Put Your Fears to Rest and Become a Masterful Presenter

I think just about everybody’s heard that when asked what their greatest fear is, most people answer “public speaking” – ranking it higher than DEATH! Now I don’t know if it’s really true that most people would literally rather die than speak in public. But having conducted numerous presentation skills seminars, and coached countless individuals on their presentation style, I do know that many people are pretty shaken up when asked to make a speech or a presentation.

The question I hear most in my work is, “How can I get over my fear of public speaking?” Well there are actually lots of things you can do to minimize or even eliminate the jitters. But before I get to them, let’s consider for a moment just what fear is.

It’s important for you to understand that fear isn’t actually real. You’re probably thinking, “It sure feels real to me, when my palms start sweating, my mouth goes dry, my heart starts racing and I forget my name.” But fear is nothing but anxiety or concern over an imagined outcome of some yet-to-occur event. The thing we fear hasn’t happened. And there’s a pretty good chance it never will. Some self-help gurus have even created an acronym to explain this:

F.E.A.R. – False Evidence that Appears Real.

There’s a story about an old man who was chatting with his grandson. “Grandpa, you’ve lived a long time,” the younger man said. “Would you say that life is hard or easy?” “Life is very difficult,” the older man answered. “Over the years, I’ve endured thousands of horrible experiences. And one or two of them actually happened.” Of course, while they exist only in your head, lots of fears are reasonable. The fear of getting hit by a bus racing towards you, for example. But when it comes to speaking in public, you just IMAGINE that you’ll stutter. You IMAGINE that you’ll forget what you’re supposed to say. You IMAGINE that your words will sound foolish or your accent will come through or you’ll perspire too much or tongue will get thick or, or…and all that imagining freaks you out!

In fairness, there are lots of variables when we speak. We feel like most of these things are out of our control; so it’s understandable that we might obsess about all the ways disaster can strike.

So just what can you do to stop yourself from all that destructive imagining, or at least keep your worrying down to a manageable level?

Simple: get rid of the variables.

In other words, PREPARE.

I tell my clients this all the time: I wish I could give you a magic bullet. “Imagine your audience in their underwear.” “Breathe deeply and exhale hard one-hundred times before you begin.” “Rub your head and pat your stomach for five minutes.” But there’s no such solution. If you want to stop being afraid, you must take responsibility for creating a situation in which the things you fear won’t happen. Like I said, get rid of the variables.

Afraid you’ll forget what you’re supposed to say? Spend adequate time learning and understanding your presentation. As a member of the National Speakers Association, I had the opportunity to meet and observe some of the best professional public speakers in the business. Their styles varied, but they had one thing in common: they knew their material cold. They could give their presentations anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. It takes that kind of preparation to ensure a professional result every time.

Worried your mouth will get dry? Make sure you have water nearby and bring along some lozenges or hard candies.

Concerned that your presentation will sound unimpressive, take the time to develop and organize your content thoroughly. Write it out. Rewrite it. Test it on others, people who can offer honest, valuable suggestions for improvement.

Then practice. When you’re done, practice again. And when you’re finished with that round, practice some more. Practice out-loud, not just in your head. Practice exactly the way you will present – standing (if that’s the case), using PowerPoint or flipcharts or whatever. I wrote earlier that there was no magic bullet. Well the closest thing to one is practice. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. The people who practice most are the most at ease – and give the most polished and professional presentations. Practice is the one thing that can turn the deadliest public speaker into a master presenter.

Finally, public speaking is no different from any other skill. The more you do it, the better you get. If you are only called upon to speak in public once a year, how can you possibly hope to become accomplished, and thus, more confident? Look for opportunities to present. Volunteer (perish the thought!) to speak at the local Chamber or community organization, your kid’s school, place of worship, family gatherings, etc. Work your public speaking chops, and before you know it, presenting will be second nature.

Public speaking really isn’t rocket science. Think about it. You stand up, open your mouth and say what you have to say. Most of us can speak quite eloquently – as long as it’s a casual conversation with family, friends or co-workers. Put us in front of a roomful of strangers or worse, business colleagues, and we freeze. Take the time to prepare your content. Anticipate any potential complications and plan accordingly. Practice, practice, practice. And seek out opportunities to gain more experience.

And before long you’ll push your imaginary “fear of public speaking” way down to the bottom of your list. After spiders, maybe. A final thought… Pretend you’re surrounded by one hundred hungry tigers. What would you do? I don’t know about you, but I’d stop pretending.