by Maryfran Johnson

Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking

Mar 31, 20095 mins

How audience-centered speaking can help you conquer stage frightn

Given the choice between picking up a live snake or a live microphone, many of you reading this would reach for the reptile. Even the name of this new column—Center Stage—may produce a tiny trill of atavistic fear at the thought of standing in front of a room full of people, all eyes upon you, listening to what you have to say.

But fear not. The art of public speaking and the satisfaction of communicating well with your fellow human beings are skills you can learn, improve upon and even come to enjoy. You don’t have to be a charming, attention-seeking extrovert to shine on stage. In fact, some of the best speakers are introverts who started out dreading the thought of being center stage.

What they discovered about improving their communication skills is that there is a methodology. There are best practices. There is an abundance of useful advice from experts, authors and speech coaches—all of which I’ll be sharing in these Center Stage columns in every other issue of CIO magazine.

Let’s start out by taking the pressure off of you and your performance.

Whether you’re giving a keynote speech at a conference, a business presentation in the executive boardroom or just a casual talk over lunch with your IT managers, your focus needs to be in one place only—on your audience. It’s not about you. It’s all about them.

Audience-centered speaking is one of the key themes in Nick Morgan’s wonderfully instructive book, Give Your Speech, Change the World: How to Move Your Audience to Action. The need to “listen” to your audience from the moment you step in front of people comes down to sending nonverbal signals with open, relaxed body language.

“When you ask, ‘How are you?’ of an audience, wait to see how some members of that audience actually are,” Morgan recommends. “Don’t continue until you’ve learned the answer, either verbally or nonverbally.”

That means taking a good look around the room, smiling while you’re making some eye contact, taking a few steps toward the group and letting your hands fall open gracefully toward the audience—as though you wished you could give them a big hug. (Maybe that’s too girly a concept, but you get the idea.)

What to do with your hands during a talk is more important than it sounds. Human beings instinctively read all sorts of nonverbal signals into hand gestures and facial expressions.

If you’re a hand-talker by nature, your hands will be working overtime once you get nervous or excited. I tend to wave my arms around like some lunatic windmill, so solving this problem was always high on my list. Then one day I watched then-Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a serene but compelling presence on stage, and noticed how she laced her fingers together at waist level with her palms facing upward. I adopted that gesture and have used it ever since to keep the windmill in check.

We know that audiences really respond to charisma, which all great speakers seem to have in large measure. But what is charisma, exactly? Some 30 years of communications research has boiled it down to this single word: expressiveness. “Charisma is the willingness to be open to your audience,” says Morgan, a longtime speech coach and president of Public Words.

Taking an audience-centric approach was a great revelation for one of the keynote speakers at our CIO Year Ahead conference last November. Michael Fabiano, VP of Strategic Initiatives for NBC Universal (see “NBC’s New Script”), read Morgan’s book before the event and put its practical advice to immediate use.

“I felt like I was missing a method of preparation for public speaking engagements or even presentations inside my company,” he notes. “I would never have thought about the audience in this way before—about developing a connection with them.” Fabiano also found other benefits from this new focus on his communication skills, from preparing more effectively for meetings with his boss to putting a snappy spin on his strategy group’s “elevator pitch.”

“How many of us really develop an elevator pitch? Before, I would have rushed through this long drawn-out description of the internal consulting service I’ve created. Now I just say: ‘Would you like to learn how to save $100 million in 18 months?'” Now, who wouldn’t like to hear that story?

“The simple truth is that it’s easy to be mediocre,” Morgan points out. The way to become a brave new practitioner of audience-centered speaking is to start with the most important question of all: “What is the story I want to tell this particular audience?”

One final upside to shifting your focus toward your listeners is that it gives you far less time to ponder the state of your own nerves. Maybe reaching for that live microphone will look like the better choice, after all.