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Making Public Speaking a Breeze

By Deanne Repich

Did you know that public speaking is the number one fear in America? Surveys show that people fear public speaking more than anything else -- even more than they fear death! When asked why they fear public speaking, most people say that they fear humiliation, embarrassment or judgment from others. In a nutshell, they fear rejection.

Why is the fear of humiliation and embarrassment so strong? For most of us the idea of speaking in public triggers childhood memories of embarrassing times when we were made fun of and rejected by other kids in school.

Picture this: One morning Jimmy decides to wear his new red outfit to school. Jimmy feels on top of the world as he walks to school in the new outfit. The moment Jimmy reaches the school door a kid from the "popular" group points at Jimmy. He says: "Look at Jimmy's pants! That's a sissy color. Jimmy's a sissy! Ha ha!" The "popular" group laughs. Although Jimmy puts up a good front and laughs it off, on the inside he feels crushed and humiliated.

Here's another scene that plays out in countless schools. The teacher asks a question. Magda's positive she knows the correct answer. She enthusiastically waves her arm, practically jumping out of her seat because she's so excited. Finally the teacher calls on her. Magda gives her brilliant answer -- and guess what happens? The teacher says: "No, that's not the answer I was looking for." The room bursts into laughter. Magda shrinks back in her seat, hoping that the further down she slouches, the more invisible she'll become.

Each of us has experienced embarrassment and rejection similar to Jimmy and Magda's. We carry these feelings of rejection with us as baggage when it comes time to give a speech or presentation. The size of the audience doesn't matter. Whether it's an audience of one or one thousand, we still fear being rejected.

There are hundreds of public speaking tips that can help you take a bite out of your fear of public speaking and make it a more enjoyable experience. Here I describe a few...

Empower your nonverbal communication.
Approximately ninety percent of our communication with others is nonverbal. Your presentation begins the moment you walk into a room. Even before you start speaking, the audience forms a lasting impression of you from your nonverbal communication.

How you present yourself -- your gestures, posture, and facial cues -- speaks much louder than your words. When your nonverbal communication portrays confidence, you capture the audience's attention and it becomes receptive to your message. Nine times out of ten the audience won't remember more than a few things that you say during a presentation. What people remember most is the overall impression of confidence or lack of confidence you portray.

Since nonverbal communication is so important it makes sense to improve how you present yourself, doesn't it? Here's how:

Pick a person you know, public figure, or celebrity that you admire for the confident way they carry themselves. Make a written list of each of the ways they communicate confidence through their nonverbal communication. For example, they might smile, laugh, stand tall, use gestures that portray passion, and display an attitude of self-assurance.

Select three or four items from the list and practice them in a mirror until they start to look natural. Practice moving confidently using the nonverbal cues of the person you admire as you go about your day and during your presentation. Notice how much more confident you feel!

You can "fake it until you make it" with nonverbal communication. Scientific research indicates that the body and mind are deeply interconnected. Moving confidently physiologically creates the confidence you seek.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!
One of the best remedies for anxiety before public speaking is to be very well prepared. Practice the presentation well in advance by doing the following things:

  • Visualize yourself successfully handling different parts of the presentation. Here are some key images to visualize: addressing any nervousness before the presentation; entering the room confidently; the beginning, middle, and end of the presentation; continuing after a mistake or pause; and answering audience questions.

    Make the visualizations vivid and intense. Visualize the details of your clothing, the faces in the audience, the smell of the room, and so on.

    After you visualize yourself successfully handling each situation, then practice each one live at home so that your body gets used to how each situation feels.

  • Memorize the first thirty to sixty seconds of your presentation. The first minute is the most memorable part of your presentation. It's that golden moment during which you either capture the audience's attention, or bore them.

    In addition to the words, practice how you'll walk, gesture, stand, and smile during that first minute. Spend quite a bit of time on this. Remember, nonverbal communication is ninety percent of effective communication!

    Also, memorize the last thirty to sixty seconds of your presentation. After the introduction, the conclusion is what your audience will remember most.

    Although it's a good idea to memorize your introduction and conclusion, avoid memorizing the entire presentation or reading your presentation to your audience. Your audience will thank you for it! Instead, write down a few keywords or phrases on an index card that you can refer to during the speech to help remind you of your main points.

  • Practice your presentation in front of a mirror, varying your practice and preparing for distractions. Watching yourself as you speak makes you aware of unhelpful nonverbal communication (e.g. fidgets, slouches, frowns) so that you can change it.

    To help you prepare for the unexpected, which WILL occur, vary your practice. Start at different points in the presentation (e.g. the beginning, a quarter of the way through, half-way through, and three-quarters of the way through). Varying your practice teaches you how to jump back into your presentation easily even after distractions, questions, or interruptions. Because the majority of people only practice from start to finish, they are left tongue-tied when a question, or other distraction gets their presentation off track. You won't have this problem when you vary your practice.

    Another way to prepare yourself is to intentionally use distractions while you practice. Play the radio, or have a friend ring the doorbell several times during your speech so that you get used to confidently maintaining focus no matter what comes your way. After all, distractions WILL occur, so why not prepare for them?

  • Record your presentation on a tape recorder -- or better yet, a videotape. A videotape is even better than a tape recorder because you can see your verbal AND nonverbal communication. After recording your practice, play the video, observe yourself objectively, and make improvements!

  • Give your presentation to a live "test" audience after you've practiced it solo several times. Your test audience can be a supportive friend, spouse, neighbor, or even the family dog! Ask for comments afterwards and incorporate what you feel is constructive feedback.

    If possible, do a dress rehearsal the day before the presentation. Duplicate the presentation environment as closely as possible. Use the same room, overhead equipment, handouts, and so on that you'll use during the actual presentation. Ask a friend or colleague to be your audience.

Do you have a presentation coming up? Work on empowering your nonverbal communication and prepare thoroughly. Like most skills, the more you practice, the better you'll get!

Deanne Repich is the Director of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc., a former anxiety sufferer, and creator of the "Conquer Your Anxiety Success Program." The course is a 'take-action' self-study program that guides you step by step through over seventy practical strategies for overcoming anxiety.

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