Public speaking rule #1: have no fear; workplace presentations are as common as computers. Here’s how to master your nerves so you can be at your best

Public speaking rule #1: have no fear; workplace presentations are as common as computers. Here’s how to master your nerves so you can be at your best – includes related articles on tips and organizations on public speaking

Dawn M. Baskerville

Workplace presentations are as common as computers. Here’s how to master your nerves so you can be at your best.

ONE-ON-ONE OR BEFORE AN AUDITORIUM 80 ROWS DEEP, Otis Williams jr. seems the embodiment of self-confidence. Whether the entrepreneur is called on to speak off the cuff or fully prepped before bright lights and flashing cameras, he is clear, composed and captivating. Those qualities earned him the title, 1993 World Champion of Public Speaking, from Toastmasters International, a Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based group devoted to developing successful speakers.

Williams has mastered a skill that poses the ultimate challenge for many professionals today–from the most introverted tech wizard to the most dynamic CEO. That challenge has less to do with writing a speech or dressing the part than it does with conquering a paralyzing, boldfaced fear.

Marie T. Smith knows that fear all too well. Now a service director for United Airlines at New York’s JFK International Airport, she was drawn to the airline’s ad for customer service representatives 15 years ago. Her attraction was rooted in free travel perks, flexible hours and the promise of upward mobility. But, since the latter required boardroom presentations to management, promotions her first unsuccessful attempt in 1981, Smith says, “I was so terrified of making that presentation, I made myself into a nervous wreck.” Although she prepared rigorously for it, she says, “Once I got in that room, everything I’d rehearsed went out the window.” She stammered, blanked out and responded pitifully to questions. In short, Smith says, “I blew it.”

That was 13 years ago. Through training, Smith got over her fears and has since been promoted–several times. Still, she laments, “It took too many years and countless missed opportunities to get me here.”

Today, professionals can ill afford such lag time. More than ever, public speaking–from presenting a status report to a small team to making a sales pitch before a packed room of potential investors–is necessary skill. Across industries and in companies large and small, being able to convey crucial information credibly and convincingly before groups of all sizes has become as fundamental a job requirement as computer literacy. And being truly adept at it can propel you forward because public speaking gives you a visibility seldom achieved by sterling work alone.

“The people who are getting promoted are not necessarily those who are smarter or know more, it’s those who are perceived as knowing more,” says Ivory Dorsey, whose Atlanta-based firm, Golden Eagle Business Services Inc., has trained employees of BellSouth Corp., Georgia Power Corp. and others in the art of powerful presentation. In getting ahead, says Dorsey, “It’s not what you know or who you know. It’s who knows you.” Thus, being a shrinking violet not only can hold you back but even sabotage your career. And that goes for everyone, from the most introverted “tekkie” to the chairman of the board. Unfortunately, both are equally susceptible to one sure-fire confidence killer: Fear.

In a survey of common phobias, published in The Book of Lists, the fear of public speaking sits squarely at the top, a notch above the fear of death. Combined with the growing corporate value placed on good speakers, the prevalence of this fear has spawned a great business opportunity. “The demand for training in this area has just been incredible,” attests Rick Gilbert, president of Frederick Gilbert Associates Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. Gilbert’s firm has coached some 10,000 executives during its nine-year existence.

The fearfuls’ anguish runs the gamut from mild nervousness–the old “butterflies in the stomach” syndrome–to fullblown panic. As with most fears, no matter, how common, people feel as if no one can empathize. They couldn’t be more wrong, says Dorsey, a powerful professional speaker who admits she still says a prayer before each of her presentations. “No one in their right mind is going to stand in front of a group of intelligent people and not be afraid,” she says. “What you have to understand is that fear can mobilize, rather than paralyze. You have to feel the fear and go ahead and do it anyway.”

Here are some practical techniques that can help you do just that.

Before anything, zero in on your goal. “Do you want to inform, entertain, inspire or persuade?” asks Williams, founder of Otis Williams Limitless, a professional development and training firm in Cincinnati. “Begin with the end in mind by deciding what action, if any, you want your audience to take after listening to you. Then, tailor your speech to elicit that response,” he advises.

Toastmasters’ 1992 World Champion Dana LaMon, an administrative law judge in Lancaster, Calif., has learned to package his presentations so his message is easy for listeners to carry away with them. Most successful speakers do this by following a basic formula: Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them. This helps establish organization and continuity.

Be prepared. For many, speaking, before people is a totally unfamiliar experience. Others fret over being challenged with an unexpected question. A common fear, though, is “that of making a mistake and looking foolish,” says Odette Pollar, president of Time Management Systems, an Oakland, Calif.-based consulting and training firm.

“Contrary to popular belief, people don’t expect you to fail,” Dorsey insists. “They expect you to know what you’re talking about and to succeed. So be prepared–foremost.” That means fully researching your subject, your audience and the nature of the gathering as well as anticipating things that might undermine an otherwise flawless pitch.

Lenora Billings-Harris, president of Excel Development Systems Inc., a Chandler, Ariz.-based speaker and trainer, has found such preparation to be crucial. As a diversity expert, it’s not unusual for Billings-Harris to have reluctant participants in her seminars. In a recent session, one participant sat up front and A as extremely disruptive. “I knew he had a problem with being there and might convert the rest of the group if I let him get away with it,” she recalls.

In a calm voice, Billings-Harris acknowledged the man’s displeasure and assured him that she wouldn’t do anything in the seminar to compound it. She then told him she respected his feelings and asked that he reciprocate by not distracting others. He sheepishly complied. “That situation could have been disastrous had I not prepared for just such an occurrence in advance,” she says. Arriving early to check the room, sound system and audiovisual equipment can also eliminate nerve-racking surprises.

