While speaking to students at Washington and Lee University, former Vice President of the United States Alben Barkley suddenly collapsed and died from a massive heart attack on April 30th, 1956.  As far as we know, he’s the only person to ever officially die from public speaking.  But considering the way people worry about and avoid it, you would think death was a much more common side effect.

The Book of Lists shows that the fear of public speaking ranks number one in the list of fears with most people.  Way above the fear of death, disease and showing up in public in your underwear is the fear of falling flat before an audience.  Unfortunately for those who suffer from glossophobia (fear of speaking in public), it’s a crucial skill to master for your career.  According to the Lamalie Report on Top Executives, 71% of top execs rank communication and presentation skills as the #1 ingredient in their effectiveness.

So, how do you feel about it?  Does the thought of standing in front of your peers make your hands sweat and the butterflies take flight?  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The following techniques will help you overcome the jitters.

Lower Your Expectations
Who said you have to be perfect?  Even expert presenters were beginners once.  They made mistakes and learned from them in order to get to the level of skill that you witness.  Aim for “adequate” or “average” the first few times, and you will relieve huge amounts of pressure.

Keep It Short and Simple
Audiences will always appreciate short presentations that get to the point.  Keeping your presentation short and simple makes it easier for you to remember and deliver, and it makes it easier for your audience to hear.

Visualize Success
Throw out all the mental images of failure.  Replace them with thoughts of succeeding wildly!  What you rehearse in your mind more often than not plays out in reality.

Change Your Self-Talk
If you hear yourself saying (or thinking), “I’m not good at public speaking,” or “I’m going to really mess this up,” it’s time to change your self-talk.  Give yourself messages about success, about your audience engaging with you, about everything going incredibly well…  Quit trying to be a self-fulfilling prophet just so you can tell us later that you told us so.  Above all, keep these two maxims in mind:

  1. They genuinely want you to succeed. Really!  Audiences would rather see a good presentation than a bad one.
  2. They don’t know what they don’t know. If you forget something, misquote a statistic, blow your closer…they probably have no idea…until, of course, you apologize for doing it – then everyone knows.

Know the Room
Before you speak, get into the room and check everything out.  Test the microphone, stand at the lectern, do a walk through of your presentation and see where you’ll stand…anything to help you get comfortable with your surroundings.

Memorize Your Opener
This will increase your likelihood of success at the beginning.  If you can develop momentum through a solid opening delivery, your fear will typically melt.

Fool Your Physiology
While your brain is telling your body how to act, it is also taking cues from it.  By doing the opposite of what your body expects to do when you’re nervous, you send the message back that you are calm and in control.  Here are a few methods:

  • Breath deeply and slowly – During stress, our bodies switch to rapid chest breathing to increase the supply of oxygen.  Slow, deep breaths are a sign of relaxation.
  • Hold something warm in your hands (like a cup of coffee) – Blood flow is directed away from your hands during stress.  Warming them up helps you feel more confident.
  • Exercise – Muscles tense up when we are nervous.  Exercise relaxes them.
  • Stand up straight – Fear tends to make us draw inward physically.  Holding your head up with your shoulders back counteracts this.
  • Wet your whistle – You produce less saliva when nervous.  Keep water (room temperature, not cold) handy so that you can take care of dry mouth.

Greet Your Audience
Say hello to them individually.  Shake their hands.  Smile at them.  You’ll build rapport with them, and you’ll reinforce your belief that they want you to succeed.

Pick Out Friendly Faces
Scan your audience for someone who is smiling, nodding in agreement or looking attentive.  Block out anyone who is sleeping, frowning or looking skeptical.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!

If you didn’t prepare, you have a legitimate reason to be nervous.  Spend the time needed to be familiar with your subject matter, but then back off.  Agonizing over your presentation right before you give it increases nervousness and mistakes.  You’re better off just reviewing a few key points right before you get up to speak.
Don’t let your fear of speaking in public derail your career.  Remember that “FEAR” stands for “False Expectations Appearing Real.”  Most of the tragic outcomes you imagine will never happen, so stop wasting brain cells worrying about them.  Instead, use that energy to make your point in a dynamic and compelling way!


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Filed under comfort zone, communication, Fear, overcoming obstacles, public speaking, speaking, success

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