How do we deal with nerves from public speaking? – How to Speak So People Really Listen author Paul McGee

How do we deal with nerves from public speaking? – How to Speak So People Really Listen author Paul McGee

by Suswati Basu
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Being able to communicate effectively is apparently one of the most important life skills to learn. Communication is defined as transferring information to produce greater understanding. For example, in a 2016 LinkedIn survey conducted in the United States, communication topped the list of the most sought-after soft skills among employers.

But what happens when you have a mortal fear of public speaking?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Professor Paul McGee, who is one of the UK’s leading motivational speakers, seminar presenter, communication coach and bestselling author kindly spoke to me on his book How to Speak So People Really Listen:

Ravi Davda, CEO of Rockstar Marketing

English teacher Ellie Caudwell Casey, and the founder of

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Julian Treasure is a sound expert, who demonstrates some useful vocal exercises and shares tips on how to speak with empathy, he offers his vision for a sonorous world of listening and understanding.

Books looked at this week:

Paul McGee: How to Speak So People Really Listen: The Straight-Talking Guide to Communicating with Influence

Julian Treasure: How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 38 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Do you remember hearing this in the first episode?

Hesitation clip

I think I mentioned, this whole podcast journey began after becoming incredibly ill before and after trying to present something at work, despite knowing the content inside out. My fumbling was so extreme that even though I had the words written in front of me in bold with things italicised and underlined, it all became a giant blur and it came out like word vomit. So how do we become great speakers without nerves getting in the way?

Here’s what Ravi Davda, CEO of Rockstar Marketing, a digital marketing agency based in the UK has to say.


Our first book comes from Paul McGee, who is one of the UK’s leading motivational speakers, seminar presenter, communication coach and bestselling author. He has lectured across 40 countries and is the founder of Shut Up, Move On on SUMO, a life coaching program that draws on cognitive behavioural therapy. We’re looking at the book How to Speak So People Really Listen: The Straight-Talking Guide to Communicating with Influence and Impact. He gave me some great advice this week which you can watch on or on the YouTube channel, but here is a preview.


Professor McGee says your ability to influence others, build your career, and achieve your personal goals is dependent on how effectively you communicate and engage with people.

He starts by uncovering ‘The Seven Great Sins of Speaking’.

1.A failure to make your message sticky or memorable … so make sure you cover your content in Velcro, rather than coat it in Teflon.  The challenge you face as a communicator he says is not that the attention span of your audience is necessarily short – it’s that their attention is constantly being bombarded by messages and distractions screaming ‘listen to me, notice me’. So he recommends using unfamiliar phrases, terms, and stories to get our attention. And through repetition it also gets remembered.

2.Drowning people in detail … he says SLIM down your content which stands for Say Less, Impact More. Drowning people in detail results in overloading the audience’s brains. Apparently the brain can tire easily. Trying to grasp and retain a lot of information can literally wear the brain out because brain cells use up roughly twice as much energy as any other cells in the body. It might not weigh much, but in comparison with the rest of your body your brain takes a lot of energy to operate. Give it too much information that’s difficult to understand and you’re literally sending people to sleep.

3.A failure to consider or understand your audience’s needs … so get to know your audience, not just your message. Professor McGee says you need ask questions.
Ask questions that help uncover their issues so that you can then speak to their situation, rather than into a void. Even if you know your audience well, still think about the following.
Useful questions would include:
-What’s going on in your world at the moment?
-What’s important to you right now?
-What would you say are your three biggest challenges at this time?
-What’s going well in your world?
-What knowledge do you already have on my topic? (This is crucial. If you oversimplify, you lose credibility and appear patronizing.)
-If there was one thing I could do to help you right now, what would it be?

4.Focusing on features rather than selling benefits … so make sure you answer your audience’s question: ‘Why should I care?’

5.Winging it … beware the dangers of complacency – and perhaps even arrogance.  Winging it in terms of speaking relates to little planning or preparation in terms of what you’re going to say. Previous experience and confidence can lure you into a potentially false sense of security. Prof McGee also says you insult your audience when you take their time for granted and pitch up with little or no preparation.

6.Showing slides that suck the life out of your audience so remember you’re the star of the show. Your slides are intended to benefit your audience, to enhance your presentation and to support your message. They’re not intended to be a replacement for you.

7.Taking people on a pointless ramble so make sure you answer the question ‘So what’s your point?’ A lack of a clear direction and a final destination in terms of where the talk is going, means the speaker gets lost and inevitably loses their audience at the same time.

