“A little bit of stage fright, then I’m ready.” – Faith Hill
Fear of speaking before an audience plagues many of us. It certainly held me captive for a few years in my early business career. Yet, whether standing on stage to deliver an extemporaneous speech or before your boss and co-workers when you give a presentation, or in front of assembled family members or friends, the ability to get past stage fright is a useful skill to master. Here are some suggestions on how to overcome it.
Know the material.
It’s never going to benefit you to get in front of an audience and wing it. No matter how conversational you are in face-to-face casual interactions, there’s something inordinately intimidating and foreign about standing before a group (whether you know some or all the people or not) and starting to speak. That fear that chokes your words in the back of the throat? That’s stage fright. Indeed, fear of public speaking is more common than you might think.
Some years ago, I was the Western regional public relations manager for a major automaker. As such, I oversaw coordinating and carrying out new product press introductions, ride-and-drive events, auto show press activities, one-on-one interviews and much more. Regional press events always involved presentation experts, either a marketing and/or engineering specialist or sometimes a high-ranking executive from the home office.
As an aficionado of performance vehicles, I eagerly looked forward to the introduction of a new sedan from the brand. I devoured all the technical specs, various features, knew the genesis of design, the make’s history and details that spark media interest. As part of a multi-city ride-and-drive activity spanning several states, I would introduce the speakers and ensure things went smoothly throughout the event.
For the premier event in Los Angeles, I launched into my spiel while standing beside the sedan. Even though I hated speaking before an audience, even reporters I’ve known for a long time, I was so well-informed and enthusiastic about the car that the facts and pertinent information just flowed smoothly. I did have an outline, and one or two times I paused to remember the next point I needed to make. No one in the audience was the wiser and everything proceeded like it was planned.
The only downside was that when I introduced the engineer who was to speak next, he said he couldn’t have said it better and had nothing to add. He did, however, take 45 minutes of questions. Not wanting to upstage our presenters during subsequent stops on our press tour, I pared down my introductory remarks.
Bottom line: Know the material. It also helps to be enthusiastic.
In addition to knowing the material so that it’s right on the tip of your tongue, rehearsing your delivery is paramount. Again, it’s not recommended to just step out there and start talking without having practiced many times. Do this by yourself in front of a mirror to monitor your facial expression and body language and get a feel for when and how often to move. Yes, rehearsing movement on stage or at a podium is important. It shows that you’re comfortable in your skin and can relate to the audience.
Once you’re satisfied you can give your speech this way, practice in front of a friend, family member or co-worker. You need an audience so that you can get feedback on your delivery. It also helps to put the broad outline of your speech in bullet points on a 3×5 index card. Make sure to review it before the actual speech.
Envision the best outcome.
There is tremendous power in envisioning a positive outcome, whatever the situation or activity. Call it the power of positive thinking or seeing yourself as a success. When you frame the future in this way, you’re providing self-motivation and boosting self-confidence in the process.
Meditate before delivery.
If you have the time, go into a quiet room (even a closet or the bathroom) to close your eyes and engage in a brief mindful meditation. Allow your thoughts to come and go and focus only on the sound of your breath coming in and going out. This will relieve anxiety, tension and stress and help ready you for the next item on the agenda: your speech in front of the audience. Note that this technique works even if the audience is family or friends and you’re about to say something that may not be particularly pleasant or welcome. Overcoming reticence and fear in almost any situation requires a proactive approach. Brief meditation certainly helps.
Take deep breaths before speaking.
While it’s normal to feel butterflies in the pit of your stomach, there is a quick remedy to fix this queasiness. Take some deep breaths before you open your mouth to speak. Deep breathing – hopefully, accomplished when you’re off-stage or out of the sight of the audience – helps you calm your nerves and ratchet down stress.
See yourself as someone else.
This isn’t being fake. Rather, it’s a tried-and-true approach to quelling the fear of speaking in public. Think of yourself as an actor on stage playing a part. When you can separate yourself from the person speaking and adopt the inner persona of someone else, it’s not so intimidating to be out there on stage. If not an actor, be a fan, a product expert, a respected professional, an ardent consumer.
Depending on the situation and reason for your speech, you should expect interruptions. Someone may shout out a question or there may be an unexpected power shortage, or the room gets too hot or cold or there’s a sudden storm. Expect the unexpected and it won’t faze you.
Anticipate questions and be prepared to answer them.
In business situations, just as in media events, questions are the norm. As the speaker, you will be asked your opinion, to clarify a comment, add information, or to weigh in on some seemingly extraneous or irrelevant point of view. Going back to the first recommendation to know the material, once you’re comfortable with the information you’re providing, you should have the necessary answers. If not, say you’ll get them and provide them to the requestor in a reasonable amount of time. If the question is not pertinent to the event or is somehow inappropriate, graciously say that and move on to the next question.
It does get easier.
Another point that must be made is that it gets easier to be the speaker the more you do it. The key is always preparation. The more thorough you are in speech planning and rehearsal, the more likely you’ll be successful. Granted, you may still experience momentary stage fright, but you’ll have the tools to conquer it and accomplish your goal.