Studies have shown that on a list of things they fear most, many people place public speaking ahead of dying If this fear isn’t managed effectively it’s apt to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To properly manage the fear of public speaking, you must first understand that it is just classic stage fright. The truth is that most of what you’re worried about is imaginary, and even what’s real is likely being blown out of all proportion.
The fact you were asked to give this presentation means that someone thinks you’re the right person for it. Stop worrying about what might go wrong and start to think instead about how you can best prepare and deliver this speech. Although it’s true that continued bad performances at the lectern can damage a career, a sub-par performance or two, particularly early in your career as a public speaker, certainly will not. You’re not putting your life on the line in a half-hour speech.
Managing the fear of public speaking requires the right attitude, which, in this context, begins with believing that you’re going to do just fine. You have to constantly remind yourself that you’re the right person to make this presentation. This may mean giving yourself a few mental pep talks during preparation, and again during the time between leaving home in the morning and arriving at the podium on the day of the presentation.
Think about all the times you’ve approached challenges with a feeling of trepidation and you’ll find that you’ve almost always, if not always, surpassed your expectations. Giving a speech is not going to be any different.
Speaking of expectations, most people’s concern about giving a speech stems from their own expectations, not the expectations of the audience; which, incidentally, are usually a lot lower than yours, particularly in the early stages of your career as a public speaker. Learning to do anything well takes time and effort. No one would expect to play like Oscar Peterson the first time they sit down at a piano, yet many people think they should be able to speak as well as Winston Churchill the first time they stand at a lectern. All speakers, even the most accomplished you’ve ever heard, have had to overcome some level of fear.
Positive visualization exercises are wonderful for managing the fear of public speaking. Picture yourself having a really good time giving the talk. See yourself as relaxed and smiling. Keep in mind that the audience wants you to succeed. They completely sympathize with you because they have the same fear of speaking in public as do you.
The greatest weapon against fear, though, is preparation. Plan and know your opening (the first minute or two) so well that you can be confident that you can get through it no matter how nervous you feel. Getting through the first few sentences will have an unbelievably settling effect on you.
If you’re still very worried about your talk, set aside an hour or so to do nothing but worry about it. Make a list of all the things that could possibly go wrong. But instead of sitting and fretting about them, consider what the odds are on them happening. You’ll quickly realize that most of the things you think could go wrong probably won’t, so why worry about them? But don’t stop there. Ask yourself what you’ll do if something does go awry. Then plan how you can best prevent that from happening. At this point it’s probably a good idea to throw away the list. Of course, if another appointment with yourself is required you need to make a new list. Try this and I guarantee you will get much more comfortable about the speech; even if it takes two or three appointments with yourself to get to that stage. An extremely important by-product of this technique is that when on that rare occasion when one of the things you were worrying about actually does happen, you will, in effect, have rehearsed and prepared how to handle it.
Physical movement helps offset fear. While sitting at the head table or in the audience waiting your turn, and particularly as your time comes near, there are a few physical things you can do to help alleviate nervousness without making a fool of yourself. You can take some deep breaths. You can clench and unclench your fists (but don't get caught wringing your hands; that always sends a bad signal to the audience). You can squeeze your knees together. You can wiggle your toes.
Once you begin to speak, just concentrate on what you’re saying and forget about the butterflies in your stomach, weak knees, clammy hands, or a tight, dry throat. These feelings are so natural that if you don’t have at least a mild case of them you’ll probably not give your best performance. Even elite athletes and race horses get keyed up before an event. You’re no different.
Spend your time preparing rather than fretting, concentrate on your message and how you want to deliver it, think about what you want the audience to learn from your remarks, and stop worrying about yourself. You’ll do just fine.