I’ve been in Toastmasters for over 20 years and the greatest conclusion I have come to is that it is all about practice. The more you have the opportunity to speak in front of others, the easier it becomes.

The key problem is nerves. Why is it that we can speak easily and confidently, using natural body movements, facial expressions and vocal variety in front of friends and family, but when we are put in front of a large group of strangers, all that ease and confidence disappears? Nerves, adrenalin – whatever you want to call it – kicks in and makes us very uncomfortable. It’s a protective response, designed to make you feel you should run for the hills. The other side of the coin, however, is that it make you feel alive and in the moment. If you can use nerves to your advantage, they can actually enhance your speaking delivery.

Nerves are not an intellectual problem. You can’t “switch them off’, or find the answer to nerves in a book, or by think them into non-existence. The “imagine the audience as all naked” thing never worked for me. Breathing techniques, relaxation, etc. all help, but I have found that the best way to overcome nerves is to speak in public as often as you can. You will never lose nerves – and neither should you want to – but with time it just gets more manageable.

I have a bit of a bug-bear about Powerpoint presentations, in that much of the time they are used as a crutch for the presenter, and not as an aid to understanding for the audience. Let me make this plain: I hate bullet points. I hate complex diagrams. I hate word laden slides. I hate slides with no apparent purpose. Powerpoint presentations should, if at all possible, be full of vivid imagery, with minimal use of text. The audience came to hear you and the focus should therefore be kept on you, and what you have to say.

The structure should also be simple. The best speeches use a simple narrative style: the speaker tells a story. They might start in the past, move into the present and talk about the future. Alternatively, they might stay in the past, and what was learned from the story. Or they might have a purpose, backed up by a few small stories to demonstrate why you think the way you do. Either way they make use of narrative: moving, where possible, through time in order to reach a conclusion. Make use of storytelling. It’s the gift we were given by our distant ancestors to retain knowledge and audiences appear to be particularly well disposed to it.

As for making mistakes – I’m all for it. When you have an interesting story to tell, you shouldn’t worry too much about slip-ups. The audience will ignore them. The audience is extremely forgiving if you are saying something of value to them. Your missteps, forgotten lines, technical hitches, momentary amnesia, ems, ums and ahs, will be quickly forgotten.

The bottom line: do it. Do it again. Then, do it again. It’s all about practice.