How to conquer public speaking anxiety

Public speaking instills a sense of dread in many of us that rivals only death itself. The evolutionary instinct of fight or flight kicks in and many people seek to avoid speaking in public at all costs. It is possible that you can avoid public speaking your entire life and stay in the safe comfortable confines that you know. The downside of this approach is you will probably never accomplish great things in your life if you let fear win. Speaking in front of large audiences is a responsibility of the rich, famous and rising stars in corporations so you must embrace your destiny and overcome the initial fear you may have.

My first experience with public speaking wasn’t a complete disaster but it left a bad taste in my mouth because I knew I didn’t perform to my highest ability. I had put in a decent amount of preparation time and knew my material well but I had underestimated a couple of important factors. My normal speaking arrangements involve small to mid size groups of people usually numbering no more than 10-15 people. In addition, most of my meetingsĀ  happen with everyone sitting around a table in a more relaxed fashion. I thought I had done sufficient preparation but I was simply not used to speaking in front of a crowd of people numbering close to 400. When I gazed at the legion like crowd before speaking nerves crept in and I knew that I was in for an entirely new experience. I got through the presentation with a few laughs but I knew it wasn’t good. I failed to adequately prepare for the uncharted territory of such a large crowd and paid the price with a less than stellar showing.

My immediate reaction was to consider avoiding future large speaking opportunities but I soon realized that wasn’t a good long term plan. I had to learn how to be more comfortable speaking to large groups to reach my potential and not let fear hold me back. I knew I needed to make a better plan and with the help from some good books, observation, and more practice here are some of the lessons I learned.

Tips for becoming a better public speaker

  1. Practice – Public speaking is one of those things many people think they will have no problem with but then they often freeze up or stumble through it when the time arrives. Repetition is the most important thing to build confidence in your public speaking ability so volunteer for any opportunity that comes along. Remember to practice in groups of various sizes speaking to a group of 10 is very different than speaking to a group of hundreds.
  2. Scout out your surroundings – Like a battlefield commander scouts his terrain before engaging, I find it helpful to survey the room I will be speaking in prior to the event. Knowing your surroundings helps build comfort and sets you in the right frame of mind for visualizing success.
  3. Podium or open speaking situation? – A podium sometimes serves as a fortification to mask physical signs of stress and helps limit movement that may give away nerves. This can be a good or a bad thing but the important thing is to understand if you will be using one or not. Speaking in an open style without one can be a lot more intimidating so if you will be using that style mentally prepare yourself to succeed.
  4. Memorize your opener – In general experts recommend that you memorize enough of your opener so that you get off to a strong start and do not fumble the ball from the start. Some people freeze up right away so nailing the opener will help build your confidence.
  5. Don’t memorize everything – Hearing a totally memorized speech often comes across as robotic to the audience. Memorizing a speech in entirety also creates the risk of freeze up if you stumble and can not remember the next part. I prefer to remember key points and note those on note cards (if I choose to use them)
  6. Don’t read straight off a Power Point – These are some of the most brutal presentations that I attend. It is tempting to read off Power Point as a crutch if you are not an able speaker but make no mistake the audience DREADS it. Do your best to prepare and only use bullet points at most if you intend to use Power point.
  7. Arrive early – Give yourself plenty of time to get to your speaking destination on time nothing frazzles the nerves like being late. Arriving early also gives you time to make sure the computer and mic are set up correctly. Public speaking is challenging enough don’t let the equipment prevail through lack of preparation.
  8. Avoid handheld mics when possible – I have found hand held microphones help display physical signs of nervousness and many people do not properly place them for optimum acoustics. I prefer fixed mics that latch on to my shirt so I don’t have to display it awkwardly in my hand.
  9. Focus on delivering an experience – If I ask you to think about one of the best speeches you have ever heard I bet it touched you emotionally. It was not a Power Point fact dump but probably contained compelling stories, examples, and was very relevant to the audience. Facts are nice but people want to be entertained and to experience something unique.
  10. Volunteer for speaking opportunities – Effective communicators have had a lot of practice. Put yourself out there and seek to continually improve. Watching a video tape of your performance will probably make you very uncomfortable at first but is the best way to see what you can improve on.

In my most recent talk with a large group things went much better. The signs of physical nerves were much lower vs. my previous experiences and things went much better as a result. I attribute the lowered nerves directly to increased practice and putting myself back into the stressful situation quickly after a less than optimum performance. My goal is to continue to improve and to take my presentations to the next level to really capture a crowd (think Marc Antony at Cesar’s funeral).

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