Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

by Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D.

Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking: For many people, public speaking anxiety is very real and very debilitating. It can pose a major detriment to career advancement or to promoting your business. Here are ten tips that can help.

I have to give a presentation to the shareholders meeting next week. I am petrified of speaking in front of groups! You've got to help me!

As a counselor and coach specializing in phobias and stress management, I often hear pleas like this one from my clients. For many people, public speaking anxiety is very real and very debilitating. It can pose a major detriment to career advancement or to promoting your business.

One way to beat speaking anxiety is to join Toastmasters International. This non-profit organization, founded in 1924, offers a first-rate educational program for speaking and leading with confidence. Toastmasters has helped millions of people over their platform jitters. You can join the organization through a local club, where you'll find friendly people who have "been there." Toastmasters International has 8700 clubs in over 70 countries. If you can't find a nearby club, Toastmasters International will help you start one in your community or corporation. For more information go to www.toastmasters.org.

Confidence alone does not make someone a good speaker. Polished speaking skills come from knowing your subject matter, preparing and organizing the material, and practicing your delivery. Toastmasters will give you a supportive atmosphere where you can put these skills to work.

For my clients, I work with them on the emotional end of things-overcoming the fear and anxiety. Drawing on professional training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and hypnotherapy, and my own experiences as a speaker and trainer, I use a combination of coaching, relaxation training, mental rehearsal, and guided imagery to help people replace their fears with confidence and motivation. Obviously, I can't show you all these methods in this article. However, I can give you some easy-to-follow stratagems that should make your next speech a bit easier. Here are ten things you can do to overcome your fear of public speaking.



1. Give up the belief that you have to be perfect.
Most people are afraid of public speaking because they fear the embarrassment of making mistakes in front of others. Anxiety over mistakes only makes mistakes more likely. Having anxiety could be the biggest mistake of all! Even professional speakers occasionally make mistakes. The difference is that they don't consider mistakes major obstacles to success. The secret is to accept that mistakes are going to happen sometimes, and to develop the ability to recover from them quickly. Dr. L. Michael Hall, author of Secrets of Personal Mastery, advises, "Give yourself permission to be gloriously fallible!"

The way to recover from a mistake is to observe it dispassionately, take whatever corrective action is appropriate, regain your composure, focus on what to say next, and get on with it. Dwelling on an error and feeling bad about it only adds to your confusion. Leave the mistake behind and move forward.

You can't please everyone in your audience. Sure-some listeners may think you are a moron for making a mistake. Some won't even notice it. Others may admire the way you recover so easily. Some may be relieved to know you are human. Some won't care one way or the other.

Mistakes can provide excellent feedback for improvement. Mistakes often promote single-trial learning, so it's almost certain you will never make the same mistake twice. Ask yourself "What is the worst that can happen if I make a mistake during this speech?" Making a mistake does not carry a death sentence.

2. Visualize the outcome you want.
People who fear public speaking visualize their upcoming speaking opportunities as abysmal failures. They see themselves fumbling clumsily with notes, stammering, becoming mute, turning red, possibly crying, horrifying audiences with their stupidity, and slinking away to live out the remainder of their miserable lives in exile, reviled as a social reject. Psychologists call this method of preparation "negative anticipation."

STOP IT! Each time you engage in this mental flagellation, shake yourself out of it. Say "STOP" loudly to yourself. Do anything to get your mind out of the failure trap. Sing, whistle, recite poetry, walk around the block, or talk to a friend. You can even make those scary images seem silly and laughable, by imagining your audience in clown costumes, or seeing your performance in fast motion.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Steven Covey tells his readers to "begin with the end in mind." Visualize yourself giving that speech the way you want to. If you anticipate success, you are more likely to get it. Mentally rehearse that you are speaking confidently with a smooth delivery to an appreciative audience. Hear the words coming out of your mouth in a flowing cadence. See yourself with an erect posture, breathing free and easy. By visualizing this way, you are programming your mind and body for the results you want.

3. Prepare Positively
Stop worrying about yourself and get excited about your subject! You have something important to say and others want to hear about it. If you can, pick a subject you enjoy. Speak on topics you know well. Even if you are delivering dreary statistics about last year's crop failure, put something of yourself into your speech. Include an anecdote, or a quotation. Bring in the human interest perspective. Practice and preparation are easier if your subject matter is important and/or enjoyable to you. If you think your material is interesting and meaningful, your audience will catch your enthusiasm and appreciate your sincerity.

