Don't let a fear of public speaking hold you back!

Giving presentations and communicating to groups of people, whether to your team, your company or at a conference, is a fact of life for most of us. Don't rely on the school of hard knocks, here's solid advice to avoid letting any nerves get the better of you.

Morag Barrett Keynote Speaker
Credit: Eric Spencer, www.SkyeTeam.com

Anyone who tells you that they are not nervous as they get up to deliver a presentation are either lying or haven’t prepared.

I am a professional speaker. I've been presenting to large audiences and group events for more than 15 years and I promise you that I still get nervous before I start.

Last month I was invited to give the keynote presentation at a major IT conference, my 25th speaking engagement of the year (not including the private workshops and team events I facilitate). It was just me and more than 600 of my closest [new] IT friends and colleagues. Nothing to worry about! What could possibly go wrong!

Those who have seen me will know that I spend the final 15 minutes before I 'go on stage' pacing and doing last-minute checks of equipment, my speaker notes and so on, convinced I can't remember a word that I am going to say. This was particularly true at this IT conference. I had a written a new keynote for this audience; "How to network elegantly and effortlessly" and was second guessing myself right up to the last minute.

It doesn't matter whether I am presenting at a national conference to an audience of 500+, or to small group of 20 leaders in a client organization. I still get nervous. Why? Because I care. Because I want to do a good job. Because I don't want to let others down.

My guess is that you too have to present on a regular basis. It may not be to 600 CIO's and CTO's but it can be to a more challenging audience, your peers and colleagues. "Death by PowerPoint" has become a fact of life in many organizations. The ability to communicate effectively is key leadership skills. You need to invest in developing your communication and public speaking skills if you want to get ahead.

If you can accept that nerves are part of the public speaking experience, it will help you to leverage and manage them, rather than react to them. Not being nervous is not necessarily an indicator of an effective speaker! The key is not to let your fear of public speaking turn into full-blown stage fright.

There is science behind the fear of public speaking and the stage fright that results, our brains and bodies are hardwired to react this way. It’s the fight or flight response that causes adrenaline and other chemicals to charge around our bodies, preparing us to deal with whatever threat has been detected, in this case the fear of public speaking. 

How many times have you been ready to talk to your team, your partner, an audience and all of a sudden you hear yourself say “I didn’t think I was this nervous”. Intellectually you are not scared, but somewhere deep inside there is an automatic response building, getting you ready for the anticipated confrontation, getting you ready for battle.

How do you know if you are nervous?

Each of us responds differently. Be aware of your personal clues. In my case, my heart rate increases, I start my pacing, I can’t focus on things and I feel (and fear) that my mind has gone blank and that I can’t remember anything about what I am going to say. I get thirsty and when really stressed I start talking quicker and quicker. My presentation runs the risk of becoming one of “I-just-need-to-get-this-over-with-and-out-of-here” rather than a focused and deliberate conversation and sharing of key information.

Here are just a few symptoms others have described to me

  • Sweaty palms
  • Getting flushed
  • Breathing is awry- either you can't catch your breath or are at risk of hyperventilating!
  • Dry mouth or the feeling you need to cough

What do we get stage fright about?

When I ask the people I am coaching to improve their presentation skills, whether CEO's preparing for their conference presentation, or a manager learning how to present to leaders in their organization, I hear the same themes every time. When I ask what they most fear about public speaking, the answers all tend to be about the possible negative outcomes.

What if they don’t like me?

What if I forget what I am going to say?

What if something goes wrong?

I don’t think I have ever had a participant say

”what most worries me is being an outstanding success and having to do this again”.

Why is it we tend to focus on the worst case scenarios and results?

Here is the most heartening piece of news. The audience DOES NOT want you to fail. They share your stress and anxiety when things don’t go smoothly. Despite your first thought, they are your Ally and are willing you to get through your presentation successfully.

How can you manage the anxiety and a fear of public speaking?

Here are just a few tips that work for me:

  • Go for a walk. If you need quiet time before you deliver your presentation, then walk around the block, if that isn’t feasible, don’t be afraid to ask for time alone so that you can focus on the task at hand.
  • Have a drink of water / something to eat (before your talk). This settles the stomach and provides energy release as you deliver your presentation. A note on water – room temperature is best. Hot and cold drinks affect your vocal chords.
    Note: Don’t be afraid to stop during your presentation and take a drink. It may feel like you have stopped for hours, but trust me, to the audience they will only see you taking a quick drink. This short break, this distraction for your mind, can be all that it takes to get your thoughts refocused and back on task.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply. It may sound obvious, however, focused breathing really will help to slow your heart rate and your racing mind!
  • Picture Success. Picture your ‘happy place’ and picture a successful outcome. So many of us worry about worry about things that are outside our control. If you have prepared for the presentation, stop worrying, picture the applause from the audience. Picture your last vacation, anything that calms you and helps you to focus with positive thoughts.
  • Ask your audience a question. This allows you to gather your thoughts, enables audience participation and depending on the question, check understanding.
  • Use humor. This doesn’t mean that you need to be a stand up comedian. If it doesn’t come naturally then DON’T DO IT. Make sure that any humor is directed at yourself and not your audience or you run the risk of offending and possibly alienating them.

What works for you? How do you control your nerves and avoid stage fright? Share your suggestions (or questions) in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

[If you have a big presentation coming up and would like some coaching to improve your delivery skills then get in touch, I'd love to help!]

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

To comment on this article and other CIO content, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
Download the CIO October 2016 Digital Magazine
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.