“I’m about to give a presentation…and I’m so nervous!”
That’s how Sara Blakely starts a recent Instagram post. That sentiment, coming from the successful billionaire founder of shapewear brand Spanx, one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” and Forbes “most powerful women in the world”, feels refreshingly authentic. If Sara Blakely gets pre-presentation jitters, then it makes sense that we do too.
Why Is Public Speaking So Difficult?
The fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders and heights. It’s now considered a social anxiety disorder by the American Psychiatric Association and is referred to as Public Speaking Anxiety (PSA) or glossophobia. Statistics about the condition’s prevalence abound with experts suggesting that nearly 75% of our population is affected.
But we speak all day long. On calls, on Zooms and in our colleagues’ offices. Why then does standing solo before a group feel so different?
The same complex bodily response that protects us from danger – the fight or flight response – is at the root of public speaking anxiety. When we are stressed, our body releases stress hormones that shut down the part of the brain responsible for memory. Next thing you know, your mind “goes blank” and you forget that witty opening line you’d practiced so many times.
We expect perfection.
It’s common for public speakers to focus too much on the act of presenting rather than on what is being presented. And we worry that we’ll be judged, and a bad performance may negatively affect our image or credibility.
We let Impostor Syndrome creep in.
We worry that we may not be up to the task, especially when presenting to people more senior. We may question if we actually have what it takes to sufficiently educate our audience.
We simply lack the skills.
The majority of people simply do not feel “at home” on stage. Fortunately, effective public speaking is a skill that can be achieved through preparation and practice.
Mastering the Art of Public Speaking
“One of the things that I do before I present, and have been doing for a really long time, is I connect with nature. I feel really insignificant and then it helps dissipate my fear.” This is a great example of a personal strategy that helps Blakely quiet her mind. Here are a few other useful tips.
Preview your venue.
Do a test run in advance of your presentation so there will be no surprises that may trigger those stress hormones. If you’ll be sitting on a stage, pull the chairs close to the front to make a more intimate connection with the audience. Take a look at the height of the chairs; that may impact your outfit choice.
If you’ll be standing, consider getting rid of the podium; it creates a barrier between you and the audience. Decide if there is room to move around the stage. If there is, familiarize yourself with the lighting and choreograph some movements.
Master your content.
Really understanding your material, and the goal of your presentation, will help alleviate nerves. But don’t memorize your talk. It will sound too instructive and, if you forget a word or line, or get an unexpected reaction from the audience, you may get flustered. Try recording yourself several times giving the presentation; it will be helpful to see yourself the way the audience will see you.
Remember, less is more.
Of course you have mountains of knowledge to share with your audience – you’re the expert. But remember, most people can focus for only 20 minutes at a time and can remember just three points at most. So, be judicious in choosing your content.
Get creative with your introduction.
That opening line is the hardest; all eyes are on you, and you haven’t yet established a connection with your audience. Try asking a rhetorical question or taking a poll of the audience – this turns the attention away from you.
Strike a power pose.
Before you go on stage, remind yourself how capable you are. Put your arms up high and wide and hold that for a minute. It does wonders for your confidence.
Learn to control your breathing.
If you find your heart racing before you hit the stage, or even while you’re out there, it’s helpful to have some breathing techniques prepared. It’s best to practice techniques like these in times of low stress, before you actually need them. One method I like is to breathe in for three counts, hold your breath for 3 counts and exhale for three counts.
Your goal with any presentation is to teach, not preach. You want to impart your knowledge in a way that’s memorable. An easy way to do this is by including stories in your presentation. Listeners are 22 times more likely to remember something when it’s woven into a story.
Stack the audience.
Get a colleague or friend to sit in the audience where you can see them. Establish a support signal, like a nod, a smile, or a thumbs up. If the nerves begin to creep in just look for that small gesture of support. And even if you’re in a room full of strangers, make deliberate eye contact with a friendly face – it will build your confidence and slow your pace.
If you do lose your train of thought, or have a momentary brain freeze, let it go. Dwelling on the negative will only cause more stress, which will negatively impact the remainder of your presentation. Remember, people aren’t there to judge you; they’re there to learn.
Avoidance most certainly reinforces fear. Repeatedly saying no to public speaking opportunities may hinder your ability to grow your personal brand, establish yourself as a thought leader or climb the corporate ladder. Sara Blakely puts it all in perspective. “Even though I give speeches all the time, I still get scared. The only way to build courage is to feel the fear and do it anyway. You got this!”
Jane Hanson, Bentley Lewis Advisor
Learn more about Bentley Lewis