Taking the Fear Out of Public Speaking

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By Erika Weisensee

Trembling voice. Shaking hands. Pounding heart. Butterflies. People fearful of speaking in public may experience these and other unfortunate side effects. As if public speaking weren’t difficult enough, these physical reactions to nervousness only get in the way of presenting one’s ideas.

Public speaking is a legitimate fear (known as glossophobia) and one that can impose life-long social and professional limitations on its sufferers. When people are asked about their greatest fears, studies have revealed that public speaking frequently ranks number one, followed by fear of dying. Unfortunately, there is no instant cure for those who fear public speaking—except completely avoiding it. But, it is a learned skill that gets easier and easier with practice.

Whether you know someone with this fear or need to brush up on your own skills, here are some tips to help you prepare and present with confidence:

1) Talk about what you know. We are usually much more comfortable talking about subjects we know well. If possible, speak about topics in which you are passionate and already have a good base of knowledge. When appropriate, bring personal experiences into the speech, not only because they resonate with audiences but because they are easy to remember.

2) Prepare and practice. Most public speaking situations allow for some preparation. Create and outline of your speech in an easy-to-read font or handwriting, and practice over and over until you are comfortable with the material. Instead of reading it word for word, try instead to use the outline to guide you, as you will want to practice making eye contact with others. It may be useful to practice in front of a mirror or with a supportive friend who can give you pointers.

3) Visualize. The most famous advice for easing nerves in front of a crowd is to “visualize the audience naked.” If this works for you, by all means go for it. It may be just as useful, however, to visualize yourself succeeding, the audience riveted by your every word and bursting into applause when you are finished.

4) Have good material. Spend time developing an opening that will get people’s attention—this could be a question, a statistic, a story, or even a joke. If giving an informative or argumentative speech in a professional setting, you will need explanations, evidence and examples to support your main ideas. If giving a speech in a social setting, such as a toast at a wedding, a little creativity can go a long way. Inspirational quotes, stories and humor can help make your words memorable.

5) Learn about your audience and venue ahead of time.  Visiting the location of your speech or presentation can help ease nerves, as you can see how far away you’ll be from the crowd, whether you will have sound equipment, Power Point capabilities, a podium or platform to set your notes on, and even, what the acoustics are like in the room. It also helps to understand your audience a bit: How many are expected? Who are they?

6) When nervousness happens, adjust to minimize it. For instance, if your voice is shaky, pause and take a deep breath. If your hands are shaking, clasp them together in front of you or rest them on a podium if you have one. You don’t need to apologize or tell the crowd you are nervous, as it may not even be obvious.

7) Find ways to work on your skills. If you want to improve, find activities that allow you to present your ideas to others in a small group, such as a committee at your church or your child’s school. If you really want to dive in, the Toastmasters organization, which has chapters around the country, lets people practice and hone their skills. The Toastmasters website (www.toastmasters.org) has more information on public speaking.

— Erika Weisensee lives in Milwaukie and teaches journalism and communication courses at the University of Portland.