Next is ‘The Eight Great Ways to Speak so People Really Listen’.
1.Get real … so bring your authentic personality to your communication, and remember that connection with your audience is crucial. You’re trying to develop a relationship with your audience when you communicate with them. When you view your presentation as a conversation it creates a different tone to your delivery.

2. Get your attitude into gear … especially in relation to your topic, your audience, and yourself.  First ensure that you’re interested in your topic. You’ve got to sell it, not just say it.
Second, focus less on you and more on your audience. When we focus less on what can go wrong and more on how we can make things go right for our audience, our confidence grows and our nerves subside. Your goal is simple. Relate your message to their world. Thirdly, be aware of your inner critic – the voice inside your head that highlights your weaknesses and undermines your confidence by focusing on meeting your audience’s needs.

3. Start at the end and focus on what you want people to Know, Feel, and Do (KFD).  Be clear on what you want your audience to know. They need to feel affected emotionally as well. So, how do you want your audience to feel AFTER you’ve spoken and what do you want them to do as a result?

4.Sort out your skeletons of your presentation, without structure or direction your talk will fall apart.  There are several methods including the three Gs which is grab em in the first 90 seconds, give em the main points, and goodbye on your terms. The Aristotle approach which is tell a story or that arouses interest, pose a problem or question, offer a solution, describe the specific benefits and make a call to action. Or even the 4 Ps which are Position, Problem, Possibilities and Propose.

5.Grab’em by the eyeballs … you need to start by getting people’s attention – so make sure they’re engaged within the first ninety seconds. 
-Create a compelling title – questions can keep people engaged even before getting started
-Remember the 90/90 rule – It’s been suggested that, when you’re giving a talk or presentation, ninety percent of the impact you’re likely to make on your audience is made within the first ninety seconds
-Involve your audience. Get them to physically do something like raising their hands, move about etc.
-Create curiosity – even though Curiosity may kill the cat, but it will definitely intrigue your audience. The brain apparently enjoys acquiring new information, and people love to discover things that other people are completely in the dark about. Another way to create curiosity is to ask questions even if they’re rhetorical

6. Become an artist by being more visual with our words, our slides, and even by using props. Try and even turn dry statistics into something more visual either through images or examples.

7. Start using the oldest and most effective communication tool in human history – tell stories. After all we still remember fables and parables written centuries ago.

8. And finally shine at question time … handle them well and you’ll enhance your credibility – and add impact to your message. You just need some contingencies. Just communicate when questions can be asked , state how long you have for questions, anticipate tough questions, be honest if you don’t have the answer and follow through, and be prepared when there are no questions!

Social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard University Amt Cuddy says people who lack confidence or lack a sense of power, literally make themselves smaller. They stand less tall. They slouch. They lower their gaze and avoid eye contact. They send the message to their audience ‘I don’t want to be here’. Hence Prof McGee says be present in the moment and own your space. Don’t shrink. Expand. Smile. And engage in eye contact. But also be aware of your audience’s body language and know when to shut up.

In terms of nerves, Prof. McGee says that remember nerves these are normal. He says to manage your movies, which means the mental negative images of worst case scenarios, focus on your audience, be prepared, have a contingency plan, get perspective ie. It’s literally not the end of the world, and if you panic slow your breathing.

Our final book is How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening by acclaimed International speaker Julian Treasure, whose TED Talks have accumulated over 40 million views and have been ranked in the top ten best TED Talks of all time. Here he is


The book identifies proven ways to become a powerful speaker, the kind that commands people’s attention and keeps them hanging on your every word apparently. Treasure also identifies how to improve listening skills to have overall better communications.

Treasure says you can improve your communication skills by first looking at some common pitfalls that should be avoided. We use hyperbole like “amazing” to get a favorable reaction or to impress others, but it also devalues the true meaning of the words, thereby making them less effective.

Another habit that reduces effectiveness is our overwhelming desire to be right, and when we’re so focused on this, we tend to miss out on what the other person is really trying to say. In studying the communication between physician and patients in the United States and Canada, researchers found that patients are interrupted and corrected by their doctor, on average, 18 seconds into their statements.

Your message can also suffer when you’re overly concerned about people pleasing, or seeking approval from others because it ends up seeming inauthentic.

Another roadblock to good communication is how we deal with difficult, emotionally charged situations. Quite often, people will keep quiet or try to delicately fix the emotions surrounding an incident.

Research has also shown that our ability to listen is determined more by our personal experiences than our genes. In studying the lives of twins, the data suggests that their abilities are directly determined by their own unique experiences. Even identical twins with nearly identical genes and a similar upbringing can develop very different listening skills.

