The Fear of Public Speaking

Public speaking, not death, continues to rank as American’s number one fear. How can you overcome it?

The perspiration slowly slides down the middle of your back. Your knees knock and your hands shake. Will you get through this or will you pass out on the spot? Sound like your first date? No, it’s all happening because you are about to give a presentation.

Polls continue to rank public speaking as the number one fear in America, even over death! That’s right, more people are afraid to speak than to be eaten by a shark, burn, go blind, or dozens of other horrific things. The fact is that coming up with the right words often cause verbal panic.

But it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Whether you realize it or not, your communication skills are constantly being judged by others. How you communicate in everything from casual conversations to formal presentations can make you a success or failure.

Here are a few simple tips from my presentational skills session that will make you a better communicator:

  • The messenger is as important as the message. Most presenters spend about 80% of their preparation time on the content, and only 20% on practicing the delivery. It should be 50-50. Rehearse your presentation before you give it — not just to yourself but in front of a video camera or to someone else whose opinion you value.  Ask that individual to ask questions afterwards so that you will be prepared when the audience asks them.  Good speakers practice a new presentation ten times out loud.

  • Take the opportunity to speak publicly whenever the occasion arises.  Practice on small audiences (Toastmasters, small groups of employees) first and work your way up to larger ones.  Practice is absolutely vital, and the best practice is in front of a video camera.

  • Credibility is critical.  Your audience will scan every personal detail about you for clues of your character and temperament.  Eyes, gestures and even posture will be included in the judgment.

  • Look at the individual members of your audience.  Let them catch a glimpse of your eyes — it makes them feel included and they will listen more closely.  Besides, it humanizes an audience for you and therefore, reduces your anxiety and apprehension.

  • Speak loudly enough so no one is seen cocking his head, leaning forward to hear or leaning back with a vacant stare.  After all, you are the center of attention and you cannot hide that fact by simply being inaudible.  Pay careful attention to the ends of your sentences — do not let them drop off.

  • Say articles, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs very quickly.  Pronounce nouns and verbs with deliberation and strength.

  • Arrive a bit early and get to know your audience.  Even if you cannot chat with everyone in the room beforehand, you will at least feel that you are talking with other fallible humans and that will put you more at ease.

  • Deep Breathing. About five minutes before speaking take in a very deep breath, then exhale slowly as you let all your muscles relax. Try doing it while standing. Caution: if you do this more than twice you could hyperventilate and pass out!

  • Minor exercising. Go out in the hall and speed-walk for a few minutes. Exercise your legs and arms at the table while awaiting your turn. Get rid of that excess adrenaline.

  • Don’t announce your anxiety. I cringe when a speaker starts out: “I am a bit nervous so here goes…” In my training, I video tape participants and show them over and over again that while they are nervous no one can tell it during the video replay. That’s an important point. As nervous as you are, shaking and sweating, you are probably the only one who knows it. That knowledge alone, gained through the video tape and critique session, is often enough to reduce nervousness by 30-40 percent.

The power to verbally convince is a tremendous asset. It can move people to do unusual things. You do not have to be born with the skill, but with training and practice you can learn to speak and be heard.

Anthony Huey is President of Reputation Management, LLC, one of the nation’s leading media training, speech coaching and crisis consulting companies.

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