Getting over stage fright to master the art of public speaking

David Nihill spent a year as a stand-up to try to master the art of public speaking

Few people would claim to enjoy public speaking. The adrenaline shakes from standing in front of a room full of people waiting to hear your say something clever and interesting and funny. The likelihood that something will go horribly wrong, throwing you far off your stride. The utter horror of the PowerPoint presentation, knowing that half the room will immediately switch off as soon as you flip the first slide. And that sneaking suspicion that, instead of the witty speech you practised in your head all the way to the conference venue, you are, in fact, boring at least 70 per cent of the audience to death. Slowly.

It's not for the faint-hearted. But there are some people who manage to make it look easy. You'd be forgiven for thinking David Nihill is one of them. The former marketing executive has not only written a book on the subject, Do You Talk Funny?, he's also an in-demand speaker too.

That’s completely unintentional. Nihill started out on this path out of necessity. A friend, Arash, suffered a spinal cord injury. Nihill wanted to help, so he put together a fundraising show. The only problem was that Arash wanted him to open the show. At the time, public speaking was not his strong point – the words “sweaty” and “swearing” are apparently accurate.

“I did this training just to do that show and not look like a total idiot,” he said. “Surely stand-up comedians are the true masters of public speaking? They’re on stage more than anybody in more difficult conditions with people who are like ‘Make me laugh, a*****e, I’ve had a terrible week’, in comparison to business conferences like a bunch of happy dolphins going backwards and clapping their hands at any type of entertainment.”


From there, it snowballed. He opened for comedians at local clubs, and decided to take a year to see what he could learn.

“I didn’t want my family or friends to know about it, I didn’t want it turning up on Facebook, so I had a whole fake website and the very creative name Irish Dave, which wasn’t very creative at all,” he said. “It got out of control fairly quickly.”

The route Nihill took is not for everyone. But he's committed those lessons to paper, writing Do You Talk Funny? to help those who don't fancy a stint as another "Irish Dave".

Some of the advice is so simple, you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. Stories the audience can relate to are funnier. The more you practise, the more natural it will seem. Use your second-best joke first and keep the really great stuff for the end. And above all, avoid the temptation to resort to “Dutch courage” before you take to the stage. That one never ends well.

Anyone who thinks they can rely solely on subject knowledge to get them through their conference appearances could be setting themselves up for a fall. As the rise of TV personalities such as Stephen Colbert and John Oliver will attest, it’s not enough to just be informative these days. In a world where people have entertainment at their fingertips around the clock, you need to bring something else to the table.

“It’s not that people set out to be bad, it’s just that no one has told them they’re boring the life out of people,” he explained. “They only really realise it when they’re at a conference and they go on after someone like Seth Godin, guys that are very funny and informative. That’s when they start looking for something.”

Even the people we assume would be able to handle themselves in front of large audiences can sometimes fall at the most basic hurdle. Director Michael Bay abruptly left the stage at Samsung’s 2014 CES presentation when an autocue malfunction left him flustered.

Nihill advises that when disaster strikes during a speaking engagement, it’s best to admit it and move on. He recalls one incident at SXSW where the speaker, who had some comedic training under his belt, handled a catastrophe.

“Everything broke. It was a production disaster, and he just pulled it out of the fire by telling funny stories, he said. “He actually just read out Amazon reviews to the audience for five minutes and they were in bits laughing. You can do anything in that scenario except ignore the problem, but I think a lot of people don’t know that.”

His business, FunnyBizz, puts writers in touch with companies that need their help, whether it is jazzing up tired Twitter feeds or making dry press releases a little more engaging. There's a conference too, which has been held several times in the United States. It's not bad for a man who claims his only brush with comedy was watching Billy Connolly and Ardal O'Hanlon doing their thing. Nihill likens it to the attitude that leaders are born and not made, something that has passed into popular consciousness but actually has little basis in reality. Leaders work hard at it; comedy is no different.

You could say, however, that Nihill’s ultimate aim has backfired. “I hate public speaking,” he said. “I wrote this book because it was a fear for me; here’s how to get over it, good luck to you.”

He regularly gets requests to speak at conferences and events these days, including the recent conference of the International Society for Humour studies at Trinity College Dublin, and is due to speak at Present in London later this month.

But just because he does it a lot more these days, it doesn’t mean he no longer gets attacks of nerves.

“What most people don’t tell you about the process is you never get over the fear of it, it just becomes manageable, and it becomes something you can do if you need to, and do very well,” he said.

“I wish someone had told me that at the start, it would have saved me a lot of hassle.”