I’m not sure if it’s an overused cliché or more of an urban legend, but I’m confident you’ve heard that public speaking tops most people’s list of fears.
I’m always amazed at how some people can bring themselves to jump out of planes, dive off cliffs or run with the bulls. But if you ask them to speak in front of a crowd, those same people head for the hills faster than an extreme roller coaster at a theme park.
Not me, though — at least, not any more. If I came up with a list of my top 20 fears today, speaking in public wouldn’t be on it. The fear is real, make no mistake. But public speaking is a skill that I developed and mastered, and so can you.
Why so many people are afraid of public speaking has been the subject of research for decades. The reasons offered — embarrassment, fear of failing, fear of scrutiny by others or any of a host of other pop psychology theories — have probably actually helped convince us that we should be afraid.
The fear of public speaking is a mind game, however. Change the rules and you change the game. With that thought, here are some game-changing strategies that I bet will work for you:
Redefine public speaking
Don’t think of it as addressing 5,000 people from a stage. Instead, think of public speaking as simply that — speaking in public. It could be in front of two people or a small group. You’ve been speaking to people for your entire life, so revisit how that’s worked for you and use the same approach, regardless of the size of your audience.
Strategy: Quickly write down specific times when you had no problem speaking out, such as cheering on your child at a hockey game, asking a question at a meeting or sharing your opinion at a party.
My bet: You did it effortlessly and without fear.
Since knowledge is power, the more you know, the better prepared you will be. We spend countless hours researching and preparing for presentations and tests on whatever subject area we may have expertise in.
Strategy: Identify three subjects you felt extremely comfortable speaking about in the past and recall how much time you spent becoming familiar with each one.
My bet: If you spend as much time preparing material on a new subject as you did on an old one, I’m confident you will knock it out of the park when you present it.
Practice makes permanent
Rehearsing or practising the right method is the key to developing any skill. Whether it’s thinking a situation through or attending a dress rehearsal for a wedding, reviewing or reciting is the best way to prepare for any type of performance.
Strategy: Recall the three best performances of your life; chances are you put a high level of effort into practising or rehearsing for them.
My bet: If you use those three best performances as motivation to inspire you to practise public speaking, you will become a proficient speaker in record time.
Walk before you run
Developing any skill takes time. Don’t expect to become a great speaker who can command the attention of thousands at huge public events overnight.
Strategy: Look at any skill you’ve developed and remind yourself of and appreciate the road you traveled to master it.
My bet: If you apply the same steps to learning the art of public speaking that you have used successfully in the past, you will quickly realize it is no more difficult than developing your other skills.
These four points are concepts to help you look at public speaking differently. If you can change your mindset, then you have the foundation to attack your fear head-on.
The next step is to work your plan. Here are a few tactical suggestions:
- Pick up any book on public speaking. Almost all of them include the key elements to become a great speaker. One that I recommend is Everybody Communicates, Few Connect by John C. Maxwell.
- Observe other great speakers. Start to become consciously aware of what others do well and apply their techniques to your style.
- Start small. Take advantage of any opportunities to speak, from offering a toast at a family gathering to taking the lead in a company presentation. Slowly build to bigger audiences.
- Just do it.
I’m reminded of my marketing executive friend, Selda Uzunmehmetoglu. Selda immigrated to Canada from Turkey just over a decade ago. With a double dose of energy and a post-graduate diploma in marketing in hand, she was ready to take on the world. But struggling with English as a new language, her confidence was rocked when she went to job interviews or was forced to speak in front of groups of people.
However, all that changed when Selda decided to take action: “The thought of giving a speech makes me nervous even in my first language, so how was I going to do it in my second language? I decided to join Toastmasters.”
The experience paid huge dividends. Her career took off, and she is the first to help others seek to overcome their fear. “My advice would be find a Toastmasters club and start going to the meetings,” she says. “Toastmasters clubs are the friendliest environments to improve public speaking skills. My other advice is: Never think about what people would think of you when you make a speech. Focus instead on what you want to say to them.”
Make today the day you take the first step to crush your fear of public speaking. In no time at all, your list of top fears will be one item shorter.