Whether speaking to a large group in a public setting, or presenting to a remote audience through technology, overcoming your fear of public speaking isn’t easy, but it is manageable. Here are some practical hints and suggestions to improve how you sell your ideas, recommendations or inspirations to your audience.
Glossophobia: Fear of Public Speaking
The fear of public speaking is well-documented as society’s number one fear, after death. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked, “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
I’d be lying if I said you can 100% conquer your fear of public speaking. For the vast majority of people – myself included – the anxiousness never goes completely away. But, you can absolutely manage the fear. You can use it in positive ways, if nothing else to harness the anxiety and turn it into a positive motivator.
Before we go any further, we need to tackle the first hurdle.
Stop living in the future.
As a clever device, ‘fear’ is an acronym for two similar definitions: fantasized events are real or false evidence appearing real.
When a person is faced with the prospect of public speaking, it’s almost second nature to think of all the things that might go wrong.
Here are some common (and all real) examples: I’ll forget to say (something). I’ll burp. I’ll trip, stumble and fall over. Someone will heckle me. My laptop will freeze. The projector will burn out. I’ll go over my allotted time. My mouth will dry out and I’ll choke.
This type of fortune telling can dangerously feed upon itself, because if a person can imagine one bad thing happening, they’ll imagine twenty more. This sabotage can be particularly evil because it’s just one easy step from turning an imagined thought into an actual event.
Whether your imagination is dreaming up reasonable situations or unrealistic expectations, the key is to get to the core of what’s causing your fear. Once you know what starts or sustains the fear, you can find ways to deal with it.
In my experience, here are the top five reasons – more or less in order – that cause fear. Which one might be yours? And, if you recognize yourself in one of these self-limiting beliefs, here are my practical suggestions and tips to address it.
1. People won’t like me.
The key to addressing this belief is to look at the problem from a different perspective.
Start with a different focus: not you, but your audience. The unbreakable rule of effective communications is you are always the least important person in any conversation. The focus should be your audience. What do they want to know? What do they already know about your topic? What do they expect to learn from you? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you will come across as insensitive, out of touch or, worst of all, irrelevant.
Ask them what they want to know, what do they expect to learn from your presentation. You don’t need to poll the entire audience, just a few key objective people. If you learn their mindset and expectations, then apply their opinions and feedback to improve your presentation, you can’t help but be relevant, and by extension, the audience will appreciate you and your work. In other words, you earn their affection from being pertinent to their success, not just yours.
You may not believe this until it happens to you, but this second type of relevancy is far more satisfying than simply wanting your audience to like you without a good reason.
2. I won’t be engaging or interesting.
The key to addressing this belief is to tap into all of the possible ways to engage and stimulate your audience. The first way is to be in sync with your audience’s expectations noted in #1 above. Here’s some others.
Engage your audience through physical movement. Your non-verbal communications often speaks and engages an audience more than your words alone.
The first physical way to engage people is to look at them, using appropriate eye contact. There is no universal answer to ‘appropriate’ eye contact, but in the most general way, good eye contact is direct but non-confrontational, sincere but professional.
Your body is next in importance to engage. Of all body movements, gestures are king. They demonstrate:
- Credibility and trustworthiness,
- Interest in your topic,
- Key messages, by punctuating and emphasizing the key words, and
- Willingness to interact and welcome questions.
The third way to engage physically is through your voice, which is nothing more than your personality demonstrated through sound.
I’ve written before on each of these physical elements: eye contact, gestures, and voice. But to know your own strengths and weaknesses, you must to film yourself to learn precisely how to improve. Even better, rehearse with a good coach or mentor to get instant feedback to improve your skills.
3. Something will go wrong.
First step: re-read #1. (That’s OK, I’ll wait here until you’re finished.)
Moving on, here are some additional thoughts to consider.
Few people remember innocent accidents after the presentation is over. After helping a colleague through a presentation, she remarked afterward how humiliated she was that she sneezed on stage in the middle of her speech. In reality, no one remembered. The same is true of momentary lapses of thought, an awkward silence, or a word flub. Don’t focus on the small things. Focus on the big things, like did you deliver your key messages?
How effective you are is in direct proportion to how much you rehearse. I’ve been giving speeches for nearly 25 years, and I always rehearse before the important presentations. Only you can decide which speech is vital. For people just starting out, I suggest treating every presentation as important.
Know your surroundings. Not only should you familiarize yourself with your audience, you should do the same with your presentation area. Stand at the front of the conference room or the theatre when it’s empty to get a sense of space, how far or close the audience will be, and how loud you need to speak. For stages, I specifically want to rehearse with the lights on so I get used to the glare and to know how far I can move about without walking into darkness. If you’re speaking online via Skype or other software, try it out with a colleague so you know how it feels from the other side.
After all this, maybe you’re simply a natural worrier. That’s OK. You can still use this negativity in productive ways.
