By: Katie Maffeo; Inspired by: Laura Burk
I certainly know that I am not alone when it comes to fear of and the anxiety associated with speaking in front of others. Studies show that the fright of public speaking ranks the highest (over the fear of death) in most people. But, my uneasiness in front of people didn’t just start with public speaking. My discomfort in front of people really goes back as far as I can remember. Just the other day, I was reminiscing with my sister about our younger years and she reminded me of how I would make her go to the bathroom with me when we were at a restaurant because ”everyone will look at me” or how I would get so overcome with anxiety on the starting blocks at a swim meet that I would literally shake. Any social situation had me feeling awkward and afraid that I would say the wrong thing. I feared that people would laugh at me and as a result, I didn’t like hanging out in large groups. And answering a question in class or having to read in front of other people…forget about it. We laughed about it for a while, but it was such a great reminder of the different person I am today.
A large percentage of those in the professional sector are tasked with addressing large crowds or teams at some point in their career. Or, they might be required to attend meetings where input is expected. As life progresses, maturity naturally helps shape your mind and outlook on different matters and life’s imperfections. But, it doesn’t cure the fear of speaking in front of others. There is also no magic pill to cure your fear either. Rather, there are techniques that can help redirect negative thoughts and improve your overall experience(s).
- Don’t try to calm down. Instead of participating in self-talk and trying to keep in the frame of mind that “I am calm,” chances are that you will give a more compelling presentation when you tell yourself “I am excited.” Believe it or not, physiologically we have two different systems: the ‘go system’ and the ‘stop system’. Your go system amps you up and makes you excited. Your stop system slows you down and makes you cautious. Because anxiety is such an intense emotion, it’s hard to make it vanish quickly in the face of uncertainty. It is easier to convert that anxiety into another strong emotion like excitement. So, when I feel myself becoming panicked about speaking, I no longer try to fight the reasons to stop. I focus on the reasons to move forward: I’m delivering a message that matters deeply to me. I enjoy offering actionable insights, educating the audience and providing some entertainment. As my enthusiasm climbs, anxiety fades and my presentations get better.
- Remember that it’s not about you. It’s about your content. The most important thing that you can do is to be prepared for your presentation. Know your content and be passionate about it. Remember that people are coming to hear what you have to say. When you stress out on how well you are going to perform, you are putting the focus on yourself rather than your audience. Remember why you are there. In all likelihood; it is to teach, inspire and to provide insight. It’s not about you. Your audience is counting on you to deliver value. Simply give the people what they want.
- Get to know your audience. I find it to be good practice to visit with audience members before I speak. I’ll shake hands, introduce myself and thank people for coming. I’ll engage in small talk and make them feel welcomed. These efforts are very helpful as you find yourself in front of these folks. The familiarity of friendly faces, warm smiles, and human contact can have a calming effect. There’s something about humanizing your audience that makes them less intimidating.
- Keep in mind that you’re the only one who knows. The truth is that most people can’t tell that you are nervous or afraid. And if you do show signs of anxiety by stammering or forgetting what you were about to say, recognize that your audience (in most cases) is in your corner. Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t enjoy watching a train wreck and it tends to be embarrassing for them to watch it. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I forgot where I was going with this.” A polite audience member will probably gently remind you, and then you may continue.
- It’s OK to not be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s OK to be human and not get it completely perfect. Relax and go with the flow. And if you do put your foot in your mouth, it’s completely appropriate and endearing to be self-deprecating about your faux pas. I find when I laugh at myself that the audience laughs with me, making it even easier to continue.
- Audiences are people just like you. Whether you’re speaking before 5 people or a crowd of 500, recognize that all audiences are essentially the same. They are just people, many of whom suffer from the same fear of public speaking. Applaud yourself for having the courage to overcome your fear and believe that you leave the stage having accomplished your goal.
- Go easy on yourself. Most people are much harder on themselves than others are with them. Go easy on yourself, physically and emotionally. Get plenty of rest the night before your presentation, have a good meal, and let it go. Recognize that you are embarking on a unique experience and that you are going to give it your best. Don’t ask more of yourself than anyone would ask of you. Just be yourself and you’ll be brilliant.
- Let your passion, knowledge and experience take over. You will be speaking because you have something important to share. If you know what you are talking about, allow your passion for and your knowledge of your subject matter be the driving force. Before you hit the stage or take the podium, make a conscious effort to get out of your own way so that your reason for being on stage won’t be obscured by your own needs.
- Blank Stares?: The last thing to remember is that when you look out into the audience and see blank faces staring back at you, don’t immediately think that you’ve lost your crowd. Remember that these “blank” faces are actually people locked in on you and hanging on your every word.
Throughout the years, I’ve learned that you have to become comfortable at being uncomfortable. Put yourself out there. Keep in mind that being invited to present to any audience is an honor and a privilege. It’s proof that there is an interest in your expertise or in a special project that you have worked on. Allow that privilege to help you place your fear behind you so that your audience can learn and be inspired. I believe you’ll find it rewarding. Good luck and keep the faith. You’ve got this.