Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking

Let’s begin by hearkening back to a time when Romans considered it to be good sport to feed Christians to the lions. One day, the festivities had been going as usual when a strange thing happened. The Christian in the arena whispered something to the lion. The lion then turned tail and slunk away.

The crowd was amazed. The Emperor was impressed. He let it be known that he would spare the Christian’s life if the man would reveal the secret of what he had said to the lion.

The Christian was brought before the Emperor. In a powerful voice, he said, “I told him he would have to say a few words after dinner.”

The lion’s reaction should not surprise anyone who has been asked to “say a few words.” If you are like most people, a jolt of adrenaline courses through your body, your heart beats a bit faster, and your breathing becomes shallow. It’s possible, too, that your palms get sweaty, your knees feel like Jell-O, and your mind goes blank.

Some years ago, The Sunday Times of London published a list of people’s greatest fears. The fear of public speaking took first place, while “death” placed seventh. Though I don’t really believe that most people would rather die than speak, I have had clients say to me, “But you only die once!”

The Problem

Why do so many of us have this reaction when called upon to speak?

For one thing, speaking in public makes us feel that we are in danger – and, as with any perceived danger, the body instinctively reacts. Blood gets diverted from the brain to the major muscles, enabling us to protect ourselves. But when the blood leaves the brain, thinking is less effective and our capacity to process information decreases.

That explains the physical reaction. But what is it that makes us feel that we are in danger to begin with?

We come up with various reasons: We are afraid we will forget what we planned to say. We think our nervousness will show and they will see us sweat. But, really, it is most often because we feel inadequate. We are terrified of rejection, afraid we aren’t good enough, afraid we will be judged and found wanting. (Though I am writing here primarily about speaking, the same thing holds true for other creative endeavors.) It is not what we are that holds us back, it is what we believe we are not.

In his book “You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard”, Bert Decker writes, “Patterns of insecurity, fear, self-doubt, and self-criticism are set, for most of us, at an early age. These patterns emerge in our adulthood as a lack of confidence in situations where we are called upon to perform, to expose ourselves to the appraisal of our peers.”

Another reason I believe speaking terrifies us is that we do not know – have never been taught – what makes a good presentation. So we can add fear of the unknown to that list.

The Solution

Since the ability to present well usually determines our degree of success (some researchers place it as high as 85%), learning to face our fears and master them can pay big dividends.

If you want to overcome the fear of speaking in public situations, the following suggestions will help. Though you may (as many show business people do) still have the surge of adrenaline, by implementing these suggestions, you will be able to convert that adrenaline rush to useful energy.

Before the Event

1.  The most important thing you can do to combat nervousness  is prepare your presentation completely.  Research  your audience. Spend time clarifying your objective. What  do you want to accomplish by giving this presentation? (If  you are clear on this point, your mind will work toward achieving  that objective.)

Prepare  your opening, your three major points, and your conclusion.  When these support your objective, your presentation will  flow logically from point to point. You must determine these  parts of your presentation in advance. You don’t have time  to make those decisions when you are “on.”

When  you allow enough time, you can refine our thoughts, do the  research to support your statements, and find illustrative  stories. By having a thorough grasp of the points you want  to make, you are less likely to be nervous. Better preparation  equals less anxiety.

2.  Practice, practice, practice your presentation. Then practice some more. Tape it. Listen to the tape. When we watch entertainers and people on television, we too often forget  that what we are seeing is the result of hours of preparation and practice.

Watching  the Olympics always inspires me. The athletes’ dedication to their sport, the grueling practice schedules they follow for years for just a few minutes of competition. Sometimes they fall or fail at the event. Then they dust themselves off, and try again. What a marvelous approach to life!

3. Do everything you can to put your mind at ease about your appearance. Before the big day, select an outfit that you know looks good on you and have it ready to wear.

4. Get a good night’s sleep. If you are well-prepared, it will be easier to sleep well.

The Day of the Presentation

Warm up your voice with some vocal exercises. Yawning helps open the throat; humming tunes up the vocal chords. If you have time for another run-through, practice once more. If you don’t have time, find a quiet spot, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and visualize yourself doing the presentation – just the way you want to do it. Visualize the audience responding positively to you. See them standing up and applauding. Generate good feelings for the audience – and yourself.

It has been shown that mental rehearsals of physical acts are as good as actual practice. With the right mindset, it’s sometimes even better. Plan to arrive at least an hour early to check the room and become comfortable with the speaking area. Double-check any equipment you will be using. Breathe deeply. Deep breathing relaxes the body and brings oxygen to the brain. And that, of course, helps us think more clearly. Breathing deeply also helps us feel calmer. If at all possible, spend some time with the audience before your presentation.

By meeting and greeting them, you will feel you already have some supporters. Drink a glass of room-temperature water. It strengthens you. I learned this from the Shikhs in Oregon when I took their yoga class. Focus on the audience. Think about what you want people to remember as a result of hearing you speak. The human mind can only hold one thought at a time. So if you keep focusing on your message, your nervousness will abate. Be sure to move your body, because movement releases tension.

Dorothy Sarnoff tells of being backstage while she and Yul Brynner were waiting to go on for a performance of “The King and I.” Brynner placed his palms on a brick wall, and proceeded to do push-ups against it. He told her it helped contain his nervousness. I don’t recommend push-ups – especially if you are in business dress. Instead, try a few head-and-shoulder rolls.

Once you are introduced, take another deep breath, smile, and move onto the stage with all the energy and enthusiasm that your quick adrenaline rush has supplied.

If you follow these suggestions, you might find that you actually enjoy speaking to groups. And one thing is certain. If you overcome your fears, present your ideas clearly and well … you will find more opportunities opening up to you than you thought possible.

[Ed. Note: Virginia Avery is a communications specialist who trains and coaches businesspeople to make more profitable presentations.]