What distinguishes seasoned public speakers from the relatively inexperienced?
The veterans know the fear never goes away. They’ve also learned the first step to coping with — perhaps even conquering — fear is understanding what really motivates it.
Consider this question: What is the worst thing you believe will happen to you when you speak to an audience?
Think. The worst thing.
I pose this question to folks in my presentation skills clinics who tell me (and others) how much they dread public speaking. I ask them to probe their respective terrors.
Does anyone admit a fear of being shot or pelted with rocks or driven from the stage by sharp sticks?
It seems their fears are much more prosaic.
They fear their minds will go blank and they’ll forget what they were going to say next.
They fear not being able to think on their feet and respond intelligently if asked a difficult question.
They fear not making a good impression.
They fear they will fail. Nothing specific, mind you, just fail in some general sense.
These are real, tangible concerns among many people, certainly.
And each of them can be managed.
For instance, are you afraid of your mind going blank in the middle of your presentation? Here’s what you can do:
Learn to use notes. Not a script (pleeeze), but brief memory joggers, bullets, keywords. Write them on an index card that can be held discretely in the palm of your hand as you speak (no lectern required). There’s no shame in using a “cheater.” In fact, audiences will appreciate you for making the effort to stay on track and thus give them better value for their time.
Afraid of a tough question?
Preparation is the best antidote here. Make and take the time to anticipate and talk through the most difficult questions that could be asked about your topic.
This is a tool I often use in my media clinics to prep spokespersons for an interview. After all, it’s not the easy questions you worry about. It’s the hard ones. So spend your prep time there, systematically reviewing your ideas, your positions, your responses. Be your own worst tormentor and interrogate yourself brutally. Give yourself no quarter.
As you formulate your potential replies, rehearse them aloud. Get comfortable with your choice of words. Find a mirror and become aware of your physical mannerisms (defensively crossed arms or timidly hunched shoulders, perhaps?) as you deliver your response.
Do this and when tough questions do come up, you may just avoid that horribly surprised and frightened look on your face and proceed to speak with calm and persuasive confidence.
(By the way, never be afraid to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Your candor will mean more to your audience than you trying to fake it with obfuscation and doublespeak. The first answer says you lack the answers. The second says you don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s a difference.)
As for leaving a good impression, ultimately that’s not as much up to you as it is up to your audience. They decide how well you’ve done. What you can do to influence the outcome, however, is be ready to speak, be dressed appropriately, deliver your message with clarity and confidence, and above all, respect your audience’s needs and time. Certainly that’s not beyond your reach.
Remember your purpose in speaking is not about you, it’s about your audience and what they hope to learn from you.
Being afraid is not in itself a bad thing … unless you fail to be honest and specific about it with yourself. Confront your fears by identifying exactly what you’re afraid of. Put a face to the beast so you can look it in the eye. That single act alone may just be enough to drain away much of your anxiety as you prepare to manage your fear and give your audience the presentation they expect and deserve.