Speaking with Confidence: It’s not a Presentation, It’s a Conversation

Speaker Katerina Arzhayev“Imagine the audience in their underwear” is the worst speaking advice I ever heard. Instead of reducing the stress of speaking in public, taking a literal stage, speakers are told to imagine themselves in a situation of someone else’s humiliation. Humiliation which is, by many accounts, far worse. Studies have shown that the same parts of the brain are activated when watching someone sustain a physical injury as when watching someone make a fool of themselves. Thus, the effects of second hand embarrassment do less to calm us when faced with the faces of hundreds of strangers.

Instead, my advice has been to think of public speaking as a conversation.

If this sounds contentious, perhaps I can provide a few tips on how to escalate the conversations you have been having.

Don’t talk about boring things.

Don’t force yourself into conversations that are not interesting, nor bring you or your partner any benefit. Regardless of the purpose of your conversation (or presentation), you need to adjust your angle to fit into the priorities of your audience. If they don’t care about the topic, and neither do you, it will be time poorly spent. By bringing your passion and connecting the topic to something everyone enjoys will you be able to drive meaningful results.

Everything is an opinion.

When you speak, you don’t need to know everything about everything. No one expects you to. In your conversations, focus on the pieces you do know and expand on them. No one is expecting you to defend everything else, all you need to do is be confident about the position you decided to present on. By adding quantifiers like “I think”, “I believe”, and “In my opinion”, you are reminding the audience to focus on your limitations, rather than your strengths. Phrases like that also take away a level of confidence. (Imagine I had written that previous sentence as “I think phrases like that take away a level of confidence” – right away something in your brain clicks that it is an opinion worthy of debate).

You don’t need to know everything about everything.

When people mention statistics, they often use the fact to support their hypothesis. The fact itself is not as important as the function it serves – serving as evidence and increasing credibility. When you are preparing to speak on a topic that requires proof, focus less on memorizing and delivering the numbers, and more on making your point. It is possible to “mess up” facts, without hurting your argument. Communication often moves so fast, that others won’t catch the mistake, unless it is obviously not true. ‘

For example, if I know a lot about gender violence, I can say “30% of women are assaulted and this is why we need better campus safety.” If someone in the audience know that, “actually it’s 33% of women”, my hypothesis about campus safety still stands. The audience is fine with me making a small mistake because we all make mistakes and the audience likes to think they are nice people who allow mistakes to happen (besides, you’re speaking in public – that is stressful enough as it is!).

What you think of professional, is most likely just boring.

Many of us, when trying to emulate a professional presentation, prepare and then read our presentation. Even if we aren’t actually reading, but our speaking style is “professional” – ie, emotionless and bland, like a CEO delivering an earnings report, people will lose interest. Stop looking at professional managers and thinking those people are professional communicators: if you want to be an effective communicator, look at real people who are professionals – motivational speakers, radio personalities, and stand up comedians. All of these groups use their entire bodies to tell their narrative – their fluctuation of voice, speed, tone, eyebrows and sweeping arm gestures – all of this works in their favor when they are fighting for the attention of the audience. If you read or speak like someone reading, you will lose your audience.

Presenting is just talking to a lot of people at the same time, maintaining a silent dialogue with a room full of people. The most effective presenters are the most effective communicators – able to adjust their content to meet the interests of the audience, identify their strengths and play to them, choose which areas to focus on instead of trying to cover everything, and engage their entire selves in the conversation.


Katerina Arzhayev, Self Improvement Speaker in Washington D.C., is a professional recognized for the cross-cultural and diverse mindset she brings into the workplace. Her goal of constant self improvement manifests through learning. After earning master’s degrees in Marketing and Business Administration, she turned her attention to Mandarin Chinese and Krav Maga. Katerina strongly believes that anything can be learned and makes it a priority to teach where she can.