Are you frightened of public speaking?
If so, you’re not on your own. Surveys show that most people rate death lower than public speaking on the list of things they would rather avoid. Amazingly, that means that, at a funeral, much of the congregation would rather be in the box than standing out front giving the reading!
If the thought of giving a presentation makes you want to crawl into a foetal position, read on for some top tips to help you conquer your nerves, beat stage fright and send those mind-paralysing fears packing.
My first attempt at public speaking: OMG!
I remember my first attempt at giving a presentation. Many years ago as a rookie management trainee, I was asked to present in front of a panel of experienced managers who would assess me on my ability and offer some feedback.
I was petrified. I actually visited the GP and asked for a small bottle of Valium to get me through. Sensibly, he didn’t give me any and suggested I used breathing to calm myself down instead. At that moment I thought he was the worst doctor in the world and used the next two weeks to work myself into a real lather by imagining all the things that could go wrong and the many ways I might make a complete t*t of myself in front of my colleagues.
On the day, if somebody had given me a choice between losing a limb and standing giving the talk, I know the choice I would have made.
In the event, I got through it, but was poorly assessed and didn’t earn additional credits for standing up rather than sitting down, placing myself in front of the desk rather than behind it, or for using prompt cards rather than reading from a script.
My second attempt: Gulp!
Winding forward many years, as a new tutor at an adult education college, I found myself walking into a classroom to see half a dozen expectant faces all looking in my direction and waiting for me to speak.
My hands shook, my throat dried and my voice cracked. I got so hot I had to ask for someone to open a window. It’s fair to say I experienced the full range of fight or flight symptoms.
This went on for weeks until I approached a hypnotherapist colleague who taught me how to breathe my stress level down; taught me to visualise; how to use a ‘yes I can’ affirmation and told me the story of The Monster.
Sure enough, my personal monster got smaller and smaller until one day, I realised the nerves had gone. Speaking had become just something else I did.
I faked it ‘til I made it. I faked it ‘til I became it.
Just do it
Harvard based, social psychologist Amy Cuddy tells a similar tale. Her research on power poses clearly shows that our feelings affect our body language but, paradoxically, that our body language affects how we feel.
She suffered from extreme low self esteem as a result of a car crash that put her years behind with her schooling. She says:
‘Eventually I graduated from college. It took me four years longer than my peers, and I convinced someone, my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on, and so I ended up at Princeton, and I was like, I am not supposed to be here. I am an impostor.
And the night before my first-year talk, and the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people. That’s it. I was so afraid of being found out the next day that I called her and said, “I’m quitting.”
She was like, “You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you, and you’re staying. You’re going to stay, and this is what you’re going to do.
You are going to fake it. You’re going to do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You’re just going to do it and do it and do it, even if you’re terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing it.’
If, you too are struggling with your confidence in your own abilities, don’t be tempted to run away and hide from speaking in public. Try the following tips instead:
10 top tips to help you fake it ‘til you make it
#1 Prepare, prepare, prepare
The more you can prepare, the better you will be able to work with the material you’re presenting and the better the whole thing will go. Prepare your notes, your props, your venue and your PowerPoint. Be prepared, too, for any questions from your delegates.
#2 Practice, practice, practice
The general recommendation is to practice three hours for every one hour of presentation.
Legend has it that Winston Churchill practised one hour for every minute of his speech; so a three minute presentation would mean three hours practice. Stand up and give your presentation to family, friends, to the mirror, your pet or a row of cuddly toys. It doesn’t matter as long as you are saying the words and hearing your voice.
#3 Power pose
Amy Cuddy’s research shows that the mind and body operate in a feedback loop. Turns out, we smile when we are happy, yet the act of smiling also makes us happier. Adopting a power pose will produce the confidence-boosting endorphins and testosterone that will give your presentation the edge.
Five or ten minutes before the event, find yourself a quiet place, put your arms in the air, throw your head back and widen your stance. Stay in that pose for at least 2 minutes
#4 Positive affirmation
There’s nothing like some positive self talk to give you a boost. Yet, how many of us are giving headspace to niggling self-doubts and negative statements. The trouble is, when we talk to our self, we are actually listening.
So choose to say something to yourself which is positive, supportive and encouraging. Try ‘yes I can’ or ‘I can do this.’
#5 Parasympathetic breathing
When we breathe in, we use the sympathetic nervous system associated with fight or flight. Breathing out stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system associated with rest and digest.
Make sure your breathing pattern is that of a longer out breath than in breath. That way you tap into your innate relaxation response, allowing you to calm down
#6 Pick a number
Anything associated with numbers will connect you with your rational brain.
That, of course, is the hemisphere you want to engage to give your talk. Engaging the rational brain will also allow your emotional brain to settle down, as the two hemispheres cannot function well at the same time.
Try the 54321 technique. Think of 5 things you can see; 4 things you can hear; 3 things you can smell; 2 things you can touch and 1 thing you can taste.
#7 Positive mental rehearsal
Practise playing positive films in your head. When you’re comfortable and relaxed, visualise your presentation going well and the audience responding positively. Use positive mental rehearsal to form neural pathways in your brain which will ensure that, when you come to give the actual talk, your brain thinks you’ve done it many times before, and it’s always gone well, so why be nervous?
#8 Put pressure elsewhere
If you make your presentation interactive, you will feel much less pressurised as the focus of attention is not just on you.
It then becomes more like a conversation between you and the audience. That works well for your delegates too, who feel more included and are less likely to get bored.
#9 Professional feedback.
Make sure you keep improving by seeking feedback.
Better than asking people informally how they thought it went, ask them to write their feedback down, anonymously if necessary. Get them to scale elements such as presentation and content on a 1-10 and to suggest any thing that needs changing.
You don’t need to act on every single comment but, if a pattern appears and many people make the same observation, it’s worth making some changes.
Keep on keeping on.
In the spirit of ‘no failure, only feedback’, accept you won’t get it right first time. Fail your way to success by continuing to give talks whenever you can
Accept all invitations to speak, until public speaking becomes just another skill-set you have. You will certainly be the envy of all those who would rather ‘be in the box.’