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When asked about our greatest fears, surveys often show public speaking at the top of the list—sometimes above fear of death itself. Yet public speaking is extremely valuable in career development. According to an article in Forbes, mastering the art of communicating well in front of groups is a skill that can boost your value by 50 percent in the job market.
While being a great public speaker can catapult you ahead in your career, being weak in this area can likewise hold you back. Whether you’re an entrepreneur trying to gain exposure to more clients or a middle manager gunning for a promotion, it’s important to be able to express your ideas articulately in front of others to build both your brand and your credibility.
Here are some strategies from a range of workplace experts and public-speaking veterans on how to get control of your nerves both before and during a key presentation.
Before the Presentation
What you do to prepare in advance for your public-speaking engagement can boost your confidence and lead to a winning performance.
Chunk it. Amy Tierce, a regional vice president in the real estate industry with decades of experience speaking in front of groups large and small, recommends writing your thoughts out in bullet points or “chunks” prior to your presentation, rather than planning your speech word-for-word.
The goal of “chunking” is to trigger your next idea with something that’s easy to remember. That way, you don’t have the added stress of trying to recall an entire speech off the top of your head, and you won’t sound stiff reciting statements verbatim. “Do not script yourself or you will get lost trying to memorize the script,” says Tierce. “Just memorize the general thoughts you want to share, not the exact words.”
Repeat it—over and over. You can also soothe your nerves by spending ample time practicing. Part of what’s nerve-wracking about giving a speech is lack of sufficient preparation: worrying about forgetting something or thinking you might look foolish if you don’t have all the answers. Practice sessions where you go through the entire speech from start to finish can help you gain confidence in your ability to talk about the subject.
How much practice is enough? As much time as necessary to make you feel in command of the material. Amanda Haddaway, author of Interviewer Success and Destination Real World, suggests reviewing your presentation at least 20 times before your big performance. This should allow you to master your topics without an overreliance on notes. “When you’re prepared, you’re more confident and it shows in your non-verbal responses,” says Haddaway. “It also helps you to slow down your rate of speech. Many people have a tendency to speak too rapidly when they are nervous.”
During Your Presentation
You’ve made it through the prep phase—now it’s show time. The best laid plans can go awry if you let yourself succumb to nerves when it’s time to actually give your speech.
Reframe your fear. “I have encountered many women who are successful at what they do, intelligent and highly capable, yet freeze with terror when it comes to speaking at a meeting or introducing themselves at a networking event,” says professional speaker Frederika Roberts, founder of the website The Happiness Speaker.
To combat the wave of anxiety that may hit you as you take the stage and stand behind the podium, Roberts advises focusing on something other than your fear. “Fear and excitement feel the same, but if you reframe the feeling as excitement, suddenly it becomes a lot less daunting,” says Roberts. “Take deep breaths and visualize yourself delivering the best presentation of your life, and the audience being interested in what you have to say and fully engaged.”
Involve the audience. One way to take the pressure off of yourself as a speaker is to direct the spotlight back out to your audience. If you can find ways to make your talk more interactive, it not only gives you a break from the hot seat, but it allows you to feel more relaxed and natural during your presentation. “When I find myself feeling nervous, I ask the audience a question,” says Niquenya D. Fulbright, president and CEO of Building Bridges Consulting. “By involving the audience, you tap into the easy conversational flow and energy of the audience.”
To help you get into the mindset of audience involvement, think about how you would normally talk one-on-one to someone. Your goal should be to inject your best personality into your presentation, much like you do when having a regular conversation. “When we are telling a story with a good friend, we have a very natural storytelling cadence and delivery,” says Jack Stahlmann, a corporate speaker with Don’t Flinch, LLC. “But when we are presenting business material, we have a tendency to throw that right out the window.” To avoid this, Stahlmann encourages nervous speakers to tie in a fun or silly story at the beginning of a presentation to get into a rhythm and allow their natural storytelling ability to emerge.
Remember that you’re the expert. Much of the anxiety around presenting comes from a feeling of self-doubt. Many women (and some men too) sell themselves short in the expertise department, which makes it difficult to project confidence and authority. Dr. Luz Claudio, who directs training programs for medical professionals at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, had to overcome her own difficulties in public speaking as a Latina woman with an accent. Now a frequent speaker who trains others, Claudio has noticed during her trainings that many of her female trainees apologize during their presentations, saying things like “Sorry my slides aren’t projecting well” or “Sorry I’m the only thing between you and your lunch.” Luz notes that such apologies put speakers in a position of feeling inadequate, not powerful.
If you feel nervous during your presentation, don’t apologize for it. Instead, Claudio suggests reminding yourself that you are the expert in your field: “Knowing that I am well prepared to talk about this particular small area of expertise—and that no one else is likely to know more about this than me—instantly calms my nerves and I am ready to deliver a killer presentation.”