“You can't plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind.”
Do you suffer from fear of public speaking? Not the nervousness that announces itself as those proverbial butterflies in the stomach―we all get those. (To learn how to relax when you need it most, download our cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking.")
In fact, every actor, singer, dancer, musician, and other performing artist knows that a certain amount of pre-performance jitters is normal. More than that, it’s actually beneficial. It energizes you physically and mentally and gets you ready for the big game. But when you actually freeze when speaking, lose your focus, or suffer from anticipatory anxiety for days or weeks; when you avoid speaking situations or experience overwhelming physical symptoms, then something must be done. It’s time to learn how to lessen your symptoms, turn negative self-talk into positive coping statements, and use your nervous energy to empower rather than diminish your speaking performance.
If you’re a professional with debilitating stage fright, overcoming speaking anxiety truly is something that will change your life. (If you're overwhelmed by sudden fear and need to regain control quickly, here's an exercise for overcoming panic attacks.) Certainly gaining new confidence will reduce your anxiety beforehand and your symptoms while speaking. But it will also open up new opportunities for you and show you the enjoyment you’ve been missing.
Like an actor going from reading a script to rehearsing on stage, however, you have to go beyond simply understanding your behavior to taking positive action. Following is a two-part exercise to help you do so. The first part helps you redirect your mental energy from your fears to your strengths as a speaker (a valuable activity in itself!). The second part creates the action of speaking about those strengths. After all, what better way to gain skills and confidence concerning public speaking than to be on your feet talking about them?
Your Public Speaking Strengths
Make a brief inventory of your attributes as a speaker. Don’t be shy, be honest. This is your opportunity to reacquaint yourself with all the good things you have going for you as a presenter. It’s easy to lose sight of those valuable skills once you become focused on your anxiety instead of your abilities. So for the next few minutes, blow your own trumpet . . . I won’t tell! Here are some guidelines to get you started:
YOUR PUBLIC SPEAKING STRENGTHS
List your strengths as an oral communicator. When you’re with people you feel comfortable around, what makes them listen to you? Do they appreciate your intelligence, sense of humor, passion, playfulness, kindness, quirkiness, or other traits? What assets help you when you give presentations or speak up at meetings? List your physical attributes, vocal qualities, energy, listening skills, creativity, subject matter expertise, and any other strengths that help you communicate with others.
Good! Now for the follow-through: talking about those strengths. We're discussing better public speaking here, after all:
TALKING ABOUT YOUR PUBLIC SPEAKING STRENGTHS
Take a few minutes to look over the list of speaking attibutes you just prepared. Once you’ve become familiar with it, talk on this subject for between 2 and 5 minutes. (Use your notes if you like.) Imagine that you’re interviewing for a fabulous job and the interviewer says, “We’re quite interested in your oral communication skills. In fact, it’s the only thing we’re interested in. So tell us what makes you an effective communicator when you speak.”
Feel free to record your talk on audio or videotape it.
Writing these things down is a down-payment on your willingness to succeed at public speaking. But actually talking about good communication will give you practice in speaking freely and frequently, and get you closer to sealing the deal. So go for it!
10 More Action Steps You Can Take to Reduce Your Speaking Fear:
The exercise above is meant to help you with one of the most important elements of eliminating fear of public speaking: focusing on positives rather than negatives. Anyone in the grip of speech anxiety finds this difficult to do—especially when experiencing stage fright during a presentation. The “consummation devoutly to be wished,” as Macbeth said, is the transformation of anxiety into enjoyment regarding public speaking. The “Public Speaking Strengths” exercise you just completed is a useful first step. Here are 10 additional action steps you can take:
Speak at every opportunity. If you're like most people, you fear the unknown. What you do often becomes less mysterious, and you do it better. Simple! Of course, enjoying public speaking is the key to speaking with confidence.
Learn to breathe diaphragmatically. “Belly-breathing” helps oxygenate the heart (and therefore the body) fully, helping you gain control over a galloping heart rate. Need to know how to belly-breathe? It's easy ― here's how.
Ground yourself. Place your feet at shoulder-width, to give you stability and a sense of steadfastness in your audience’s eye. To learn more, read my previous article, “Use Grounding to Look and Feel More Confident."
Move. Remaining frozen in place helps feed the feeling that you’re caught in the snare of speaking anxiety. Move just before introducing a talking point or story; to approach an audience member who’s asked a question; or to point out something on your PowerPoint slide. In other words, move with purpose. You’ll feel more purposeful and therefore more confident.
Look at people. Some speakers believe that if they look audience members in the eye, they’ll lose their train of thought. That’s nonsense. The reason you’re speaking at all is to move your listeners! People should give you positive energy, not suck it out of you.
Practice. Out loud, on your feet, 2-5 times. Any more than that and you run the risk of looking and sounding mechanical because you’ve done it that way in every one of your 17 practice sessions! What eventually will move your audience isn’t your content so much as it’s you, interpreting that content and being comfortable talking to small- to large groups of people. Make this a professional skill you're good at.
Make clean, spare gestures. What does this have to do with gaining speaking confidence? A lot. One of the things that undermines confidence is feeling that you’re moving weakly or without purpose. Start with your hands in the neutral position at your sides, then bring them up to make gestures that are clean, limited, and strong. Take time to also learn about the 5 body language errors that will sink your presentation.
Use visuals. Visuals in presentations are seductive for audiences. What you show, they will look at. Again, simple. If audience members looking at you makes you nervous (eventually, of course, you must get over this response), give them a visual, and away their gaze will go!
Get over yourself. Sound like tough love? Maybe, but accomplishing this can be a game-changer in terms of public speaking fear. It’s not about you when you speak—it’s about them. Here’s more good, tough news: people really don’t care about you. They want to get something useful out of your speech or presentation. So give them that, and put all your energy into delivering that message and seeing that it comes across. You’ll disappear. If you have a dread of being in the spotlight, that’s a good thing.
Remember that you’re not prefect. (Oops!) Forget the idea that you’re supposed to be an excellent speaker. You’re really supposed to be an excellent manager, sales person, CEO, analyst, organizer of the fundraising drive, or whatever else your job is. In that capacity, you need to be a good speaker, not a great one. That’s a reasonable and attainable goal. Give your listeners what they need, and guess what? – They’ll think you’re great!