How to Calm Your Fears of Public Speaking
At some point I mentioned to everyone that I am very introverted and used to have a huge fear of public speaking. This fear was not just a simple reluctance to speak in front of a group, I am talking about a fear that scrambled my mind and turned me into a babbling idiot. It could have been a wedding where I was the best man, a speech in school, or a presentation at work…it didn’t matter.
I know there are many people like this and although I don’t know of a simple cure, I studied up on it quite a bit and put several things to practice over the years.
I am sure there are more excellent pointers out there so if you have one, leave a comment down below. No matter how much I learn about this topic, there are still occasions that my face turns red and heats up like the sun.
- Notes: A lot of people will tell you not to read from notes because the fear is that you’ll never look at the audience. While the perception (covered later) of eye contact is important, not making sense is worse. Make yourself a solid outline to follow using keywords that you’ve practiced. While you clearly should not stand there reading a piece of paper, glancing down at an outline is perfectly acceptable.
- Eye Contact: For those that are timid, simply don’t look at people in the face. What I mean by this is that while you have to give the impression that you are glancing into people’s eyes, you don’t have to look INTO them. What I do is glance at foreheads and haircuts; it’s a helluva lot less intimidating. While you are doing this be sure the scan the entire room, looking right, left and center. If you are in a small conference room, this is a little tougher to manage but the smaller audience should offset some of your fear. In this case, I generally bite the bullet and look directly at people.
- Homework: Forget what you want to say, your speech must be tailored to what the audience is expecting to hear. However, there is a way to accomplish both.
If your audience is waiting to hear about how many widgets your website sold and you want to talk about how many servers you have and how they handled X amount of page views, learn to combine the facts so that your message gets out while the audience hears what they want (i.e. “Our 2 data centers equipped with XYZ handled 6 trillion page views resulting in 3 sales. These 3 sales represented an 80% increase in revenue). Doing this will eliminate the blank stares and boredom that often comes with listening to someone lecture/speak. As long as you can manage the merging of audience interest and yours, both side get what they want.
- Pause: When I first started speaking to large groups, my sole goal was to get done with the speech quickly while hoping that the information stuck. That’s not very smart. A better way is to provide some information, then pause to allow the audience to absorb the information. All we are talking about is the amount of time it takes for you to take a slow sip of water (which I hope you brought to the podium or conference room).
- Mumbler: Do not be a mumbler. I am not saying that you have to speak like Julius Caesar and make loud proclamations, but you should speak confidently. For those that aren’t confident, the only way to really learn this is through practice. Get a digital recorder and recite your speech several times until you learn how it sounds best. When you listen to the playback, put yourself in the audience’s shoes and actually ask yourself if you would be bored listening to it. For that matter, ask your spouse, girlfriend, whomever.
- Um Factor: In the last point I mentioned how using a recorder would help you gauge how well you sounded. Well, keep the recorder handy because you assignment is to record your speech and then listen to it with the sole purpose of counting the “ums”. You will be surprised and how often you say it. Saying ‘um’ is something you naturally do to allow your brain time to catch up to your mouth and it sounds terrible. At my job I have a Senior Manager of Something and he’s brilliant, but he says ‘um’ constantly during his speeches and it makes him sound, well a less smart.
- Anticipate: As we mentioned, people are coming to listen to you because they value your opinion on a particular topic. However, if your speech allows for audience questions, there is a little unknown element in it for you. I generally try to anticipate what audience questions will be and then have a separate note sheet for those answers. If I don’t know an answer, I immediately admit it and ask that we take that subject offline. This gives me time to grab a subject matter expert to answer the person’s question without throwing me offtrack.
- Show up early: This one may not do anything for you but I am a control freak and it helps me. I show up at the venue early and check out the surroundings.
- Where will I be standing?
- Do I have a wireless mic allowing me to walk the stage or am I stuck at a podium?
- Where is my presentation going to be viewed?
The more I know ahead of time, the lower the chances that something will throw me offtrack.
- Stick with the plan: This one is tougher than you’d think. As you are speaking and following your outline, an idea will inevitably pop into your head. Your idea will insist that you go off track and speak about something you hadn’t planned for. Unless you are totally comfortable up there, resist the urge.
- Practice: We’ve mentioned a few times already that listening to yourself talk on a recorder can help reduce ‘ums’ and prevent mumbling. It also helps gauge transition and flow. In a separate session that your um-detection, listen to how you are transitioning from point-to-point. These transitions should be gradual as opposed to suddenly and completely changing direction. Sudden changes are similar to holding up a stop sign to the audience because their brain is trying to stop and understand what just occurred. At some point, they will not be able to catch up.
- Coffee: This last one was something that my Father taught me a long time ago. If you have to drink coffee to get the energy to conduct your talk, be sure to chase it down with water. To him (and me) coffee dries out your mouth and it makes speaking for a long period of time very difficult. Also, and I already mentioned this, be sure you bring some water with you. In addition to getting rid of any lingering cotton-mouth, you will be able to build in the small delays we mentioned.
Like I mentioned, these are the little things that I used to ease my fear of speaking. Overtime, the need to use all of the tools diminished simply because I got more comfortable in front of groups. However, a few stick with me no matter what.