If the thought of public speaking fills you with dread – like you’re about to walk a tight wire high above – without a net – please read on for my top tips that appeared in my column this week in the Sunday Independent, “The Communicator.”
If I go on The Late Late Show and ask the audience to “raise your hand if you’d like to stand in front of everyone else and give a presentation”, how many hands do you think would shoot up?
Of course, the audience might be a little loosened up from the free wine RTE provides audience members in the green room before they take their seats. So maybe more hands would go up than normal.
But, if statistics are any indicator, most of you would literally rather die than get up and speak in public.
Fear of public speaking, as you may already know, is often listed as people’s number one fear. It out paces the fear of death or the fear of flying.
This brings me to a letter I received this week from a reader. He writes:
“I love your column and three words that would describe me would be ‘curious’ and ‘confident’ in one-to-one conversations, but a very ‘nervous’ person when it comes to standing and speaking before an audience.
“As an owner of a small business, I have occasions to stand and speak about my business. But, to be honest with you, I would rather visit the dentist than give a speech.
“I know how important it is to the growth of my business but the fear I have of public speaking is just too great. I get very red, hands shake and have the dry mouth of a desert.
“Please, please how do I get over this fear?”
If you’re like some fad-dieters who keep looking for quick trick to shed pounds (or kilos or stones or whatever), I have to point out there is no magic pill to do that or to instantly shake your stage fright nerves.
But, here are three things that should help.
1 Think positively
In an old episode of The Brady Bunch Mike Brady tells daughter Jan, who is petrified of giving a speech, to imagine her audience wearing only underwear.
I won’t go that far, although you’re welcome to try it for a laugh. But I will tell you that in my experience, every audience — no matter how they are attired — wants you to succeed.
That’s a positive place from which to start. They’re looking to find meaning in why they are there. They want to connect with you. Bear that in mind. Be self-affirming. You step up on stage at 100pc.
2 Take time to write it right
Don’t wait until the day before you have to speak to write your speech. Give yourself proper time to prepare.
When you craft your speech, make sure to consider and address your audience’s interests and not simply your own. What’s in it for them?
If you operate on a “brain-dump approach”, that’s fine for your first draft. But revisit it the next day to refine and edit. Get feedback on your script from a colleague.
Remember, too, that the way you write may not be the way you speak. Are you writing words you’re comfortable with? If the words aren’t conversational to you, they won’t sound conversational to your audience.
If you want to be comfortable with your public speaking delivery, you must first be comfortable with your written material.
3 Practice out loud and on camera
That silly joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” comes to mind. Answer: “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
This is where you really can combat potential butterflies. You have to practice the same way you expect to deliver.
For instance, if you’re going to present standing up, then stand up when you practice. Don’t forget details like voice quality, energy and expression. Many people are uncomfortable hearing the sound of their voice when it’s projected, so they hold back when they practice. That’s a mistake. You should practice as performance-day-like as you possibly can. Smile. Gesture. Get into it. Try to get off-script. You’ll connect better with your audience and that’s the whole point.
“I feel like an actor,” one client told me recently. That’s okay at first. Over time, it will feel natural.
Bonus tip: Get help
Years ago, at my first job as a journalist with the Orlando Sentinel, I joined a “Toastmasters” group. With clubs all over the world, Toastmasters members deliver a wide-variety of speeches, receiving structure and encouragement along the way.
Joining wasn’t a job requirement, but I thought, “Hey, if I’m developing my skills as a written story-teller, it would be a good idea to practice telling stories aloud too.”
It was a great experience and one that helped me during my transition to on-camera reporting at CNN. I’ve since enjoyed going back as a guest speaker at Toastmasters clubs including in Lagos, Nigeria, and at the West Cork Toastmasters, one of top performing clubs here in Ireland.
With the right coaching, practice and time, public speaking comfort is a gift available to us all. Or, as you may have heard once or twice on The Late Late Show, “There’s one for everyone in the audience.” So, go on. When I ask, raise your hand.
Whether through Toastmasters or another training programme, I’d love to hear from readers who are learning to overcome their fears of public speaking. What is working? What are you still struggling with? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gina London is a former CNN anchor and international campaign strategist who is now a director with Fuzion Communications. She serves as media commentator, emcee and corporate consultant.