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Conquering Stage Fright

Use these tips to help you deliver your next presentation with confidence.
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illustration public speaking wolves

Don't be afraid you are getting "thrown to the wolves" when you engage in public speaking.

Chances are that at some point in your career, you’ll be asked to deliver a speech or presentation. Whether it’s a workshop for local horse owners, a guest appearance in a college classroom or a keynote address at a national convention, it’s an invitation worth accepting. Speaking in public provides opportunities to meet new clients, share critical information, forge relationships with other industry professionals and raise your profile as a subject matter expert.

For some, an invitation to speak is exhilarating. These individuals have a natural comfort speaking in front of an audience and exude confidence and charisma. Others loathe the idea of standing in front of a crowd. If you’re one of those individuals whose palms start sweating or heart starts racing at the mere mention of “speaking engagement,” don’t let stage fright dissuade you from accepting.

Lauren Dixon, co-founder and chief executive officer of Dixon Schwabl Advertising, has advice for overcoming your fear of speaking in public. She started her career as an on-air reporter, anchor and co-host of a nationally syndicated program. Today, as part of her agency, she coaches clients through the public speaking process.

In the article that follows, she offers several tips that can help you deliver a successful presentation and feel more comfortable during the experience.

Fear of Failure

The fear of failure often creates the most anxiety. The possibility of a technical glitch or a forgotten word is terrifying. At large events, a tech expert will be in charge of fixing a microphone battery or projector malfunction, so you can leave the worrying to that person.

With regard to a forgotten word, Dixon said that at some point, this happens to everybody—even seasoned speakers. It’s the way you react that makes the difference. Depending on the topic and the audience, it might even go unnoticed; so there is no need to draw attention to it.

When the skipped word or sentence is obvious, Dixon recommended seizing the opportunity to connect with the audience.

“It’s okay to admit that you’ve lost your train of thought,” she said. “I’ll say that I’m having a 50-something moment. It makes me human. The audience isn’t thinking I’m a bad speaker; they’re thinking ‘Gosh, that’s happened to me.’ ”

Practice Makes Perfect

Being prepared is the most effective antidote for stage fright. When you know your topic inside and out, you will speak more naturally and confidently. This is likely the “easy” portion of the process, since you’ll probably be talking about a topic in which you’re well versed and passionate.

Developing a similar level of comfort with the actual speech is equally important. To accomplish this, Dixon recommended writing the entire speech down, word for word. Once written, she said it’s important to read over the script aloud about a dozen times.

“This way, you’re really familiar with the content,” she said.

When Dixon is preparing for a speech, she creates bulleted lists of information from the speech on a set of cards so that she can refer to the abbreviated notes as needed. “For people who aren’t comfortable speaking extemporaneously, keep the full script with you,” she said.

Once the speech is written and rehearsed, she suggested practicing in front of a video camera. This provides an opportunity to present in front of “an audience” and allows for a critique of delivery style.

“I’ve had clients think they are expressing a lot of emotion, but when they watch themselves, they realize they are not being expressive at all,” she said.

Part of the preparation process is becoming comfortable about making eye contact with the audience, and incorporating your natural hand gestures and voice inflections.

“Think about how you use gestures with your friends and family, and try to incorporate those into the delivery of your speech,” she said. “Be careful not to go over the top or force the gestures.”

Becoming a better speaker is similar to learning a new hobby: The more often you practice the talk, the more comfortable you’ll feel doing it.

When Dixon taught a college public speaking course, she marveled at the students’ transformation from timid participants to eager volunteers. The students who shook from nerves at the beginning of the semester were often the ones shooting their hands in the air at the end of the course, requesting to present first.

“The more often you do it, the better you become—and you may even discover that you love doing it,” she said.

Volunteering to be the first speaker isn’t just a good tactic for those who love speaking; it is another way to control feelings of nervousness. “Embrace your fear and go for it,” Dixon said. “The more time you have to sit and think about it, the more nervous you’ll be.”

Presentation Design

The presentation format can also be used to your advantage. Dixon explained that when she structures a speech, she creates a format that is interactive and engages the audience. A varied format limits the total amount of time you’ll be the only one talking.

For example, she opens with five minutes of talking to the audience. She follows that up with an interactive exchange, potentially a question-and-answer session.

Next, she moves into a short segment of talking, which might be followed by a video clip to emphasize a point she has already made or to introduce a new concept. After the video, she returns to speaking.

Depending on the audience and the topic, she might ask the audience to break into small groups for a discussion. The group is then brought back, and she concludes with a wrap-up. She always leaves time for questions and answers.

“Our average attention span is 1.5 seconds because of all of the technology today,” she said. “I try not to give a ‘talking head,’ one-hour presentation, since I know most people’s attention spans don’t last that long.”

Breaking the speech into smaller segments with varied formats can also help relieve the pressure of feeling like you need to talk for the entire session without input from attendees.

Study other good speakers and observe how they structure their presentations. She recommended watching Shawn Achor’s TED Talk “The happy secret to work better.” He is an animated speaker and embraces that in his presentation.

“Pick up what is genuine for you,” she said.

Participating in a panel discussion is another alternative to delivering a straight speech. Dixon said that when you’re invited to speak, you might have an opportunity to propose a panel if you’re uncomfortable presenting alone. Ask the event organizer whether he or she is open to considering a panel discussion, and be ready to offer recommendations for other panelists. You might also point out how the approach can enhance the topic being discussed.

“Panel discussions are often easier than speaking solo, because they give you an opportunity to glance down and look at your notes while another panelist is speaking,” she said.

When you’re asked to speak on a specific topic, you might know other experts with different perspectives from yours or a specialized expertise on a specific subset of the broader topic. “

Sometimes disagreement between panelists can be good, depending on the topic—and that discussion can offer a different perspective compared to a talk delivered by one person,” she said.

Don’t Fight the Fright

Nervousness is common for both seasoned professionals and first-time presenters. Even experienced public speakers are still likely to experience “butterflies” before taking the stage to speak.

Early in her career, Dixon worked as a news anchor alongside Don Alhart, a wellknown news anchor. One day, she confessed how nervous she was. He looked at her and told her that even though he was several years into his career, he still felt butterflies before going on air.

“I think it’s kind of healthy, and don’t think that it’s a bad thing to be on edge. That energy may contribute to you giving the best speech of your life,” she said.

Take-Home Message

Expect and accept that you’ll feel nervous at the beginning of every presentation. The more you fight the feeling, the more anxiety you’ll feel—making it difficult to focus on what you want to say. Instead of succumbing to the nerves, Dixon suggested channeling the energy to help you feel calmer.

“The next time you head to the front of a crowd, take 10 to 20 deep breaths in and out,” she said. “You’ll feel more relaxed and energized.”

Be present in the moment and focus on the task at hand. Once you get into the groove, your nerves will begin to dissipate.