunities and come into professions that have been traditionally inaccessible to them, to have equal access to public space, and to increase their participation in the workforce.”
Narrating Even Cargo’s impact around one of their female drivers, Tabbasum, can help funders connect to the problem and the mission. Before, Tabbasum’s household income for a family of 11 was 9,000 rupees per month, dependent on her father’s earnings as a cook. Now, with the earnings from her work at Even Cargo, she has more than doubled her family’s income, earning 15,000 rupees per month.
A story that walks a potential donor through the journey of how their contribution helps make an impact can be an effective communication tool to grow your fundraising. The key is to craft your mission into a story that your audience can understand and measure. For more inspiration, see these 11 social innovators pitch their ventures on stage.
BE AUTHENTIC WITH YOUR LANGUAGE
Just as you wouldn’t give a talk using research you’re not comfortable with, you shouldn't pitch to funders using language that’s inauthentic. Try to convey your fundraising message with the same authenticity you’ve learned from our TED Talk panelists.
Similar advice is given by Rachel Stephenson Sheff, a Senior Advisor at IG Advisors working to bridge the gap between fundraisers, businesses and philanthropists. She offers tips for how organizations can get funding for their work and emphasizes the value of clear mission and vision statements.
She says, “There are countless times where, after many minutes of scrolling a charity’s website, I still can’t articulate what it actually does. Too often, charities coat their activities in jargon using words such as “catalyze” and “empower.””
The organization Charity: Water’s website is a good example of how a mission and vision can be communicated through a very clear and short explanation of how donors can make an impact.
Using clear and accessible language can be a useful way to bring your funder into the conversation. While the word “biodiversity” feels scientific and unfamiliar, words like “wildlife” or “nature” can feel more relatable. When in doubt, ask a friend or relative how your choice of words makes them feel.
Enrolling in Acumen’s free Storytelling for Change course will also give you a good sounding board to practice and get helpful feedback on your presentation or pitch.
Overcome Fear and Grow Your Impact
The power to grow your impact is greater than the fear that’s holding you back from public speaking. If you adopt the right tools and change your mindset, you can use your new communication skills to grow your network and opportunities.
After her TED Talk, Noeline was overwhelmed by the responses on social media. She says “To this day, people get into my inbox and they're like, ‘I saw your TED Talk. I like this,’ or ‘I would like us to talk about this.’” She says her talk has “opened me to networks I would never probably have gotten into.”
Doreen’s TED Talk also led to meaningful partnerships. “One of the collaborations was with a lady that runs a financial institution in Uganda. We had never met.” The lady was looking to do financial literacy training for young people in the region. When she came across Doreen’s talk, she reached out to offer materials and resources to train youth in Doreen’s program. Doreen says, “we were in the same city, didn't know each other. But that one talk is what actually brought us together.”
hange happens when “a group of people come to share the same vision so that they can act together.”
Curator of TED
In our Learn the Art of Storytelling to Tell Stories That Matter guide, we dive into what it means to use the power of your voice to drive change. Effective public speaking can inspire your audience to take action, which can lead to financial contributions, partnerships, and a growing network of people who care about your cause. The key is to just get started.
No matter how small, applying the skills and techniques offered in this guide will help you get started on your journey to becoming a better public speaker. With structure and practice, you’ll gradually gain the confidence to share your vision with the world.
If you want to secure funding for your nonprofit, but don’t know how to building meaningful relationships with funders, read this guide on Fundraising for Nonprofits: Avoid Mistakes and Grow Partnerships.
If you’re looking for the confidence to land a successful pitch for your startup, read this guide on Startup Funding: Think like an Impact Investor to Raise Money.