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The Best Advice for Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

As a former speechwriter, publisher, and frequent presenter, I understand what drives many people to buy books about public speaking: Fear. I know because I've shared it.

I remember times when I walked up on a podium and took my place at the lectern in front of an audience, and suddenly felt dry mouth, sweaty palms, shaking hands, pounding chest, even my voice ringing in my ears. I'd prepared a slick speech, but not my brain for the inevitable shock of taking the stage.

Anxiety about public speaking is most commonly rooted in our past negative memories and experiences, according to Randolph and Kathleen Verderber's classic text, The Challenge of Effective Speaking. The authors--emeritus management professors and communications scholars--say that typically people will relive those times in their past when they were criticized, admonished or deemed in some way as unworthy of the center stage.

My book shelf contains a couple of books on overcoming fear of public speaking, and they all recommend these strategies:

  • Practice, practice, practice: You need to desensitize yourself to the panic and fear of failure you associate with public speaking, Practice not only to become more comfortable with your material, but to experience the gamut of emotions that come with speaking. Rehearse in front of friends and family members who will give you constructive feedback. Steve Jobs reportedly has become a world-class presenter through over-practicing. "Few speakers rehearse more than Steve Jobs," Carmine Gallo writes in his excellent book, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs (McGraw-Hill 2010). "His preparation time is legendary among those closest to him." Gallo's book recounts how Jobs begins preparing weeks in advance, and typically spends two full days rehearsing, asking for feedback, making adjustments, and tightening his flow.
  • Memorize and make eye contact. Familiarize yourself with the stage or space where you will speak, and commit key points to memory so you can make effective eye contact with your audience. By connecting with your audience when you speak, you will benefit from the feedback of their reactions and you will find your voice. Experts also advise: don't practice to the point that you are bored or exhausted with the material.
  • Visualize a Positive Outcome: In Small Message, Big Impact, author Terri L. Sjodin recommends visualizing how you will feel when you're done with the speech, "on the other side" in that "space of completion, invigoration, and accomplishment." By visualizing a job well-done, you replace negative self-talk and put the speech in its perspective--as one event among many.
  • Connect with the Audience: In Harrison Monarth and Larina Kase's The Confident Speaker, the authors suggest speakers visualize what they have in common with the audience and collect information about your audience--from their jobs to their likely questions. By doing so, you will replace the anxious self-talk in your own mind with a new externally-focused challenge: what are the people like I will be speaking to? If you are speaking in front of an audience that is unfamiliar to you, get an attendee list, learn about a few of the people on the list, even call a person or two who will be in attendance. or ask your host about the group. This process is about easing your preparatory anxiety by presenting your brain with a visual and cognitive challenge--put real people and real faces in those chairs, not executioners.
  • Rewrite the Negative Script: Write down the negative or fearful thoughts you have about your abilities as a speaker, including criticism you've heard in the past. Then note how you felt after previous presentations were over, and how you've addressed or changed certain behaviors so that you are thinking more positively. I remember being told that I spent too much time leaning away from the audience during a presentation, and I've consciously visualized the satisfaction of correcting that in my next speech.
  • Remind Yourself, You're Communicating, Not Performing. If you see your speech as a chance to communicate with a group of people about something important to you, rather than a performance, the experience will feel more familiar. In fact, the audience is far more interested in the substance of what you are presenting, than how theatrical you are in your presentation. Remind yourself of that, jotting down what you consider to be the best aspects of your speeches--in content and style. Monarth and Kase call this creating "positive expectancy": develop a few words "that exemplify the way you want to feel as you're talking."
The experts also agree on these basics, which bear repeating:
  • Get enough sleep for a few days ahead
  • Thoroughly check out the technology you'll be using a day ahead
  • Lightly exercise a few hours before the presentation
  • Never, ever drink alcohol before your appearance
How have you managed the butterflies and fears of public speaking?

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Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
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