Practice, practice, practice. “People who have a real fear of public speaking typically haven’t done it much,” says trainer Gilbert. The only way to move beyond the fear is to keep doing it.

Rehearse your presentation aloud to work out kinks and get familiar with it. But, “don’t buy into the |practice makes perfect’ school of thought,” cautions Williams. “There’s always room for improvement, practice only makes you better,” he says, but perfection doesn’t exist. The goal is to become so comfortable with what you’re saying, it’ll roll off your tongue with minimum effort.

The value of honest feedback about a presentation isn’t lost on Daniel T. Jackson. The U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, based at Lackland Air Force in San Antonio, need only refer back to his early days with the National Security Agency. Charged with briefing incoming personnel as to the history and procedures of the organization, Jackson was flattered when his manager’s boss sat in on one of his presentations. This quickly changed to humiliation when his superior brutally critiqued his performance.

“My confidence was so shattered, I was afraid to give briefings after that,” recalls Jackson, who’s since become a successful public speaker with help from Toastmasters.

Having others assess a dry run of your performance will tip you off as to what works and what doesn’t. Doing this in a safe environment–at home or among friends–is best. Taping your presentation (audio or visual) or practicing it in front of a mirror allows you to critique yourself.

Focus outward. If you’re more concerned with how you look or sound than you are with your audience, your priorities are misplaced, advises Williams. Concentrating on anything other than successfully conveying your message will detract from your effectiveness. And be assured, if you’re openly preoccupied with a spot on your tie or that run in your stocking, your audience will pick up on it and focus there too.

As a salesman for Tom James Inc., a New York City clothing manufacturer, Kenneth Hughes learned this quickly. Caught up in a deep-seated fear of making presentations, when delivering sales pitches to potential customers, “I’d get so flustered that I’d sometimes lose my train of thought or wouldn’t answer their questions effectively,” Hughes says. “Because I kept worrying about the mistakes I was making and what I needed to do next, my clients never had my full attention.” Needless to say, he wasn’t making many sales. Since he began taking public speaking courses last December, his sales are up by 20%.

Never let ’em see you sweat. The last thing you want to do is broadcast your nervousness, either verbally or nonverbally. Mary McGlynn, partner and vice president of Frederick Gilbert Associates, offers some ways to mask the physical manifestations of fear:

* If you tend to sweat profusely, keep a handkerchief handy.

* Have a glass of water nearby in case “cotton mouth” sets in.

* Deep breathing helps to relieve tense muscles, a quaking voice and queasy stomach.

Exude confidence and affirm success. How you perceive yourself will greatly affect how you come across. Gina Stewart (not her real name) can attest to how her poor self-image as a speaker originally stunted her growth within her company.

As a novice manager in a Manhattan publishing firm, Stewart dreaded attending monthly meetings where she was required to give oral status reports for her department. “I’d sit there in a panic, waiting for my turn to speak,” she remembers. Having worked herself into a lather by the time she did speak, she came off as a jittery, barely coherent mess. “I was so bad, even the CEO took pity on me,” says Stewart. “He stopped asking me questions or taking me seriously, and eventually everyone else followed suit.”

Viewed as a lightweight, Stewart’s management credibility suffered, prompting her to undergo training designed to boost her self-image and improve her public speaking skills. This effort greatly improved her performance in those meetings, reestablishing her favorable reputation at the firm.

“There’s not a time I get up to speak that I don’t have some anxiety, but I never let it show,” says Thelma Wells, a professional speaker and corporate trainer at TW & Associates in Dallas.

In fact, the confidence you have in your ability to do well will probably determine whether or not you actually do. Personal affirmations (I’m good. I know my subject. I’ll be great.) and visualizing yourself doing well, over and over again, may sound hokey, but they are proven confidence boosters, says San Jose professional speaker and diversity expert Rosalyn Taylor O’Neale.

Granted, public speaking is serious business. But you can fend off a lot of angst by maintaining a sense of humor about it. If you make a mistake, joking about it can smooth the incident over, while endearing you to your audience.

Remember: You’re not performing brain surgery. You’re sharing what you know with people who want to know it too. Lighten up. Even if you blow it, there’s still life after your speech.


* Don’t memorize your speech verbatim or read it. Do seek out friendly faces and establish and maintain eye contact.

* Don’t drown your presentation in statistics. Do use uncomplicated real-life anecdotes to illustrate a point.

* Don’t ever seek humor at the expense of others. Do use humor to diffuse anxiety. A joke at your own expense is fine.

* Don’t try to bluff your audience. Do test-run your speech for timing.

* Don’t wear clothing or shoes that you haven’t worn before. Do stand tall, dress loose and speak out.

* Don’t go hungry before your presentation. Do eat light and sensibly (now is not the time to experiment).

* Don’t be like anyone else. Do observe speakers you admire for pointers, but develop your own style.

* Don’t let a bad experience keep you from speaking again. Do seize every opportunity to get out there: Sunday school, PTA meetings, club meetings, etc. Get comfortable with extemporaneous speaking.



* Toastmasters International: a nonprofit organization in which members get practical experience in speechmaking and immediate feedback on presentation skills. 714-858-8255.

* National Speakers Association (NSA): an international group dedicated to ensuring excellence in the speaking profession and expanding the use of professional speakers. 602-968-2552.

* American Management Association (AMA): offers several two- and three-day courses on effective presentation skills. 800-262-2552.

* I Can See You Naked: A Fearless Guide to Making Great Presentations by Ron Hoff (Andrews and McMeel Publishers, Kansas City, Mo., $9.95).

* How to Write & Give a Speech by Joan Detz (St. Martin’s Press, New York, $21.95).

COPYRIGHT 1994 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group