6 Surefire Ways to Conquer Your Public Speaking Fear
You stand, and then the panic begins. You know the kind. Sweaty palms. Difficulty breathing. It feels like you’re unable to talk. You remember your notes and glance down. They all seem a blur. As you lift the paper higher you notice your hands are shaking. The. Words. Won’t. Come.
Welcome to the joy of public speaking.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Warren Buffet suffered from public speaking anxiety. Richard Branson too. “I loathe making speeches, and always have,” the Virgin media CEO says. “I deliver a lot of them these days, but it’s almost as true today as it was when I first spoke in public as a student some 50-odd years ago.”
I too remember the first time I had to do any real public speaking. It was also at university. Giving a lecture to fellow students on the finer details of my market research project. I felt it was going to be a disaster, and indeed it was. My research project wasn’t that great and the speech behind it—even worse. I stumbled through, lots of ums and ahs, lost my place, and sat down relieved it was over. I think the other students were glad too. Somehow I managed to salvage it all in the final exam and walk away with an A+. Lesson being: don’t worry, there is still hope.
Public speaking is something pretty much everyone has struggled with at some point or another. It’s a problem that’s particularly relevant in the digital age. We might all be used to Tweeting, Facebooking and Snapchatting, but how about some real face-to-face communication? How about if there are 20-100 of those faces looking back at you?
Speaking is an art. Having something to say, even more so. That’s key to public speaking too. The people in the audience are expecting something of you. What is it? To be entertained? To be informed? To be made to laugh? Yeah, perhaps all of those things. At the heart of it, they’re wanting you to have something to talk about. To tell them a story.
I’m going to talk about some key ways to cut through the fear and dissolve away your fears around public speaking. 6 key ways to beat public speaking anxiety and entertain your audience, but it all really comes back to one thing.
Just a few years later I had to give another talk about marketing to a group of film students. I was dreading it. But you know what happened this time? I stood up in front of the darkened lecture room and I talked. Somehow, this time, I had something to talk about. This time I hadn’t prepared notes. I just talked about what I knew, and by this stage I knew my job pretty well. I knew the dos and don’ts. I had a few anecdotal stories. I had something to share. The students seemed interested and asked some questions, and hopefully went away knowing a little bit more. I went away—very relieved, actually.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to talk about something you know.
Okay you might be thinking. That’s all very fine and dandy if I’m to give a speech on the complete works of David Bowie, or WW2 fighter aircraft of the European theater, or (insert passionate interest of your choice), but often, particularly in business, we have to give speeches about topics we don’t particularly know about, or aren’t completely passionate about.
Well I would say, two things. Firstly, within most topics, you can find your passion. Find the angle that most affects you, and talk about that.
Secondly, there are ways you can prepare yourself for almost anything.
In the YouTube age, it’s pretty easy to watch and learn from the best. Watch some CEOs. What are they doing right (or doing wrong?) How well’s the audience reacting to what’s being said? How can you incorporate some of their more lyrical tools into your own repertoire?
No—don’t try comedy, if it doesn’t come naturally to you, instead see what others do that fit your personality. Listen to their phrasing. Their words. Most great speakers use short sentences. They use pause for dramatic (or comedic) effect. A speech needs to ebb and flow like the oceans tides, not rush over the audience like a white-water river torrent.
Steve Jobs is a good example. The Apple founder is a storyteller. One of his most famous quotes on the topic is:
“The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come and Disney has a monopoly on the storyteller business. You know what? I am tired of that bullshit; I am going to be the next storyteller.”
Jobs even used traditional narrative structure in his speeches and product launches. A formula, pure and simple that you can learn yourself.
Act One: The status quo. We meet the characters and learn about their life at the moment. In this first act an inciting incident occurs that will set the scene for the future. Something changes. Think: innovation comes along.
Act Two: A series of obstacles which must be overcome are presented to the hero. In a business context think: poor sales, intense competition or a myriad of interrelated system problems.
Act Three: The conclusion and resolution. Everything is fixed. The world is ultimately a better place. The solution could be a product, a new process, or a new way of looking at the world.
Using this structure will keep listeners hanging on… wanting to know more—right till the end. It also gives you something to hang your ideas on. You’re less likely to get lost if you know where you’re heading.
Ted Talks are also a wonderful resource. Most Ted Talks strike a balance between informing and entertaining. Watch a Ted Talk and you’re sure to learn something. This is what you want your audience to feel as they walk away from your speech. I didn’t know that before.
Still nervous? Here are a few small, trusted and true ways to relax and get yourself in the speaking zone.
Get up early and go for a run, cycle, or gym workout. The endorphins that are released naturally through exercise will lift your energy to where it needs to be: excited and enthused about what you’re about to say. There’s nothing like exercise for a natural high, and your audience will respond better to your increased energy.
Anxiety can lead to a dry mouth, so make sure you’re hydrated and keep your throat well lubricated. Water’s better than sugary sodas or other drinks (including energy drinks) which can often dry your mouth out even more. Drink before, during and after your speech. Extra tip: maybe think about a quick bathroom visit right before you step up to the podium.
While I wouldn’t recommend relaxant prescription (or other) drugs, a little natural therapy can go a long way. Vitamin B Complex tablets for example, can be great to reduce general stress. As with all vitamins, you can’t just pop a few pills and hope for the best. You need to take B Complex for a period beforehand for it to be effective. No quick fix unfortunately.
While many herbal stress relievers can also make you dozy (not a good look while in the middle of a speech), L-theanine is an amino acid that researchers have found acts directly in the brain to reduce stress and anxiety without making you pass out. You can get it as a supplement, but why not just try a calming green tea where it occurs naturally? But really don’t forget that bathroom stop, okay?
There’s nothing more mind-expanding than education, and learning new things is always a great experience, right? If you find yourself in a position where you’re regularly giving talks (for your job, most commonly) then invest the time, money and effort into learning ways to achieve better results. You can join Toastmasters, an international organization that assist members with the art of speaking, or take a dedicated public speaking training course. You’ll get a lot more tips and pointers than there’s time to go into here, and meet other people in the same predicament. Probably some of them will be a lot worse at speaking than you are! At the very least you’ll quickly discover you’re not alone. Fees vary, but what is the price of vanquishing debilitating terror? Enrolling in a public speaking course was one of the first steps Warren Buffet took in order to get past his phobia. He also took a night class, teaching investment to students, in order to push himself out of his comfort zone.
Fear holds us back. You don’t have to white-knuckle it through every instance of public speaking. This is one realm where there are answers and solutions. Try a few of these tricks and tips. Practice.
Walk right up to the microphone… and begin to speak as only you can.