When I was 29, I had a harrowing experience shortly after starting in my first executive-level position. I was working many long hours on complex but exciting projects, and had just finished leading a series of small group meetings in preparation for writing the next year’s corporate strategic plan. My boss had been on vacation for the past week and returned just in time for the annual company-wide meeting.
As we drove to the meeting, he turned to me and said, “Oh Monica, I was planning on having you talk briefly about the strategic planning process, if you don’t mind.”
My worst nightmare had come true. I was expected to speak on stage, alone, in front of more than 200 people with no time to prepare. I had taken a college speech class and was on the debate team in high school, but I had never presented in front of a large audience. Needless to say, I panicked.
A giant lump swelled up in my throat and I thought I was going to be physically sick. My palms were sweaty. I just couldn’t think straight. What was I going to talk about? I had only 20 minutes before my section of the presentation was up. I did everything I could to remain calm and professional, but inside I was a complete wreck. I had allowed fear to take over.
Somehow, I made through the presentation. To this day, I’m honestly not sure what I said, but I remember I could feel every eye in the conference hall on me. It was the single most stressful event of my career, and it made me realize something: I had to conquer my fear of public speaking.
Ten years later, I often present to executive teams, have given several workshops and seminars, and have been a keynote speaker at a women’s symposium, at a CEO forum, and in Washington, DC to a group of healthcare leaders at CMS. Speaking and giving presentations has become part of my career and I absolutely love it. Presenting in front of very large groups still causes some butterflies, but I am confident enough in my ability now that I can work through those. It took some work and practice, but the steps I took can help you too.
How to Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking:
1. Be Prepared: Whenever possible, prepare your presentation early, so there is time to practice, practice, practice. Practice enough times that you feel comfortable presenting without note cards, even if you plan to use them. The more prepared you feel, the more confident you’ll be.
2. Know Your Material: When you speak about a topic you know well, it is easier to feel confident and answer unexpected questions. It also helps to choose topics that excite you. That enthusiasm comes through to your audience. This tip was especially helpful to me in preparing for my workshops and seminars.
3. Have A Solid Opening and Know It Inside and Out: If you have a strong opening to your presentation, it helps set the tone for the rest of the presentation. It also captures your audience’s attention, and lets you get through the hardest part for most people: the beginning. Once you’re on a roll, your nerves usually settle down.
4. Get Yourself In the Right Mindset: Listen to music, meditate, or practice visualization before the presentation. These things help calm your nerves and put you in a good mindset to share your knowledge with others.
5. Visualize Success: When you think about the event, instead of allowing yourself to feel worry or stress, try to visualize yourself speaking with confidence. Think of the applause and happy faces in the audience when you finish.
6. Be Authentic and Connect with the Audience: My good friend Michelle gave me an excellent piece of advice when I was preparing to speak at a symposium. She told me that you need to be authentic with the audience, and share who you really are. Whether it’s a personal story or some background on your life, your audience wants to connect with you on a personal basis in order to care about your message. As she said, “They don’t care how much you know until they see how much you care.”
“They don’t care how much you know until they see how much you care.” ~Michelle Pickelle, Entrepreneur and Workforce Development Coach, Owner of J.O.B.S. and Treasures Within, Inc.
7. Find Friendly Faces in the Crowd: No matter how serious the group, you will find that there are always some friendly faces in the crowd. Because you want to connect with your audience and make eye contact, always find and keep in mind the friendly faces. Your audience wants you to succeed and wants to hear your message or they wouldn’t be there. A few friendly faces in the crowd can really make a difference.
8. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously: Once the presentation begins, relax and go with the flow. Don’t stress too much or apologize if something goes wrong. Just pick up where you left off and continue. When I was presenting at a women’s symposium, the battery on my laptop died for the last couple of slides. Nothing but a black screen. I didn’t let it ruin the presentation though, and the audience chuckled with me. I carried on from memory for the conclusion, and the audience appreciated that I rolled with the punches and didn’t get upset or keep them waiting.
If you try these eight steps and find you’re still struggling, you might also consider getting a coach. I worked with a speaking coach briefly, and it was very helpful in preparing for a large event. Now that I have successful presentations under my belt and have been presenting for a while, it takes me less time to prepare. I’ve also gained enough confidence that even impromptu public speaking opportunities no longer worry me like they used to.
Public speaking has gone from something I feared to something that I seek out and enjoy, and I’m certain that you can make the same transformation. What are your best tips for overcoming the fear of public speaking? Share your thoughts below.