3 Tricks for Conquering Your Fear of Public Speaking
December 15, 2014 | Business and Careers
By Sonya Stinson
Rita Barber remembers having to stand with one ankle wrapped around the other just to keep her legs from shaking when she spoke in front of a group.
“I don’t know what they must have thought about me, looking like a pretzel, but that was the only way I could even begin to do a four- to six-minute speech,” Barber said.
Remarkably, about six months after that experience, Barber became a professional public speaker who also coaches others on giving presentations. She credits her membership in Toastmasters International with inspiring the confidence to overcome the feeling she once had that she’d rather “die a thousand deaths” than give a speech.
The fear of public speaking is frequently cited as Americans’ most common fear. If your knees knock and your heart pounds at the thought of talking to a crowd, here are three tips for facing down your fears. Whether it gives you the confidence to speak up in a meeting or put yourself forward for a new role, polishing your presentation style can open up new opportunities for career and business success.
1. Start with Baby Steps. First, try a little self-examination. Yaro Starak, founder of Entrepreneurs-journey.com, an information marketing blog based in Brisbane, Australia, often had panic attacks when he was younger and avoided oral presentations in high school and college. But as his business took off and he was sought out for his expertise, he knew he couldn’t dodge public speaking forever. Gaining confidence began with understanding more about what was feeding his anxieties. In the case of public speaking, his jitters were caused by a self-conscious, internal conversation reminding him how much he dreaded being in the spotlight.
“Just being aware of what I was thinking was a good first step, but it didn’t necessarily calm the nerves,” Yaro said.
What really allowed him to get those nerves under control was practice. Starak is a big fan of immersion therapy: slowly dipping your toes into the thing you fear until you feel safe plunging all the way in. First, he tried standing up at a presentation he attended and asking the speaker a question. Later he agreed to be part of a panel of speakers, so he wouldn’t be the only one in the spotlight. Little by little he worked his way up to doing a one-man, two-hour presentation, with all eyes on him.
2. Organize Your Thoughts. Even if you know your subject like the back of your hand, it’s easy to get off track if you don’t plan your remarks to make sure the ideas flow well. Heidi Barnes, another Toastmasters veteran, said that was one of the most important lessons she learned in the group.
“When you get up in front of a group and you just kind of wing it, you go off the mark,” said Barnes, a residential loan officer in Roseville, California. “I talk a lot, so I get very distracted.”
Before Barnes became a loan officer, she was a marketing and public relations director at a hospital. While she wrote speeches for the CEO and did media training for nursing directors, she never spoke in front of a group herself. Now she conducts workshops for real estate agents and first-time homebuyers, a role that was beyond her reach only a couple of years ago.
3. Slow Down and Focus. Rita Barber says one of the biggest takeaways she got from working on her speaking skills was to slow down. “I am a very high-energy person,” she said. “I can do a seven-minute speech in about three minutes if I have to.”
With practice, Barber learned to take her time and be more mindful of the message she was trying to convey.
“Don’t just say it to say it. Say it because there’s an outcome that you’re looking for,” she explained. “Say it because you realize that whenever you do a presentation, it’s really about the audience and not just about you.”
You don’t have to be a professional speaker like Barber to benefit from becoming more at ease with speaking in public. Maybe it will embolden you to share your great ideas at work or introduce yourself to a game-changing business contact. “When you learn to speak in public, you develop this confidence that resonates in everything you do,” Barber said.
It’s the kind of confidence that pegs you as a top promotion candidate, a subject-matter expert, a thought leader. You may already be all of those things, but if you don’t speak up, who will know?
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.