10 public speaking tips from actor Sharon Duce

How to own the room

When we give a presentation, we turn into animals, according to actor and public speaking coach Sharon Duce. Our bodies break into fight or flight mode, anticipating an attack. Our hearts race, our mouths go dry and our jaws tense up. We scan the room for predators. Will they come from the left or the right, through the door or the window, or burst through the leaf canopy above our heads?

“We can’t help feeling nervous when we’re in front of a crowd,” says Sharon. “As an actor, my advantage is that I know how my body’s going to react, so I can consciously help myself to relax.”

Actor and coach Sharon Duce

Here are some of the physical and psychological tips that Sharon passed on to an audience of writers this weekend at Wordstock, a day of writing inspiration organised by writers’ collective 26.

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Practise what you’re going to say out loud, even if the audience is only the bathroom mirror or kitchen table. The more you practise, the more secure you’ll feel during the presentation.
  2. Stake out your territory. Animals assess the lay of the land and mark their territory. For a speaker, this means checking out the room where you’re going to be talking and ‘occupying’ the space by placing your bag and papers around the area where you’ll be standing.
  3. Trust yourself. If you want an audience to trust what you’re saying, you have to trust yourself first. Boost your confidence by doing those practice sessions in the kitchen, and reminding yourself that this is not a life or death situation, however intense it feels right now.
  4. Breathe. Always recommended, but particularly during a presentation. Take deep breaths from your belly to calm yourself and get some oxygen to your brain so you can think more clearly.
  5. Slow down. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and breathe if you need to gather your thoughts. You don’t need to speed up to retain people’s attention. The opposite is true.
  6. Use a prop. Psychologically, we feel more secure when we have something to hold onto, which is why you often see speakers staying close to the lectern. Increase your comfort zone by holding a prop related to your talk.
  7. Imagine your head is a ping pong ball on a jet of water. When you tense up, your neck stiffens and adds to the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feeling. Do the ping pong trick and you’ll relax your muscles and your head will move more freely.
  8. Relax your jaw. A closed mouth and tight jaw are clear signs of tension. Relax your jaw and you’ll instantly feel calmer.
  9. Wear flat shoes. When your feet are flat on the floor, you feel more grounded.
  10. Stand squarely on both feet. Don’t lean on one foot; distribute your weight evenly over both feet. It’s harder to push someone over if they’re standing squarely, so this stance will make you feel more powerful.

Sharon’s feet: firmly grounded, of course

And if you want to tap into some more presentation tricks, read my Guardian article on How to do hypnotic presentations.