How to Get Over Your Fear of Public Speaking

Lee Polevoi by Lee Polevoi on October 16, 2012
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There’s something about standing up in front of a group of strangers and delivering a speech that, for many people, seems like a nightmare they’ve had since childhood. The fear of public speaking keeps some small-business owners from reaping its benefits, such as using the opportunity to build credibility, gather referrals, and generate sales.

A popular method for overcoming the fear of public speaking is to join a local Toastmasters group. If that’s not practical for you, here are five ways to overcome your anxiety and make a great impression the next time you step up to the podium.

1. Prepare thoroughly. The more you prepare, the less nervous you’ll feel. Know your material and be excited about it. Put something about yourself in the speech, such as an anecdote or a favorite quotation. If what you’re talking about means something to you, the audience will pick up on your enthusiasm and respond in kind.

Familiarize yourself with the venue where you’re presenting. Before your presentation, walk around the room. Stand at the lectern and speak into the microphone. Sit in the audience. Take a “practice walk” to the podium. Getting a sense of your surroundings can help to reduce your anxiety.

2. Practice, practice, practice. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The same principle applies to the Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce. Rehearse your speech out loud in the privacy of your home or office. Keep revising it until the flow feels right, then give the presentation to a select group of friends or family members. Use their feedback to refine the script and then practice some more. This gets you comfortable with the material and moves you toward that place where you’re no longer reading a speech, but — with the help of a few cue cards — comfortably talking to the audience.

3. Do stress-reducing exercises. The stress of dreading your presentation can tie you up in knots well in advance of the event. When you’re in a state of anxiety, your breathing accelerates, your chest and throat muscles tighten, and you deprive yourself of oxygen. Deep breathing is the solution: Sit in a chair with your back straight and breathe in slowly. Hold your breath for five seconds, then slowly exhale.

Visualization is another great stress-busting technique. Unfortunately, many novice presenters visualize in ways that psychologists call “negative anticipation.” It takes some work, but purge those images of failure from your mind. Like an elite athlete, visualize a presentation that leaves the audience enthralled and hungry for more. The more you believe you’ll be successful, the more likely that’s the outcome you’ll get.

4. Make yourself look as good as possible. “Dress for success” is never more relevant than when you speak in public. If you’re unsure about your appearance, talk with an image consultant for some valuable, objective tips.

Check your posture, too. Like your mother always said: Stand up straight with your feet slightly apart and toes pointed outward. Place your hands on the podium (or keep them by your side) unless you feel comfortable enough to include gestures that accompany your speech.

5. Get support from the audience. Keep in mind that everyone who’s come to hear you speak wants you to succeed. Seek out friendly faces and focus on them. (Some speakers introduce themselves to people seated in the first row beforehand, so they feel at ease making eye contact with them.) Whenever possible, ask questions and encourage interaction to keep everyone’s interest level high.

With some preparation and practice, you can transform your public speaking anxiety into an enthusiastic, well-received presentation.

Lee Polevoi

Lee Polevoi is an award-winning business writer specializing in the challenges and opportunities facing small business. He is former Senior Writer at Vistage International, a global membership organization of CEOs.

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