So what is it about speaking in front of a group of people that creates such anxiety? Why is it that people fear public speaking over death? It’s true! More people fear death, second only to speaking in front of a crowd. The answer is pretty simple, really. People are afraid of being judged, looking stupid, and feeling like a failure. How can we overcome this? Practice, practice, practice.
With Toastmasters International, I often explain to those wanting to become more confident public speakers, that getting comfortable speaking in front of groups is like learning to drive a car. At first, we are afraid to lessen our death grip off of the steering wheel and we feel that we are unprepared for the highway. Over time, we loosen our grip and become confident in our abilities to travel any road. Public speaking can progress like our driving journey, but it takes practice.
When I got behind the wheel the first time in drivers education, I had never been behind the wheel of a car. I hadn’t sat on my parents lap or been given “parking lot” instructions by a family member. I remember worrying about maneuvering the big hunk of metal around other vehicles and braking without giving my instructor whiplash. The freeway was scary. There were so many other cars, and they all made it look so easy! Why did I feel so out of control? The reason was that it was new and I hadn’t worked at it yet.
After battling the dreaded uphill start in a stick shift, turning down a one-way street, and taking a corner much faster than I should have because I hit the gas instead of the brake, I began to become comfortable and confident in my new learned ability. Similarly, my journey in public speaking was much the same. It takes practice to become comfortable with all of the different speaking situations, especially in business.
Within the business environment, many find speaking in front of groups even more challenging than speaking at church, a club, or in any other group environment. Why is this? People fear looking dumb in front of their business associates. They don’t want their business colleagues to look down on them or question their ability to do their job. There are many ways to begin to overcome this fear.
First, this is not a paid promotion for Toastmasters, but at the same time, I’d like to say that Toastmasters International is an excellent way to get over the fear of public speaking. Toastmaster clubs provide an encouraging, growth environment, focused on helping people overcome their fear of public speaking. Toastmasters International has over 300,000 members in 126 countries and has a mission to “empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.” Famous Toastmasters include: motivational speaker- Les Brown, actor/comedian- Tim Allen, and author of “Think and Grow Rich”- Napoleon Hill, just to name a few. Toastmaster clubs provide an excellent way, often during your lunch hour, to grow your speaking confidence.
So what tricks can you begin to employ immediately to “get behind the wheel?” I’d like to propose the following tips:
- They aren’t in their underwear- they are just people. For years, the “expert” advice was to picture you audience in their underwear. I don’t know about you, but I think that imagining some of the folks in my office in their underwear might make me more afraid of speaking than ever! Instead, realize that the group you are speaking to are the same people you spoke to about your weekend camping or the car you’d like to buy. Why is it that we lose our ability to have a conversation when we stand in front of a group of people? The folks in front of you are not there to judge you, you are having a conversation with them- although in a presentation, you might be somewhat monopolizing the conversation.
- Involve you audience- one of the best ways to make your presentation feel more conversational is to involve your audience. In addition, involving the audience helps you to connect with your audience, keeping them engaged. Ask questions. Stop and tell a funny story by saying, “Is it just me, or has anyone experienced…..? “
- Be comfortable- If you know you will be speaking to a group, make sure you dress for success, not dress to impress. A successful outfit is one that helps you feel confident, that you are comfortable in, but not over or underdressed- and it is well fit. When you are self-conscious of what you are wearing, how you styled your hair, etc., this will add to your anxiety.
- Don’t stare over their heads- Have you ever seen this tactic? If there isn’t anything more distracting than someone who can’t look at you while speaking, it’s someone looking over your head. You immediately think, what are they looking at? Again, think about having a conversation, move your eyes from person to person without locking on and this will become as easy as glancing in the rear or side view mirrors from time to time. A helpful tip is to employ the “thinking glance.” It goes something like this in a presentation:You put your hand to your chin in a thinking or contemplating gesture, glance slightly up or to the back wall of the room and make a statement like, “As I was thinking about how to better reach this market segment…” This helps release you from feeling pressured to continually scan the eyes of your audience. When your eyes return to the group, they have been “wondering” with you, as your disconnection of eye-contact made them do the same.
- Prepare- Most of our speaking anxiety is because we don’t feel prepared, so prepare! Write an outline of the main points you want to speak on. If you write out a speech and have to memorize it, not only will you stress yourself out, but chances are that you will lose your place, forget an important piece, and it will throw you off, making you even more nervous. I like to practice out loud in the mirror. It helps me take notice of any awkward facial or hand gestures that I may make while speaking. Keep in mind, if you skip over something, you can come back- and guess what?! Your audience won’t know that you messed up because they don’t know your presentation.Speaking in front of a group does not have to be so formidable. With practice, overtime it becomes easier. I also must tell you that the butterflies in your stomach, may never go away, because they are your energy bubbling to get out. Don’t crush your energy, channel it and use it in a positive way to share with your audience your message. Soon, you will hop in your car and wonder what were you so freaked out about.