In his stand-up routine, comedian Jerry Seinfeld has referenced a study that shows that most people’s number one fear is public speaking. “Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right?” he asks. “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Most of us have experienced the symptoms of a pounding heart, sweaty palms, and shaking hands that come with giving a speech. Even the most experienced speakers can remember a time when they had anxiety over public speaking. Some of them even say they have mild symptoms every time they give a speech.
Maybe you have avoided an opportunity to speak before an audience because of this fear. Whether it’s for a dozen associates in a board room or for a few hundred people in an auditorium, however, sharing your ideas in a group setting can help you achieve greater success in your profession. When you let speech anxiety limit these experiences, you can lose out on everything from community involvement, to career advancement, to greater personal fulfillment. Here are three basic steps to overcoming your fear of public speaking.
Steps to overcome your fear of public speaking
Face the fear
It may sound a little trite, but you need to ask yourself “What am I really afraid of?” We often fear what we cannot control. You are in control of your speech, so it can help to put words to your fears so that you can address them. Here are two examples:
Are you afraid of going blank? That can be fixed with notes to keep you on track.
Are you afraid people will get up and leave? The audience wants to hear what you have to say, and they want you to do well.
Anxiety symptoms can be scary, but there are ways to minimize them. When we are anxious, we tend not to breathe normally, so our brain registers stress. Our heart rate can accelerate, and we can feel lightheaded or dizzy. An easy way to counteract this imbalance is to breathe deeply and rhythmically. Find a quiet spot before you deliver your speech, close your eyes and inhale deeply, letting the air out slowly. Repeat.
Another tip is to picture yourself delivering your speech calmly and well. Visualize an attentive audience and hear their applause at the end of your talk. Push any negative thoughts out of your mind and concentrate only on positive results.
Know your information
While speaking skills can seem to come naturally to some people, the best public speakers practice what they do. Learn your material, organizing it in a logical manner and practicing it several times at home.
Studies show that audiences remember best what you say first and last. That doesn’t mean they aren’t listening to the rest of your speech, but it does emphasize the need for a creative introduction and a powerful conclusion. Grab your audience with a startling fact or an anecdote that relates your strong connection with the topic.
A good speech is like any good story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. One way to look at speech structure is like this:
- Tell them what you are going to tell them.
- Tell them.
- Tell them what you told them.
One of the pitfalls many beginning public speakers make is feeling that they have to write out a speech and read it or, worse yet, memorize it word for word. When you read a speech, the audience loses a valuable connection with the speaker. Eye contact is limited, and the speaker is usually stuck behind a podium, making the audience feel disconnected from what is being said.
On the other hand, when you memorize a speech, there is a strong possibility of getting off track. Many new speakers falter when they miss a word or two in a memorized speech and then feel the need to start over or backtrack to find their place.
An alternative to both of these practices is to use a keyword outline in developing your speech and in practicing it over and over again. You may never give the exact same speech twice with this method, but you will find that you will feel more comfortable each time you practice it. Feel free to read any statistics you need to get exactly right, but other than that, just use your outline as a guide.
Use your conclusion to briefly summarize your points, ideally connecting back with your introduction as to why this information is important to the audience.
When you have prepared and rehearsed you material, now comes the time to trust your ability to deliver a great speech. Don’t set yourself up for failure by thinking you will mess up completely if you need to look at your notes or if you say an occasional “um” or “ah.”
No one speaks with perfect precision all the time. In fact, it would be boring if we did. One of the most enjoyable aspects of listening to a speech is hearing that particular speaker’s pacing and cadence. If you forget a word or stumble on a word, don’t apologize to your audience. Just keep going without calling attention to something they may not have noticed.
Part of trusting yourself is also planning for what could go wrong. If you are using a PowerPoint presentation, for example, do you have a back-up plan in case the system fails?
Also make sure your speech fits the appropriate time period for the event or meeting. Don’t make it difficult for your host or for a speaker who may follow you by going too long or too short. Time yourself when you practice at home, paying attention to whether or not you speed up at certain points.
Like most aspects of your career, public speaking is a skill that can be developed and enhanced. Sure some people may be better at it than others, but anyone can give a good speech. You can too! The next time you have a chance to give a speech, take it. It can be a unique opportunity to share your ideas and experiences with others.