How many of you would agree that public speaking is a joy? The spoken word to deliver a message, engage audiences and drive change is so incredibly powerful, and yet so daunting for so many of us with a fear of public speaking. Whether you are giving presentations, speaking out and contributing in meetings with peers and / or senior managers, or even going live on social media, public speaking is so important to our careers and business success.
Research seems to suggest that it ranks as the 2nd greatest fear – number 1 being death! I still become anxious when asked to speak in front of a group. Why? My greatest fear is looking a fool in front of my peers and senior managers. My mouth goes dry, my hands clammy and my mind goes blank! But I have learned to manage my fear and now see it as a positive thing.
A few years ago a senior manager put his arm around shoulders and told me that public speaking isn’t about performance - it’s about communication. He said I was too worried about my performance being polished and I was so rehearsed it stifled the natural flow of my delivery. That made my performance – the very thing I was trying to get right – look wooden and unnatural. Concentrate on the communication and your message and see your audience as your cheerleaders – after all, he said, they have given up their time to listen to you so are probably curious in your message – and don’t worry so much about making minor mistakes.
This was a turning point for me. I started to speak from the heart, giving presentations wrapped up in personal stories, having conversations with the audience and using humour to hide any mistakes. I learned to control my public speaking fears, gradually getting a grip on them and started to enjoy myself. But that underlying fear hasn’t gone away – but I have started to see the positive side of the fear and learned to embrace it.
How? There is a lot of research on the fear of public speaking but here are some of my tips to turn your fear of public speaking into a positive.
Your message – think less and engage more
If you suffer with a fear of public speaking, flying by the seat of you pants won’t help! All good presentations skills courses will tell you to do as much preparation as you can. The mantra is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Don’t try to memorise – or worse read a script – as you focus too much on getting it right, like I did, it stifles your natural delivery.
Instead prepare the key themes and structure for your presentation or talk. Take time to think about your audience’s needs and what message you want them for them. Then go for it! This way your focus will be on your communication, your message and engagement with the audience – and not on your own fears. If you know your subject area, remembering the content triggered by a few bullet points is easy, leaving you to concentrate on engaging the audience with eye contact, gestures and looking natural.
Rewrite your internal script - use visualisation, relaxation and hypnosis
Many people can trick their subconscious into delivering new desired behaviours by re-writing their own internal scripts – replacing their fear of public speaking with confidence in public speaking - using visualisation, relaxation and hypnosis. These are essential techniques and training used by many top performers in many industries such as sports, entertainment and so on.
Visualising a great public speaking experience before it happens is essential. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse but also visualise yourself doing it over and over again in your mind. Use all your senses to see, hear and feel that moment to trick your subconscious into creating a “memory” of having already done a great presentation!
Remember its your mindset that will offset your fear of public speaking. Every great public speaker started out as a poor one but they were willing to take every opportunity to learn and get better.
You are a leader – stepping up to the plate
Most people are afraid of public speaking so when you do it, you become a leader by stepping up to do something most people fear! You are using the opportunity to communicate your message to many people and that is demonstrating leadership. Imagine your audience - whether physically in a room or virtually on social media – and by communicating a genuine message you will gain their trust and increase your confidence as a leader.
Taking on any public speaking challenge itself is empowering and demonstrates how great you are. Think about the boost to your confidence by achieving success!. Being put on the spot to display your knowledge or skills can feel extremely unnatural, uncomfortable and scary. But remember that all our fears stem from an evolutionary “hanger-on” – our flight or fight instinct - wanting to protect and keep us safe. Overcoming this fear is to embrace it and acknowledge its coming from a position of self-protection - and not from a lack of self-worth.
Use your body and breathe …. away your fear!
Fearful speakers often ignore the audience and avoid eye contact hoping this will decrease their fear of public speaking. The downside is that you don’t notice your audience reaction, whether they are interested or not, or have questions. You can also risk turning inwards, focussing on your own negative thoughts and being overly critical of your presentation than anything your audience might think or say. The result? More, rather than less, fear of public speaking. Engage your audience with lots of eye contact
Think also about your body and movement. We are all at ease physically with friends but in front of an audience we become more self-conscious and body aware. Remember how you stand or sit with friends and recreate those natural movements when you are presenting. Like most things it gets easier and better the more you do it.
And remember to breathe! Diaphragmatic breathing is important and it works by calming your pounding heart and keeps you from audibly gasping for air. Also controlled exhalation helps to sustain your sound evenly to the end of every sentence enabling you to emphasise all your important words.
Just be yourself – and don’t compare yourself to others!
My final and most important tip is that unless you intend to make a living as a motivational speaker, you don’t need to be an excellent public speaker. So just go easy on yourself - recognise your own strengths and abilities and don’t make comparisons. But, by all means look for role models who’s style you can emulate as we can all improve our public speaking and presenting style!
Remember your audience just wants to hear your passion for your subject and for you to be interesting and to present in a way that acknowledges their needs.
We all have our fears of public speaking – some more than others – but we can all come to terms with that fear if you can see it as a strength. And now you have all the tools, knowledge and mindset to help you do just that!