For many people, public speaking tops their list of fears. And those fears can lead to unsettling experiences. Some speakers report that their body is failing them. They lack the breath they need; their voice quivers; their arms become clamped in a self-protective position; their ankles tremble. People tell me their minds go blank when they are on stage.
The answer to such fears is not to shun the stage. After all, the visibility you have can enhance your career and give you a profile you wouldn’t have if you remained in the audience, applauding others. When someone tells you, “that was a great speech,” they really mean you were great–confident, clear, compelling. So don’t miss out on this opportunity to have your voice heard.
I know this from personal experience that it’s possible to develop confidence on stage. I went from being a painfully shy young woman who felt no one listened to me–to being the head of a public-speaking firm that teaches others to speak on stage. The transformation all started when I began playing the violin at the age of 12. After graduate school I became a university instructor, lecturing several times a week to large groups. And for the past 25 years I was president of a company–The Humphrey Group–that teaches leaders all over the world how to speak. I regularly speak on the corporate “stage” and just this year I have given 30 keynote events to publicize my new book, Taking The Stage.
These are the four ways I managed to overcome my fear of public speaking.
Acceptance of a problem is the beginning of a solution. Some people might find reasons not to give a speech or even speak up at meetings. But examine those excuses. Ask yourself where they come from. Often it’s that you are afraid to speak up. Once you realize that source of discomfort is not in the audience or anyone else’s judgments but inside you, you can take charge of it. You can say to yourself: “I am going to face my fear . . . and give that speech even though I’m nervous.”
Was I nervous when I played my violin to audiences as a teenager? Absolutely. I rarely remember a time when I didn’t have the butterflies. Was I nervous when I went on stage as a university lecturer in front of hundreds of undergrads? Absolutely. But I did it anyway, knowing that I was afraid. This same pattern continued even when I became head of a firm that teaches executives to speak. The confidence I now have on stage has come from facing my fear head on and accepting that giving speeches may not feel great–but I need to do it anyway.
Fear can be your enemy, but it can also be your friend. Why? Because the butterflies can lead you to prepare well.
If you dread standing in front of an audience, yet know you’re going to have to do it anyway, then why not use that anxiety to drive you to greater heights? Begin your preparation earlier than your more confident colleagues might. Create draft after draft . . . each time building greater confidence in what you are going to say.
Put time into practicing, too. Most people don’t rehearse enough. You don’t have a coach? Then practice yourself, or ask one of your kids to listen to you. Saying it out loud will prepare you well for that live audience. I prepare and rehearse obsessively. I wrote 14 drafts of a speech in which I was accepting an award for entrepreneurship and I rehearsed it again and again. It was only a 5-minute speech, but I wanted to make sure I knew how I would express each word.
Once on stage, stay focused on what you are saying and on the importance of your message to your audience. This will ground you and keep you connected not only to your ideas but to your audience. When I played my violin, I felt the beauty of the sound and the cadence of the piece. When I lectured as a university teacher, I kept thinking how important my lecture was to my students. And when I speak to business audiences, I concentrate on the value I am providing to each member of the audience.
In staying focused on the positive aspects of your remarks, you will not be undone by the guy who is checking his smartphone, or the individual in the back of the room who seems to be falling asleep. Instead, you will connect with those listeners who are gaining great value from your remarks.
Staying focused will also strengthen your delivery. I am told I speak with a warm intensity. That style comes from grounding myself in the text. If I have fears–and what good speaker doesn’t–I let the stronger, more positive thoughts about what I’m saying overpower those fears.
When your performance is over, claim the glory. Congratulate yourself for your bravery, for taking the stage, and for building your skills in the only way you can–by getting out there on stage and speaking to live audiences. Don’t focus on the things you didn’t do. Focus on the boldness and accomplishment you demonstrated. As one of my clients told me, “I was proud that I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. My brothers, who are in the media, could have done it more easily. But I did it, and spoke well. Only the choir behind me saw that my ankles were shaking.” This sense of accomplishment will inspire you to accept still another speaking opportunity.
These four tips can make you a confident speaker. As you practice these techniques you will get better and better. I know–I’ve built my career on taking the stage. Perhaps that very fear that I had as a young person–a fear that would make me blush even in one-on-one encounters–led me to perfect my stage presence, build a company that teaches leaders how to speak, and create a career path that has exceeded my expectations.