Conquering Your Fear of Public Speaking

Last Updated Jan 26, 2009 3:58 PM EST

People fear public speaking more than anything else. You probably knew that, but did you know that a significant percentage of accomplished professionals, managers, and executives suffer from this debilitating fear? That's right, people just like you.

Apparently, career-minded, achievement-oriented people are more likely to worry about performance and appearances - the source of most speaking fear - than others are.

To make matters worse, sufferers are typically embarrassed and reluctant to admit they have a problem. They hide a deep concern about the phobia's affect on their careers in an industry that values presentation skills so highly.

One particular experience at an executive conference sticks with me. While a senior Microsoft executive and I sat in the audience, sharing techniques for calming our own nerves, we watched the president of a large Japanese company present. His hands were trembling and his voice was shaky. He had a rough time, but he got through it.

My heart went out to him, not just because I was scheduled to present the following day and shared his fear, but because he had the courage to confront it.

What's the cause?
In short, it's part of the fight or flight response that generates adrenaline, an ancient survival mechanism that lives within each of us. That's what accounts for the nerves, anxiety, and panic. The underlying cause may be a single unpleasant event or something deeper. In any case, it's a learned response, and as such, it can be unlearned.

How do you conquer it?
The worst thing you can do is ignore it or avoid public speaking. This is no different from any other challenge you've addressed in the past. Deal with it logically and methodically and improvement will follow.

Here are five steps to Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking:
  1. Face your fear. Admit that you have a problem, seek to understand it, and have faith that you will eventually conquer it. You're far from alone and in very good company. Isolation is a big part of this fear. Talk about it with friends and family. Get it out. Then be brave and determined. You can conquer this and you will.
  2. Know your material cold. When you do present, put your best foot forward by knowing your material backwards and forwards. Don't memorize, just be clear on the key points you want to get across and be prepared to converse intelligently on the subject. Ability to think on your feet is really about confidence, knowledge, and preparation.
  3. It's not all about you. You worry that all eyes are on you and everyone can see how nervous you are. Well, guess what? They may be looking at you, but they're either thinking about themselves or the content. And if you consider that half your audience has the same fear you have, they're likely to be empathetic.
  4. Interact with the audience. Relieve the feeling of isolation by interacting with the audience. Draw them into your presentation by asking leading questions and encouraging interaction. You'll instantly feel more comfortable, and so will your audience. Side benefit: you'll be a more dynamic and engaging speaker.
  5. What's the worst that can happen? That question can diffuse most life problems and it certainly applies here. What if your hands shake, you screw up, or you panic? First, that's not likely to happen; it's all in your head. Second, so what if it does? You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. Failing is part of life and business; this is no different.
Also, check out How to Give a Killer Presentation; it'll help build your confidence and reduce your fear.

If you have a fear of public speaking, have addressed your fear in the past, or have coached others, please share your feelings and experiences. It's anonymous, a good way to start, and will help thousands of others.

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