4. Love your listeners
Once, just before I was about to speak to classroom of 70 students, a colleague asked me, "How can you be so confident will all those people judging you and finding fault with you?" Now there is a defeatist presupposition, if I ever heard one! It had never even occurred to me to think of my students in that way! "I am confident," I answered, "because I don't think that way. I assume my audiences are friendly. I assume they are here because they are interested in what I have to say. I love my audiences and I assume they love me." You get back what you put out---and nowhere is this adage more true than in public speaking. If you want your audiences to like you, you have to like them first.

5. Put the past behind you---at least the ugly parts
Some people have speaking anxiety because of some humiliating incident of the past---often in childhood. Such events can be highly traumatizing for children (and not a joyride for adults, either) and can cause life-long, paralyzing fear. If such an incident is the basis of your fear, visit a therapist or counselor who specializes in phobias. Phobias are nothing to be ashamed of. Researchers estimate that 80 percent of the population has at least one in a lifetime. Contrary to popular belief, many phobias can be cured, usually in three or four therapy sessions.

Maybe your fear isn't a true phobia, but still relates to past flops and embarrassments. Remember: All good speakers started out as not-so-good speakers. They improved because they resolved to do better the next time.

6. Get some rest and avoid hassles
Plan ahead and get a good night's sleep before your presentation. If you have trouble falling asleep, drink some warm milk (yes, it does work), and think some pleasant, relaxing thoughts. It may help to listen to a relaxation tape or soft music, or do some light reading before going to sleep. If you can, clear your calendar of stressful events that could interfere with your ability to concentrate and speak confidently and sincerely. In other words, don't schedule a job interview, a dentist visit, or a meeting with your ex-spouse's lawyer on the same day you are going to deliver that all-important speech!

7. Avoid mood-altering substances
Some people mistakenly think that drinking lots of coffee or alcohol, smoking cigarettes or popping a tranquilizer before speaking will improve their delivery. They do it to pep up or calm down. Mood-altering substances are an emotional crutch you don't need. The problem is that you can't regulate the dosage. You don't know how much is too much. Once it is in your bloodstream, there is little you can do about it. Your relaxation may turn to sluggishness. Your pep may turn to jitters. It's best to avoid these substances altogether.

Additionally, eat lightly, or not at all, one hour before speaking. A full stomach can lower your energy level and concentration, because your body is busy digesting food. Any nervousness can make digestion difficult. You don't want a belch or a gurgling stomach interrupting your speech!

8. Look your best
Take some time with your appearance. Polish your shoes and comb your hair. Wear attractive, flattering, professional-looking clothing. When you look good, you feel confident. If you aren't sure what looking good is all about, do what professional speakers do. Have a few sessions with an image consultant to learn about the colors and styles that look best on you. Women can get personalized advice on hair and make-up. A good image consultant can tell you how to look fantastic without spending a fortune.

9. Remember to breathe
Anxiety tightens the muscles in the chest and throat. With a restricted airway and without enough oxygen, your voice can come out as a squeak! Deep breathing, on the other hand, sends oxygen to the lungs and brain and expands the throat and chest, promoting relaxation. As you approach the platform, take a deep breath and relax.

10. Focus on friendly faces
While speaking, maintain eye contact with your listeners. Find friendly faces and focus on them. Smiles and approving nods will give you extra encouragement.

Final Words…
It's ironic that some people are more afraid of public speaking than of driving on the highways. Yet, vastly more casualties and fatalities result from traffic accidents than from public speaking. Fear is a natural survival mechanism. It can motivate us, or stop us in our tracks. In situations that pose a threat to life and limb, fear motivates us to be careful. On the other hand, fear is a problem when it interferes with our goals and achievements. These ten tips will help you progress toward confidence on the platform. Ultimately we succeed when we conduct ourselves according to the rewards we want, rather than the things we fear.

Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist and free-lance writer in solo practice in Springfield, Virginia, specializing in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Hypnotherapy. Her web site is www.engagethepower.com.

 
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