If you’re like most people, public speaking is not high on your list of priorities. The thought of such an act makes you want to run away and hide. However, your success at selling yourself and—for business owners and executives—your products or services, depends largely on your ability to give an engaging, convincing presentation.
Whether giving a formal sales presentation or asking your boss for a promotion, public speaking skills are essential to move forward in your career. Here are five simple ways to diminish your public speaking anxiety.
1. Prepare Thoroughly
It’s important that you know your presentation inside and out so you can speak freely and knowledgeably about the topic. Having clear, organized thoughts helps you focus on giving a great speech.
Do not start with an outline. Captivating presentations tell captivating stories, but storytellers and artists do not start with outlines. Set aside some time to let your mind wander on the topic. Use note cards, a whiteboard, Post-Its, etc. to capture each thought for organizing later. Starting with the constricted, portrait-oriented view of an outline will impede creativity. Instead, get a bird’s-eye-view of the landscape you will be crossing, and chart a course from there.
Outline Your Presentation on Paper
After you’ve collected your thoughts, organize them into a clear, detailed outline.
- Distill your brainstorm ideas into three to five key categories.
- Organize those categories in a logical order. You can probably rely on your own rationale, but if you get stuck try using a Flow Structure.
- Add an introduction and a summary. Our Story Form template can help you fill out these sections strategically.
You can also think about transitional phrases and/or ideas to help make sure your ideas flow together. Your self-confidence and poise will be greatly enhanced, and your delivery more polished and convincing, by having your thoughts organized on paper first.
Anticipate Tough Questions During Q&A
Spend time anticipating questions the audience may have and prepare appropriate answers. Always assume that the question(s) you’re dreading will be asked. Q&A is no time for evasive maneuvers: you need to respond to every question that is asked, but if you take time to prepare answers, you can plan how you can refocus on the positives for every situation.
Prepare Your PowerPoint Slides
Your audience did not come to watch a slideshow. The slides are there to support and enhance your presentation, not to give it. Remember to:
- Stick to one or two lines of copy per slide.
- Use correct spelling and a large font size so the audience can easily read and stay engaged.
- Use compelling imagery.
Slides should help the audience understand what you are saying and reinforce your key points. Practice with your slides so you can edit them as necessary, and so you can reference them without having to look at or read each one.
2. Visualize Success
Athletes and musicians use visualization all the time to see successful outcomes. Mentally rehearsing a stellar performance is almost as effective as actual practice, so concentrate your attention on a flawless verbal delivery. What your mind focuses onusually happens. You’ll feel like you already delivered your presentation a hundred times just by using visual imagery. The real event will be a piece of cake.
Your brain can barely tell the difference between real and imagined actions. Studies show that in groups where half the people took part in an exercise and the other half simply imagined the same exercise, all participants ended up with altered brain structures because of their physical or mental action. Researchers believe your muscles learn how to move as you direct them through mentally picturing your desired actions. So train your brain to focus on flawless public speaking.
3. Practice Makes Perfect
Ask your family, friends, and colleagues to listen to your presentation and provide constructive feedback. This process will help desensitize you to public speaking and help you find areas to make it even better. You’ll also be able to anticipate how your audience may react to your talk. If your family, friends, and colleagues have questions, it’s likely your audience will too. When practicing, remember the following:
- Use your slides and any props, audio, or visual aids you plan to use for the real event.
- Use a rough outline, and elaborate on each point spontaneously. Initially your discussion will be sketchy, but this practice of verbalization (repeating your presentation over and over) will help you learn the content, and will fill in and improve your presentation each time you practice.
- Practice your body language as you deliver the content: make eye contact, move around, vary the pitch and tone of your voice, etc.
Having your presentation lodged in muscle memory will help prevent you from sounding stiff, and retain audience interest.
Take every speaking opportunity presented to you. Giving a short welcome speech at a company workshop or talking at a small seminar are perfect examples. The more you practice, the sooner you’ll feel comfortable speaking in front of an audience.
4. Refocus on Your Audience
In all the preparation (and sometimes the accompanying anxiety) it’s easy to let the focus settle on yourself, your performance, your presentation. But effective speakers know that it’s really all about the audience. It’s a fact that will help structure your talk, but can also alleviate some of your fear: you’re not performing for your audience; you’re helping them.
- Look around the entire room in order to include everyone in your conversation, and to gauge engagement. If people are nodding, continue speaking. If people look confused, stop and explain. Knowing the audience is engaged increases your self-confidence.
- Make eye contact to help the audience trust you more, feel included in your delivery, and be more receptive. Have one-on-one conversations with everyone in the audience by shifting to another set of eyes after you finish a thought with one person.
- Pay attention to audience members who appear supportive and focused. They will help you relax and move forward. Blank stares are okay as well: they simply mean the audience is concentrating on your message. Ignore people who yawn, give you strange looks, or appear bored. Some people may be tired, distracted, or simply hard to please. Their actions reflect on themselves, not you.
5. Train with a Professional
Nothing beats personal, one-on-one training, so you may want to work with a presentation coach or mentor. He or she will provide hands-on training and will be able to review your presentation to help you:
- Develop a rich vocal tone, and a clear speech pattern.
- Craft your unique presentation into a compelling story.
- Create engaging, effective slides to enhance your presentation.
- Prepare for tough questions and confrontations during interviews or Q&A sessions.
- Practice your presentation in front of a helpful audience.
You will benefit from the confidence and assurance of knowing that you didn’t just read the right book, but that you’ve actually improved as a public speaker. The right coach or mentor will be someone:
- Whose character and career you admire.
- Who respects you and believes in your potential.
- Who is trustworthy and understands the benefit of investing in you.
There are a lot of books, blogs, articles, and classes on the market that will attempt to help you overcome a fear of public speaking—and some of them are very helpful. But the truth is, every speaker, every audience, and every presentation are different. Private, personal training with a presentation coach is the only guaranteed way to get you where you need to be.
Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking
Public speaking is the #1 fear in the U.S., but it doesn’t have to be yours. Thorough preparation, practice, and/or professional coaching before your presentation will help ease your anxiety before you step in front of the room. Remembering to focus on your audience, and having person-to-person conversation with each person in the audience, will help calm your nerves while you’re on stage.
Above all, the best way to completely overcome your fear of public speaking is experience. Accept the next opportunity that comes your way, so you can start preparing as best you can today.