Fear of public speaking

Chopping down the fear of public speaking

Does your pulse rate skyrocket when you introduce yourself to a group, address a staff meeting or give a presentation? If so, you are not alone. Studies have shown that most people rank the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of death! Even experienced speakers suffer from stage fright. Steve Allen said that stage fright is a deceptive term: “It implies that you will feel nervous the moment you get up on the stage, when in fact you are nervous from the moment you get the assignment!”

The fear of public speaking can handicap your career and make you turn down assignments simply because you are afraid that speaking in front of a group may be involved. Don’t let this happen to you! The fear can be overcome. Public speaking used to terrify me but now I think it is fun! Here are the steps that led me from nervous wreck to eager speaker:

  1. Practical preparation

Lots of people make the mistake of underestimating the time needed to memorize a speech word for word. When professional speakers memorize every single word of their speech they often need one hour of preparation for each minute of actual speech time. If you don’t have one hour to practice each minute of your speech then don’t set out to memorizing every single word. Create an outline of your speech instead and practice saying the speech extemporaneously using the outline as your guide. Keep practicing until the outline is firmly fixed in your head. You will be far less nervous if you have an outline that you know backwards than you will be if you attempt to give a word for word speech that you haven’t memorized properly.

  1. Memorize your first words

Always memorize the first few lines of your speech because that is when you will be the most nervous. Practice those first words until you can say them automatically without thinking. If you know you can say the beginning words by rote you will feel much more secure when you first open your mouth to speak.

  1. Practice standing up

A surprising number of people rehearse their speech while they are sitting in front of their computer! If you do this then you are not practicing the right body language for the standing up position. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve had lots of rehearsal when you never got out of your seat!

4. Improve your skills

The better you are at doing something, the more confident you become. Take the time to improve your speaking skills. When you have an important speech to give, find a presentation coach who will listen to it and give you feed back.

5. Motivation

Know what the message of your speech is, and what result you want to get. When you have a clear picture in your mind of how your speech will benefit people, it is much easier to relax. If communicating that message is important enough to you, then you will concentrate on the message instead of worrying about how yourself and how you look.

6. Attitude

When I competed in speech competitions, I used to hope that the other speakers would forget their words and be awful. This negative attitude tightened my jaw muscles and then it was hard to switch to positive thoughts just before I was called to speak. These days instead of wanting the other speakers to do badly, I see myself as part of the team and want everyone to succeed so that the event is a huge success. That change in attitude and feeling of camaraderie has done wonders for my ability to relax.

7. Mingle with the audience before the speech

Use the time before the meeting starts to talk to the other people in the room so that when it is your turn to talk in front of the audience, they are not all strangers. It will help to know where to look for a friendly face.

8. Smile

Putting a smile on your face makes you feel happier. When you feel nervous smile at someone. Smiling helps you to relax.

9. Deep breathing

Before a speech, relax your shoulders, make sure you are sitting straight, and then take deep breaths for relaxation.

10. Don’t rehearse at the last minute

Don’t run your speech through your head in the moments before you are due to speak. It’s too late to go over it then and if you do, you are telling your subconscious mind that you are not quite ready. That is bound to create panic.

11. Stand tall

The position of your body can affect the way you feel. Try straightening your back and you will see that it immediately makes you feel more alert and purposeful. When you are nervous you tend to stand with your shoulders hunched and your back slouched. It is much harder to be nervous if you are standing straight! Before you walk up to the lectern, straighten your back.

12. Make eye contact

When you are speaking in front of a group and you feel nervous, the tendency is to avoid real eye contact with the audience. The more you avoid eye contact, the worse your fear will become. In normal one-on-one conversation, there is always lots of eye contact and if you avoid looking the audience in the eyes then you won’t feel as if you are communicating with them. A speaker who does not feel that they are communicating with the audience is bound to be terrified! When you begin your speech, look at the audience directly so that you deal with the fear of eye contact up front.

  1. Inspirational songs

Choose a song that gives you a positive feeling and use it to condition yourself to relax. The way to do this is to listen to the song and imagine that you are walking onto a stage to give a powerful speech. Imagine the sound of the audience applauding to welcome you and imagine being filled with confidence as you step into the spotlight. Each time you play the song imagine the same thing. Play it regularly when you drive to work or go shopping. The song will become firmly associated with positive feelings about public speaking. You will have a song that you can play to relax yourself just before you give a public speech.

  1. Positive phrases

Carry a little slip of paper in your pocket that has a positive thought on it and look at it just before you go up to speak. I was given this tip by Darren LaCroix. He wrote “Have fun” on a slip of paper that he looked just before he gave the speech that won the 2001 Toastmaster World Championship of Public Speaking.

Sally Chopping
Public speaking coach
Pittsburgh (412) 478-6785