You know the feeling: dry mouth, racing heart, quivering voice, and a vocabulary that suddenly doesn't extend much beyond "umm." Dread of public speaking is the most common human fear, says Stefan Hofmann, director of the social anxiety program at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. "Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that at funerals, most people would rather be the one in the casket than the person giving the eulogy," he says. But seriously, folks: The paralyzing fear of talking in front of crowds derails plenty of careers. Here's how to get past it.
- Abandon childhood. Morty Lefkoe, a consultant who says he can purge a person's fear of speaking in hours, traces irrational behavior to beliefs we pick up in childhood. "We believe," he says, "that if we do a bad job, people won't like us." Nonsense. Such beliefs drive behavior — so once we identify the belief, it's easy to change how we act.
- Expose yourself. BU's Hofmann has a more daring suggestion: Get the most frightening public-speaking gig you can, then confront the beast. Do it again. "The best way to overcome a fear is to expose yourself to it as much as possible." If you're scared of snakes, you recoil the first time you touch one; by the hundredth time, it's no big deal.
- Get back to basics. For some oratory-phobes, the antidote is an organization such as Toastmasters International, whose members gather to speak to one another. Jon Greiner did that 32 years ago when starting out at Caterpillar Inc. Today, he's Toastmasters' president. "It's simple," he says. "Practice and preparation give you more confidence."
- Make mistakes. it's okay. "Look at Barbra Streisand," Hofmann says, alluding to the diva's gradual descent to stage fright. "She kept raising the bar, putting too much pressure on herself. Finally, her fear took on a life of its own." In other words, the higher you raise the stakes in your own mind, the harder time you'll have in front of a crowd.
- Self-medicate. Seriously. At the suggestion of a doctor friend, San Francisco physician Kim Newell got a prescription for a mild dose of beta blockers, which cause the heart to beat easier. That did the trick. "Sometimes if our body senses even a little fear," Newell says, "our fight-or-flight response can veer inappropriately out of control."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.