Start by writing down every single thing that could go wrong. Feed your worry by brainstorming all events which might derail your performance. Don’t finish the list in one sitting. Allow yourself however long you need to make the list complete. Next, ask one question of each statement: could this potential horror truly happen?
- If you say no: draw a line through it, and stop obsessing over it.
- If you say yes – even if the fear is outlandish – ask yourself how you’d handle it.
Like people who manage crises, you can respond to any event if you determine in advance what you’d do when it occurs. In the rare times that the ‘X’ event actually happened to me – and let me stress, they are rare – it was very powerful to react as I brainstormed I would, without hesitation, and move on. Or even better, ignore it and move on. Every time I managed to save my own face, my confidence soared. Afterward, I found it amusing how many people said, “Wow, you handled that so professionally.”
4. I’ll forget something.
The key to addressing this belief is to stop pretending you’re an actor on stage reading a memorized text.
Get your thoughts organized in advance. Most people fear forgetting a key message. Most presentation are written by stream-of-consciousness. There’s no repeatable flow, order or priority, so of course it’s easy to forget something when you haven’t planned.
In my experience, 99% of presentations have just three core messages. That’s right: three, the magic communications number. If you feel you must memorize anything, memorize these three sentences so you can say them without prompt or notes. Say your messages out loud, never in your head because you always sound good in your head. Prior to your speech, say them over and over, while you’re alone, perhaps in the car driving to work, in the shower, or to your cat while getting dressed.
Of course you’re going to forget something, so plan for it. Again, most people are afraid they’ll forget a key message first, or a key fact second which supports their hypothesis or recommendation. If that’s true for you, make sure the statement is prominently written in your slides, if not used as the title of the slide. If this message is important to you, it’ll be important to your audience, so feel free to highlight, colorize or underscore the statement on a slide or in your notes. At the very least, your key messages might even be your last slide as a summary of everything you’ve said in your presentation.
Who cares if you forgot? Don’t focus on the past. Use it as a positive way to follow-up or re-connect with your audience afterward. Send an email. Post the forgotten item on Twitter or in a blog post.
As a final point in this section, put your mistake in perspective. Only you know what you forgot.
5. Total silence.
The key to addressing this belief is to stop believing silence is an appropriate barometer of an engaged audience.
More people than less listen by sitting still and staying quiet. It’s very possible they’re thinking about what you are saying. If your audience is typing and texting, they might be multi-tasking. Yes, it’s liable that they forget one of your key points if they’re doing something else, so repeat your messages at the end of your speech, or in a follow-up email or similar. Having a hard copy of a presentation is very helpful to some people so offer your speech in slide form after the presentation, or invite them to download it from a server or website.
Ask thought-provoking, purposeful questions of the audience. There’s nothing wrong with turning the tables at the end of the presentation. Don’t ask irrelevant questions, such as Did you enjoy that? (You’re only reinforcing #1 above in your mind.) Your point is not primarily to entertain your audience as much as deliver key, insightful information.
This doesn’t work for every presentation, but I often go around a small meeting, perhaps 10-20 people, and ask after the Q&A has died down: So tell me, what did you take away from today’s meeting? I give them a minute or two to gather their thoughts. I allow people to pass if they aren’t ready. It doesn’t even need to be a statement, it might be a question for me to clarify a point I made in the speech. I might vary the question. How do you see yourself applying my message in the future? What type of hurdles do you face in trying to implement what I’ve suggested? I always follow-up by telling people they can ask me a question at any time by placing my mobile phone, email and website address on the screen at the end of my presentation.
Remember that the key to asking a question is to think about what answer you want to get from your question. Start with the answer, then frame your question. That way, your query elicits the response you want to allow you to springboard to a key message.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about fear, it’s that people get less fearful when stop presenting and start relying upon their knowledge by turning the Q&A into a dynamic conversation. It’s a powerful way to end any presentation, whether it’s in person or via technology.[/toggle]
Let me end with two last pieces of advice.
1. Fear is always worse to you than to the audience. By and large, most audience members don’t care if you’re nervous. It’s not they’re rude or inconsiderate. They merely want to get something thoughtful and relevant from you, delivered as if you’re excited by your own topic. The best tip: get started. The faster you get through it, the faster you’ll be able to relax.
2. Don’t demand perfection of yourself. There is plenty of research which states that if you force yourself to reach an unattainable goal, you will fail. Worse, when you do make a mistake, it will very likely throw you off and make you even more fearful, if not make even more mistakes. The best tip: perform to the very best of your abilities. That’s a goal you should and can reach, and when you do, you’ll be an even better presenter next time.
Finally, you might look at my previous post, related to this topic: ‘On-Camera Presentation Tips.’
What other tips or suggestions do you have? Are there any other self-limiting beliefs to discuss?