Public Speaking 101: Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking

One of the greatest fears among people is public speaking.  Some people are natural on a stage, relaxed, in control, comfortable.  But countless others are terrified at the thought of even standing in front of a crowd, much less talking to an audience.  But this stage fright does not have to hinder us when those times come that we do need to address a crowd.  In fact, that fear, if properly used, can actually help us become more exceptional communicators.

According to Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, “…stage fright arises in a mere anticipation of a performance, often a long time ahead. It has numerous manifestations: fluttering or pounding heart, tremor in the hands and legs, diarrhea, facial nerve tics, dry mouth. Stage fright may be observed in people of all experience and background, from beginners to professionals.”

Stage fright, or fear of public speaking, isn’t only found in beginners or inexperienced speakers.  We all get nervous, and if we don’t learn to control those nerves, we can struggle in our quest to effectively impact our audience.  So how can we use our fear to help us instead of hinder us?  Here are some tips:

1.      Know your speech inside and out.  If you show up very well prepared, it will take much of the fear out of your talk.  Lack of preparation is scary.  I sometimes have a dream where I am walking on a stage to speak, having not prepared anything.  I wake up fearful, because for me…that’s frightening.  Most speakers are at their best when they are most prepared, so do your homework, come ready (really ready), and your fear will lessen.

2.      Use your fear to make you better.  I actually think nervousness is a good thing.  Butterflies in your stomach shows that you care.  It says, “I want to do my best here.”  Show me a speaker who never feels the butterflies and I’ll show you a speaker who doesn’t care whether or not they make an impact.  I use my nervous energy to make me better. 

For starters, I use it to motivate me to prepare as well as I can.  I know how scary it is to take the stage unprepared, so I make sure that doesn’t happen by pushing myself.  I also use the energy by actually feeding it during my presentation.  I turn the nervousness into enthusiasm; enthusiasm in my words, gestures, and overall presentation.  This makes me more effective, because enthusiasm is contagious, and audiences respond to it very well.

3.      Start off right.  I use a funny story (usually something really stupid that I’ve done) to kick things off.  This does a few things for me.  First, it relaxes me because I’m telling a personal story that I know quite well.  Second, it relaxes the audience because they’re laughing.  Third, when I use a story that illustrates how big of an idiot I can be from time to time, it builds a lot of rapport with my audience.  They can relate to me, and if my story is stupid enough, it makes the audience feel better about themselves.  They think, “At least I don’t do as many dumb things as this guy.”  That makes me more likeable, and knowing this helps me relax.

For example, late one night, while in the middle of an ice storm, my electricity went out.  So I got in my car, drove on the ice-covered roads to Wal-Mart, and bought an electric heater so I could stay warm while the power was out.  It wasn’t until on the way home that it hit me: I just bought an electric heater to keep me warm while my electricity is out!  I’m the stupidest person on earth.

When I tell that story, my audience has a great time with it, because they can relate.  We all do dumb things!  I’m willing to use those experiences to help me onstage.

One quick tip: If you are going to use humor, go all the way with it.  Don’t try to do it half-heartedly; you will fail.  Go all out.  Someone said, “If you’re going to be seen, be seen.”  In other words, if you’re going to jump in, then really make a splash.

4.      Never tell your audience you are afraid.  I saw a guy deliver a talk recently in which he was so nervous that he was physically shaking.  Everyone in the audience felt bad for him.  But then he made it worse by actually telling us he was really nervous.  This was the wrong thing to do for two reasons.  First, we already knew that…the shaking gave him away.  And second, when your audience can tell you are nervous, and you reinforce it by saying as much; you really put your audience on edge, as well.  This is one of the worst things you can do because you want your audience to relax, and if they are too busy worrying about your nervousness, they won’t relax, and you’ll struggle to impact them. 

Get on the stage and give it your best.  Know your speech inside and out, use your fear to make you better by using that energy as an enthusiastic delivery, start off strong, and never tell your audience how nervous you really are.  Following these four tips will help you overcome your fear of public speaking and allow you to more effectively communicate.  Stage fright can be a thing of the past for you.  Happy speaking!

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