I often have people come up to me after I’ve given a speech and say, “Boy, would I love to be able to do that for a living—go around the country and give speeches.” When I ask them why they don’t, they say, “Oh, I could never do that.”
Did you know that the fear of public speaking is higher on the list of fears than the fear of death? This probably doesn’t surprise any of you who have dreaded having to make a presentation. Some individuals have such an aversion to public speaking that they may even decline career opportunities based on the chance that they will have to speak in front of others. While this may seem startling or sad, the truth of the matter is that public speaking is a learnable skill. People who feel inadequate about themselves in front of a group can learn to become good speakers.
I firmly believe there are three things that can impact your performance in public speaking: body language, routine, and your belief system.
Body Language. If you want to become a good public speaker, closely watch other public speakers to see what they do and how they carry their body. For example, I have observed that good public speakers walk with their shoulders back and their heads high and use a lot of hand and arm gestures. If you are nervous, hold your head up and your shoulders back and say, “I am feeling good. I am feeling really good.” Silly as it may seem, this actually works. The mind does not know the difference between what it perceives and what you tell it to perceive. Think of a time when you were feeling very confident and productive in some area in your life. How did you act? How did you walk? How did you talk? What did you do? It’s pretty hard to feel inadequate if you walk and act like you know what you’re doing.
Routine. What is the routine people use when they make a presentation? When you see a good bowler, for example, they always start at the same mark, take the same number of steps, and release the ball in the same way. By getting a routine established, you signal your brain that all is well. If the material I’m speaking on is new to me, I try to practice it several times with others—friends, employees, family—prior to delivering it to a group I don’t know. I get feedback each time, and I try to think of questions audience members are likely to have while I’m speaking. I also use notes until the information becomes second nature to me. Before I give a speech, I usually engage in deep breathing and a quick review of what I plan to say, which I may do with someone I’m with just prior to my presentation. When I get on my feet, the first thing I do is tell some funny story that gets the audience relaxed and gets me relaxed. Then I can get into my speech. Now a lot of people tell me, “But I’m not good at telling jokes.” Well, this too can be learned. Experiment with what works best for you in breaking the ice with a group.
Belief System. Finally, what are the thoughts and beliefs that you have about public speaking? The late, great speech coach Dorothy Sarnoff used to suggest repeating these words to yourself before giving a speech: “I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad you’re here. I know what I know and I care about you.” Repeating these thoughts can change your belief system so that you actually become glad you are there and glad the audience is there. You know what you know and you can then stop worrying about not being good enough or perhaps not being able to answer a question that is asked. When you focus on caring about the people in the audience, it becomes difficult to be fearful of the same group or of the situation. Once you start saying this over and over, it will have a tremendous impact on your level of confidence.
After applying these principles, you need to practice, practice, practice to hone your skill. Seek opportunities to make presentations or join a Toastmasters International club in your area. It will then only be a matter of time before you can perform as a professional and experience the joy and excitement of sharing your thoughts and helping others in the process. Good luck!