Get Over Your Fear of Public Speaking

Fear of public speaking got you in its grip? Try these tips, and become the talk of the town.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the March 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

The mind is a wonderful thing. It starts working the minute you're born and never stops until you get up to speak in public. -Anonymous

Most Americans rank public speaking as one of their greatest fears. Yet, for many small firms, the CEO's ability to get up before an audience and make a clear, concise, authoritative presentation can make a huge difference in the company's success.

That's why it's so important that you be able to tell your company's story effectively and to appear before others as a recognized expert in your industry.

But while you may be a whiz at informing, educating and persuading others one-on-one, even the most bright, personable and generally articulate people often have trouble giving a public presentation. This problem is not specific to any one industry: It's a universal occurrence.

Dozens of accomplished business professionals avoid appearing before an audience because they are insecure about doing it. That's as foolish as putting off a physical exam because you feel "fine." If entrepreneurs knew how much they could improve the health of their businesses by becoming effective public speakers, more of them would jump on the bandwagon.

Cultivating public speaking opportunities helps you promote yourself as an expert in your field. Speaking before business and civic groups is a natural starting point; offering free seminars is another excellent way to help build people's confidence in your company and earn public respect. Being interviewed, appearing on TV or radio talk shows, or speaking at a trade show or conference (even as a panel member) can have immeasurable value for your company. The key is to do it with style and impact. If you are successful as a public speaker, then most people will assume you are a successful businessperson, too.

Fine-tuning your public speaking skills will improve your performance in other areas, such as conducting meetings; making sales presentations; negotiating with bankers, clients or suppliers; and even socializing. Every time you speak with confidence, style and ease, you enhance the profile and visibility of your company, attract more business and generate credibility for yourself and your company.

Talk of the Town

If you need help improving your speaking ability, you have several options. Scores of books and manuals are available to help you develop your speaking ability. Just visit the business or self-improvement section of your bookstore or library. One of my favorites is Successful Presentations for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide) by Malcolm Kushner. It's easy to follow and very helpful.

If books aren't enough, consider joining an organization such as Toastmasters International. This group has been around for more than 70 years, and millions of people have become "overnight" orators by following Toastmasters' methods and curriculum.

Whatever method you choose to improve your speaking ability, the following tips will help you give the best possible talk:

  • Give yourself plenty of time to prepare. Too many people wait until the last minute to work on their speeches, and once they've finished writing their rough drafts, they have no time to edit and revise. As Mark Twain said, it usually takes about two weeks to put together a good extemporaneous speech.
  • Organize your thoughts. A good speech is built on an intriguing introduction, a substantive body and a memorable conclusion. No matter what the topic, these three elements make for a clear and understandable format. If you use generalized statements, be sure to follow them with specific examples and facts. Supporting your points with evidence, anecdotes and data strengthens your message and reinforces your position as an expert.
  • Be a ruthless editor. Most of us fall in love with our own words, and presentations easily get too long and complicated. Eliminate anything that is not truly necessary to make your talk more interesting. Technical explanations are usually wasted on an audience that isn't already knowledgeable in your area; even then, they can put a group to sleep quicker than slides of your last vacation. Keep sentences simple, work from an outline if possible, highlight key points, and make sure the type is large enough for you to read easily.
  • Know your audience. Knowing as much as possible about your audience enables you to tailor your comments and message to their needs. Once you know what the background, number, gender mix, level of experience and overall attitude of the audience is likely to be, you can create examples specifically for them. Understanding your audience helps you personalize your message, avoid sensitive topics and appeal to the most important issues on their minds.
  • Use nerves to your advantage. A bit of nervousness gets your adrenaline going and puts some extra punch in your presentation. But too much can sabotage your presentation. If stage fright paralyzes you, keep two things in mind: 1) The more you practice, the more confident and relaxed you will be. Knowing your subject (which is not the same thing as memorizing your speech) allows you to focus on delivery. 2) Realize you are bringing something of value to the audience. Often speakers get nervous because they think the audience won't like them. The fact is, most audience members want you to succeed-they're pulling for you because they know that if you're good, they'll benefit. Stop concentrating on "Will they like me?" and instead focus on "What will they gain from hearing me?"
  • Prepare and rehearse more than you think you need to. No matter how good you think you are, the reality is almost everyone could use more rehearsal. Go through your presentation at least six to eight times-first in front of an imaginary audience, then in front of a few people whose opinions and feedback you trust. If possible, videotape yourself giving your talk. Then look at the tape-once with the sound on so you can hear yourself, and once with the sound off so you can watch yourself. Pick up on vocal and visual weaknesses and strengths.
  • Do a voice check. Have someone help you assess your vocal quality and delivery. Is your pitch at a natural level? Do you use inflection to give variety to how you sound, or does the word "monotone" come to mind? Is your tone of voice friendly, warm and professional? Are your words well-enunciated and easy to understand (no mumbling or lazy diction like thinkin', talkin' or wantin')? Is your volume appropriate for the room and your rate of speech comfortable-not too fast or slow? Is there energy and life in your voice?
  • Do a body check. How do you look? Are you standing tall with your feet about shoulder-width apart? Do you look like a statue, stiff and rigid? Do you slouch, fidget or bounce around? Or are you relaxed, composed and seemingly in control? Are you dressed comfortably, in neat, well-fitting clothes, and impeccably groomed? Are your hands gesturing in ways that reinforce your message, or are they jammed in your pockets? Your hands should be naturally at your sides or held comfortably at your waist. When you gesture, do so upwardly and openly, and make sure the gesture is appropriate for your talk. Keep your eye contact distributed throughout the room.
  • Check out the site ahead of time. Arrive early so you have time to prepare and relax. This also gives you time to check out your equipment, the podium and microphone level, visual aids, the sound system and the lighting. Make sure a glass of water is nearby before you start your talk. Never just show up and wing it. Too often there are surprises that could sabotage your presentation.
  • Make the most of the podium. Don't hide behind it and read your script. We've all been bored by speakers who grip the podium, lean intently over their pages and never look up. Step to one side of the podium for a while, then back to the center; later, step to the other side. Moving in front of the podium is also an effective way to emphasize a point or relate more directly with the audience.
  • Watch your language. Use "we" and "you" frequently to make your talk seem like more of a dialogue. Don't talk down to your audience. Use stories and anecdotes to help get your message across. But never use off-color or otherwise inappropriate jokes, stories or language.
  • Be creative. Inject your personality into the speech; have some fun with it. Make your gestures and facial expressions a bit bolder than usual.
  • Anticipate questions, and think about your answers ahead of time. Repeat questions before you answer for those in the audience who may not have heard them.
  • Let the audience know where you're headed. The old saying "Tell them what you're going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them" applies here. Before you start, briefly tell the audience the key points you'll be covering, then be sure to recap at the end of your talk.
  • Remember why you're doing this. The goal of public speaking is to give something of benefit to the audience, to share information, to advance your company's position and, if possible, to entertain. So when it's your turn at the podium, pause a second, smile, look at someone in the audience you know, someone you met before the talk or someone who simply looks friendly, and take a deep breath.

As Harvey Mackay, author of Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, once said, "Speeches are like diamonds: No matter how much they seem to sparkle when they're lying on the table, they still need the right setting to bring out their beauty." Adding public speaking to your marketing strategy, with your fine-tuned delivery, will help add sparkle to your business in the coming year.

Leann Anderson is the owner of Anderson Business Resources, a Greeley, Colorado, company specializing in customer service, marketing and high-tech etiquette. E-mail her at


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