Public Speaking: Getting Past the Fear Factor

Mark Twain said it best: “There are two types of public speakers: those who are afraid and those who are liars.”

Even for those of us who enjoy it, public speaking can be intimidating. It is, after all, a moment alone in the spotlight; a moment when for some brief time, all eyes are on you, listening to what you have to say. Even the most confident of public speakers will sometimes wonder, “Will I meet their expectations this time?”

Why then, do we do it? Why do we subject ourselves to the work, the practice, and the (dare I say it) the need to summon up our courage enough to speak in public? Why do we need to meet the fear head on and achieve mastery at this particularly intimidating form of communication?

The answer is that, without a level of proficiency in speaking publicly, we have no real hope of informing, let alone persuading others beyond our immediate colleagues, about the strength of our ideas. Public speaking is the best way we have for letting those we don’t work with closely every day hear our ideas and, by extension, witness our competence and our skill. For anyone in a leadership position, or aspiring to hold one, communicating only in writing or through individual meetings attended by a few colleagues isn’t an option. Choosing to leave the communicating to others isn’t an option either if you want to establish yourself as a leader.

How is anyone to know these ideas or statements really are yours? How are they to judge the strength to which you hold those ideas or the passion you have for them if you won’t show them? How is our audience to be persuaded about the soundness of a position we hold, the knowledge behind that position, or rightness or the truth of it, if we can’t communicate our ideas ourselves? Email, printed reports, and third parties just can’t substitute for “being there.”

Leaving the communication to others means leaving the leadership to others.

If you want to lead in any capacity, public speaking is one of the necessary tools you’ll need; as necessary a tool in your leadership toolbox as a command of language itself.

But what if you already know how powerful public speaking skills can vault careers and help sustain existing ones. What if you’re convinced but have allowed fear to hold you back?

Again, we can turn to the words of Mark Twain who defined courage not as the absence of fear, but as the mastery of it.

For anyone who fears public speaking, (and that would be just about anyone who has considered it), how do we master our communication power and become powerful public speakers? You CAN learn to communicate, share, inform, entertain and persuade others, and get past the fear factor.

Begin with 6 basic steps that all successful public speakers have mastered:

  • 1. Preparation is Key The single most important thing you can do to boost your confidence as a public speaker is to be prepared. That means not only knowing your subject, but knowing your audience and what they need to hear from you on a given subject, on a given day. Preparation means always respecting your audience enough to do your homework, no matter how well you may know your data. A case in point: Researchers and entrepreneurs often seek our help before addressing target audiences such as investors. Communication coaches like me don’t get paid to tell such clients what they already know about their own work. Instead, we coach them toward powerful communication of what they know, for a specific purpose. In this case, we work toward understanding what their targeted audience of investors needs and wants to know about their idea or product, to allow for buy in and a motivation to act. Similarly, learn to think of your audience as investors in your ideas. What is it you need to say to them and that they need to hear from you?
  • 2. Assume Good Intentions  If your audience didn’t want to hear what you had to say, they wouldn’t be there. If you’re unsure of why your audience came, you’re both in for a rough time. Even those you’ve never met have expectations about what you’ll say and what they’ll learn from you. Make sure you understand those expectations of your audience so you can better meet them. Arrive early so you can speak one on one to some in your audience ahead of time and discover those expectations for yourself. Greeting members of your audience this way will also humanize them for you, and help take away some of the fear of the unknown that is the “audience.”
  • 3. Channel those nerves Don’t seek to get rid of those fears (especially not by camouflaging them with artificial means like alcohol). Understand instead that your fear is really energy you’ll need to channel into your speech for a good performance. Blow a bit of the ‘froth’ off that energy by expending some physical exercise—a brisk walk, or deep-knee bends if you can—like an athlete might do before a race. Several deep breaths with slow exhalation really will help you slow a racing heart and help you focus. Continued deep breathing from the diaphragm as you speak will also help you control your voice and the level of your projection. Remember, your audience likely has no idea of your fear, unless you tell them (and you don’t want to tell them). Doing so will only lower their expectations. If you need extra help in those first moments—consider opening with a question to the audience, asking for a show of hands or displaying a prop. Getting the focus off yourself, even momentarily, may give you the boost you need.
  • 4. Take a risk Many who fear speaking in public retreat behind their materials. This is why audiences have come to dislike powerpoint and podiums. We in the audience want to see the presenter present. It is, in fact, why we’ve come. Disappearing behind the podium or literally turning your back to the audience at best is disappointing and boring and, at worst, annoying. Being read a script comes a close second for techniques that try an audience’s patience. They’d much rather catch a glimpse into the real person behind the data show or the printed speech. Think of public speaking as an opportunity to engage your audience with a story, your story. Try speaking to the audience in a way they can actually relate to and retain. Don’t tell them everything you know about a given subject. Try setting aside your materials, from time to time, to really communicate a bigger picture than data or facts can provide. If you are to gain confidence while you’re up there, it’s essential to take in feedback from your audience—and that takes eye contact. They have to see you are engaged and interested to catch engagement and interest. The energy coming back to you will help fuel a better performance.
  • 5. Visualize success Don’t allow yourself to focus on the worst of what could happen and indulge your fears—Replace that image by concentrating on how successful you’ll be at delivering your speech or presentation. Think ahead about how you’d handle any mishaps. Powerpoint meltdown? No problem— you know how to begin your talk without it, while the problem is being worked on. Notice some in the audience losing interest? No problem—you’ve already considered how you’d shake things up with some interaction with the audience and a change of pace. Tough questions after your presentation? You’re ready, having already prepared for the toughest anyone might throw at you. Visualize a successful outcome for every negative you throw at yourself. And remember, it’s not the mishap or the mistake we in the audience will remember, but the way you handled it.
  • 6. Engage The single most important factor to success as a public speaker is to show up. That’s right. You can’t win if you don’t play. Confidence isn’t something others can give you and it’s more than just a state of mind. It comes from real experience. Allow yourself to engage so you can have those real experiences that success in public speaking will provide you. All of it: preparation, assuming your audience wants to hear you, harnessing positive energy, taking risks, and allowing yourself to visualize success are basic to communication success. But you can’t tap any of those ingredients and put them to work for you and your good ideas, if you won’t allow yourself to get out in front of others. Don’t allow others to speak for you, whatever your job. Seize the initiative and begin accumulating the successes that will allow you to take on new public speaking challenges. You’ll be amazed at the reaction of others to your ideas, your authority and your leadership, when you finally begin speaking in public.

Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.

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