Q: As a management consultant with a training background, I have no problem interacting and doing a 10-minute presentation when asked to do so in the networking group I belong to. I have a colleague, however, who is terrified to give a presentation about her business. She's great in one-on-one situations, but a long presentation paralyzes her. It's not the content of her presentation; it's the process of getting up in front of a group of people and speaking. What advice can you give to someone with this great fear?

A: In the many surveys I've seen over the years, people have ranked the fear of public speaking higher than the fear of dying! Standing and talking to an audience can be frightening, especially if it's for more than a couple minutes.

Here are five suggestions that I have for people who are nervous doing presentations at their networking groups:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Don't wing it! Prepare an outline of what you want to say and practice it.
  2. Be specific and talk about the things you know best. Don't try to teach people everything you do. Focus on no more than two or three areas of what you want them to learn about. Most importantly, cover the topics you feel you understand the best. This will reduce some of your stress
  3. Use handouts, visuals or PowerPoint slides to support your presentation. For people who are worried about stage fright, these props can help carry them through the talk.
  4. Remember, you're the expert. Think about ways that help show that and are not threatening for you.
  5. Be creative. Think of some way to communicate the information in a way you feel comfortable.

Many years ago in Business Network International (BNI, the networking organization I founded in 1985), I met a CPA who asked me if she absolutely had to do the 10-minute presentation that members did. I told her that everyone in the group needed to do them. She then informed me that in that case, she quit! As you might suspect, I was taken off guard with that and I asked her why. She told me that it took everything in her power to stand and do a brief 60-second presentation.

She then, in no uncertain terms, informed me that if she was required to speak for 10 minutes, she would have to quit because it was too stressful for her. I told her not to quit and that we wouldn't "make" her speak if she didn't want to. This seemed to alleviate some of her anxiety, and we continued talking. I told her that if she didn't do the presentation, it would eliminate an important opportunity to educate the members about what she did. She acknowledged that, but insisted that speaking was just too stressful for her.

I then changed my approach and asked her how she felt about giving a test. I asked her if she could come up with 10 true/false questions about the tax law and small business and asked if she could just read the questions and read the answers. She thought for a moment and said yes, she could do that easily enough--as long as she didn't have to do a speech. I said no problem, this would be informative and helpful to the members.

Well, the day she read the test was hysterical. About three questions into her test, she started becoming more and more animated. As the test went on, she went further and further off her written answers and responded to questions and discussions in a very professional, humorous and informative manner. After 15 minutes, the president running the meeting had to nudge her along to wrap it up because she was going over the allotted time. She was shocked! She had totally lost track of time and completely lost her fear because she wasn't doing a "speech," she was doing a "test."

The bottom line is this: You should do a presentation that you feel comfortable with. Think creatively about what you know and what you feel comfortable doing to express that knowledge. You'll discover that you don't have to pass up an opportunity to talk a little longer to the networking groups you belong to.

For additional information on this subject, I recommend taking a look at the many books and tapes that specifically talk about public speaking. In one of my books, Masters of Networking , there is an excellent contribution on the subject of public speaking in a networking context by Joe McBride (beginning on page 103). If you have this book, I recommend you read that section.