If one twin spent more of his childhood in front of the TV while the other had his nose in a book, it’s likely that the bookworm will develop much better listening skills than his sibling. We apparently also listen more in the honeymoon phase of relationships sadly.

As for speaking, the important thing to remember is that we need to pay close attention to the words that come out of our mouths, since they greatly influence what people think of us.

An infamous speech by businessman Gerald Ratner in April 1991, who represented a chain of jewellery stores in the UK saw him become very self-deprecating to the point he called his products affordable because they were “crap” and last as long as a prawn sandwich. No surprises, the company’s value plummeted by £500 million and was facing bankruptcy.

In terms of listening, there are some quick tips that can help anyone become a better listener.

For starters, making eye contact will automatically result in better listening. In his book Bodily Communication, social psychologist Michael Argyle says we make eye contact 70 percent of the time while we are listening, compared to only 40 percent of the time when speaking.

Eye contact is a sure sign that we aren’t trying to multitask while listening, since multitasking spreads our attention quite thin and leaves far fewer mental resources available to process what’s being said. Obviously this is awkward over Zoom as I never know to look at the camera or the person’s face.

Another way to get the most from a speaker’s words, and to create stronger relationships, is to practice empathetic listening. According to Marisue Pickering, a leading voice on interpersonal communication at the University of Maine, there are four traits to empathetic listening: putting the feelings and thoughts of others before our own; letting your guard down and being open with your emotions and opinions; imagining ourselves in the experiences and perspectives of others; and, finally, avoiding judgment or criticism while being receptive. Treasure says parents can get a better response with empathetic listening rather than critical listening.

And like Professor McGee, Treasure says One of the best methods to ensure you are being heard is to employ classic storytelling tropes, such that your words resonate with your audience. Researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide looked at around 1,700 pieces of fiction and found “rags to riches” stories such as Cinderella are the most popular. So consider following a template like this, if you can.

Another storytelling tool you can use is to speak from a place of intention, ie. Being personally invested in the topic allows the audience to engage with the subject matter.
But these tools won’t be very useful unless your message has clarity.

In 1961, former US President John F. Kennedy boosted the morale of millions of Americans by saying, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon . . .”

Likewise, one of Obama’s trademark efforts was the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which forbid federal agencies from using language that the general public can’t understand.

In the end, Treasure says the truth is performance is a skill. So even if you can’t stand public speaking now, there are ways to improve.

The first piece of advice is to have good posture. Certain postures and repetitive behaviors can give us a tense voice, which is ill-suited to public speaking. One such posture is a “text neck,” which develops from all the time we spend hunched over laptops and looking down at our devices.

Here’s how you can find out if you have a text neck: stand up straight and put your back up against a wall. If your neck is naturally jutting forward, then the muscles in your neck could use some exercise. While your back is against the wall, you can help straighten out this posture by imagining a string pulling your head straight up while your chin is tucked in. Practice this exercise for one minute every day.

Another important piece of advice is to be aware of your volume. Sodcasting is a new word that’s used to describe people who are unaware of how their loudness imposes on others. Always be aware of the volume of your voice and how to use it.

So to sum up:

Prof McGee says in How To Speak So People Really Listen that there are Seven Great Sins of Speaking’ and to counteract it you must make your message memorable, Say Less, Impact More, get to know your audience, not just your message; make sure you answer your audience’s question: ‘Why should I care?’, don’t wing it and be prepared, don’t make your slides the star of the show, and make sure you answer the question ‘So what’s your point?’

‘The Eight Great Ways to Speak so People Really Listen’ include bringing your personality to your communication, getting your attitude into gear especially in relation to your topic, your audience, and yourself, focus on what you want people to Know, Feel, and Do (KFD), sort out the structure of your talk, get people’s attention so they’re engaged within the first ninety seconds, be more visual with our words, our slides, and even by using props, tell stories, and be prepared with questions in the end.

In Treasure’s book How To Be Heard, he says to become an effective speaker, you must first learn to be a good listener, since the two skills are closely related. Practicing empathetic listening will enable you to become consciously aware of what you’re saying, and will lead you toward the most effective way of articulating it to others. He recommends trying to increase your concentration skills by make it a habit to check your e-mails and messages just three times a day: after waking up, during lunch and at the end of day.

And this week’s Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse participants reiterated something very important. It’s about focusing on who you’re speaking to rather than looking at your own fear, and listening to the other party than listening to your own voice.

On that note, here is English teacher Ellie Caudwell Casey on how she battled her public speaking jitters. And if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe.


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