Larry’s boss was so pleased with his work performance that he asked Larry to give a fifteen-minute presentation to the entire department of twenty-five people. Larry felt confident about his work, but not about standing up and talking about it. In fact, it was the last thing he wanted to do. “Everyone will be laughing at me when they see me up there,” thought Larry, flashing back to the nightmare he had in junior high when he dreamed he gave a science report to his entire class and forgot to wear clothes.
Even Jerry Seinfeld quipped that public speaking is the number one fear for most people. “If you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy,” he joked. Unfortunately, this is the sentiment of many, including Larry.
It doesn’t seem to matter if a job is on the line or if it’s the low-stakes company picnic and you’re introducing the entertainment, most people feel a strike of fear in the chest when they know they have to stand up in front of a crowd and speak. The knees weaken, the palms sweat and palpitations rise, especially as the podium looms closer. Like the experience of many, the little gremlins (those creatures we invent to terrorize ourselves) in Larry’s head were chanting a worst case scenario: “You’ll look silly and sound stupid.” Suddenly, he felt weak and defensive rather than like the expert he was on his subject. Physiologically, his body kicked into flight or fight mode; his adrenaline rose, quickening his pulse and urging him to run out the door rather than to meet that vague, smirking aggressor: the audience.
The good news is that we are what we think we are, and, therefore, the possibility of turning down the volume on those convincing gremlins with their nagging voices, and at least appearing to be strong, comfortable and relaxed, is obtainable.
The following are some suggestions gleaned from public speakers at all levels of fear and experience. The goal is to learn the tricks of the trade that will enable you to take control of stage fright, rather than letting it control you – whether speaking at an industry conference or to a group of coworkers.
- Prepare yourself in whatever time you have. Larry had to present at the next weekly department head meeting in two days, but, if it is an impromptu speech, don’t start with an apology. Try a dash of humor to break the ice like, “Thank you very much for the warm reception – which I so richly deserve and so seldom get.” The best one-liners make fun of the deliverer, not the listeners.
- Imagine in advance how you might look in front of people and practice so that your eyes are not continually cast down. You can’t practice too much. In fact, it is the best way to drown out the gremlins. When you rehearse with your notes, practice breathing. Take in a comfortable breath, speak, pause, and breathe again. Check your posture. Are your shoulders hunched forward into a protective position? Breathing is easier when the chest is lifted because it allows the diaphragm (the horizontal muscle above the stomach) to expand freely. If you have been given time to prepare and make notes, be sure your notes are in large print and a handy format. Poor lighting at the podium when you finally arrive up front with notes in hand is one of the least expected but most frequent situations encountered by speakers. Fortunately, Larry took time to type up the highlights of what he wanted to say and enlarged the font. Finally, he cut the pages in half and pasted them on numbered index cards.
- Take your time and speak clearly. Ask the audience if they can hear you before you launch into your speech. Don’t rush. It takes one or two sentences for people to get used to the sound of your voice and understand your diction.
- Take a moment to scan the audience and thank them for the opportunity to speak. While you’re scanning, think about who they are and what might be interesting for them. Identify one important point you wish to make that will relate to this particular audience. They need to see the value in what you are going to say, and the simpler it is, the more convincing you will be. Believe that they are interested and want to hear your message. Start with a smile. Smiling disarms people and makes them think you know what you’re doing. As you take your place from which you will speak, take to make a sweeping gaze of the entire room. Look at the tops of people’s heads and people will actually feel that you are looking at them. You’ll avoid the distraction of eye-contact
- Inspire your listeners by understanding who they are and where their interests lie. If your message is based strictly on your own needs, it will be much more difficult to connect with the audience. Some speakers start with an observation about the group or ask a question, like: “How many people spent more than an hour on the freeway to get here tonight?” Quickly, people will begin to feel that you are interested in them more than yourself. If your message is aimed at convincing an audience to buy or to consider a product, try to distill the message into its smallest size, the key point, in less than one minute. For example, if you’re selling time-shares to busy people, perhaps a key point might be: “What’s the easiest way to take a vacation?” Then elaborate and practice delivering the message in longer and longer forms. This will help you zero in on what you really want to say.
- Show the audience that you are composed and passionate about your subject. Tell them that you are happy to be there even if you feel nervous. It’s normal to experience the “jitters” when you know you have to speak in front of others. Larry even became nervous when he had to say his name and introduce himself around a meeting table. He had to remind himself that many people feel the same way when the spotlight is suddenly turned on them.
- Finally, don’t raise an alarm that you might faint or somehow not survive the speech. The audience will not hear a word you say. They will be waiting for something to happen – to you. For Larry, the solution might be to find a way to laugh at himself right at the beginning. Something like, “This reminds me of the guy who was asked how he controlled a man-eating lion by whispering in the lion’s ear as he was about to devour him. His answer: ‘I just told him, as soon as you’ve finished your dinner you’ll be asked to say a few words.’”
Even the greatest orators and speech makers all started in the same place, learning how to put one foot after the other as they made their way down the aisle, behind the curtain, up to the stage and utter the first line. Turning such a formidable fear into something convincing and manageable that can help your career is a great accomplishment.
As Larry worked on his presentation and remembered his angst in junior high, he thought about his “gremlins” and how he might make them work for him rather than against him. He imagined grabbing them off his shoulder and stuffing them under his arm as he walked to the podium, saying, “C’mon you guys. You’re going with me!”
Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D. is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is Writer-In-Residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, CT where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories. She is available for workshops, readings and public speaking. Contact her at ruthcrocker.com.