“Public speaking is one of the best things I hate.”
-Baseball great Yogi Berra
You’re hyperventilating. You’re dripping perspiration. Your legs are wobbly and you have the distinct desire to flee. What’s going on here? Are you being pursued by a pack of rabid dogs? No. You are about to speak before an audience.
It might surprise you to learn that according to The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, the fear of public speaking ranks number one, above the fear of heights, death and illness. That’s 40% of the population. Why? Is it simply the fear of rejection? It might be a little more straightforward. Most people are afraid they will make a mistake and look like a fool in front of any audience.
Having been a public speaker for three decades, I want to let you in on a few secrets.
It’s ok to be nervous. There has never been a time, ever, that I don’t fuss, obsess and feel fear. Here’s why it works for me. I use my fussing and obsessing to mentally prepare and rehearse my speech. I practice, practice and practice some more, both verbally and in my imagination. That’s what allows me to turn fear into energy and gives me the self confidence I need.
Get over yourself. If that sounds a little tough, it’s meant to be because what’s important is your message. Did you get that? If you make the message the most important thing, your focus will be on delivering what’s most important. Therefore, you must be passionate about your topic and the message and want your audience to be as passionate as you. That choice is totally within your control. Speak from your heart and you will not fail. As the great film director, John Ford said, “You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart.”
No one wants you to fail. Think about how you feel when you’re sitting in an audience, listening to a speaker. What do you want? Do you want someone to bumble, stumble and make mistakes? No. You want to be informed, educated, and entertained and, I hope, moved to action. You want the speaker to be wonderful. That’s what people want from you. They are in your corner.
It’s ok to make a couple of mistakes. You do not, DO NOT, need to worry about being perfect. I guarantee you that the audience members aren’t. If you are prepared and passionate, they will forgive a lot.
Handle your stress and breathe. When we are under stress and pressure, our bodies will seek that which makes us feel comfortable and safe. The bad news is that fear makes us breathe shallowly which increases the fear. It also often means our eyes will jump around looking at anything and everything but the audience or having a death grip on the podium or the back of the chair or clutching our notes like a life line. We might shove our hands in our pockets or clasp them behind our back. Or, we might fidget about like a squirrel on six cups of coffee. Worst of all, we might infuse our talk with “ums” and “ands” or end every sentence with “You know,” or “OK?” All this drives people crazy and can be avoided by being relaxed and being – aware. Always take a few deep breaths before you begin your speech and breathe throughout your talk. Take your time.
Practice everyday. Start today to become aware in all your conversations. Notice if you fall prey to any of these negative habits I just listed. If you can correct them in your day to day conversations, you will avoid these pitfalls in public speaking.
Use the power of your mind and visualize. Pro football Hall of Famer, Jack Youngblood said, “I visualize things in my mind before I have to do them. It’s like having a mental workshop.” Your ability is your gift, and this gift can make you an exceptional speaker.
I’ve mentioned this point before and it bears repeating. Learn to manage your thinking! Your subconscious cannot tell the difference between a real and an imagined experience. Every time you rehearse in your imagination, the more self-confidence you will have – and the less fear. You don’t have to memorize your entire speech but you need to have clear and precise notes to which you can refer and you must have the first 2-3 minutes of your presentation nailed down precisely.
Visualize and “see” yourself delivering the presentation. Visualize the room in which you will be presenting. Visualize your audience. In your mental script, you are totally prepared, relaxed, in control and confident. Go through your presentation several times.
Timothy J. Koegel sums it up best in his wonderful book, The Exceptional Presenter, when he writes, “Visualize yourself delivering an organized, passionate, engaging presentation in a conversational manner, and it will be so…think tall, keep your head and eyes up, smile, never retreat, and move with purpose, energy and enthusiasm.”
Here’s another one of my secrets. Before I visualize and before I speak, I conjure up a memory from the past that gives me an extra charge of self-confidence. Years ago, I was performing a show at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The audience was sold out. Everything worked and I got a standing ovation from twenty-five hundred people. That’s the feeling I take inside of me. In fact, just writing down these words for you gives me a charge. That’s what you need to do. Perhaps you won an award, got an A+ on an exam, or played a fabulous game of golf. It could be anything. Go back into your past. Vividly relive the memory, pull out the emotion and plug it into your visualization just before you walk on stage. You will be rewarded for your effort and as the great physicist, Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is everything. It is a preview of life’s coming attractions.”
I’ve given you everything you need to take control, blast through fear and be a very good speaker. The time to start is today.
James Mapes is the founder of Quantum Leap Thinking™, creator of The Transformational Coach™, expert on the psychology of “applied imagination,” best-selling author, highly acclaimed business speaker, consultant, seminar leader and personal excellence coach.