The Fear of Public Speaking: 25 Tips to Calm Your Nerves

1. Prepare: The more you prepare and the better handle you have on the material you are presenting, the better it will go.

2. Practice: Once you have prepared, you MUST practice, early and often. Rumor has it that Churchill practiced for one hour per one minute of speech content he was delivering. 5 minute presentation = 5 hours practice. How long are you practicing?

3. Check out the Room: Familiarity breeds comfort. Surprises the day of a presentation are not fun and ratchet up anxiety tenfold. Is there a podium? What technology are you using and does it work?

4. Read the Room: While not always an option, when you have the opportunity to meet a few audience members beforehand, take it! Arrive ten minutes early and introduce yourself to a few people. If you are presenting mid-day, arrive before a key break to meet a few folks.

5. “Seed” the Audience: Ask friends, associates or colleagues come to your presentation. Talk to the conference organizers when you arrive. Locate them before you take the stage, if possible. Identify where friendly faces are sitting. The purpose – to have friendly faces to focus on if the anxiety starts to build.

6. Remember the audience is on your side: 9 times out of 10, the audience is rooting for you to succeed, not waiting for you to fall flat.

7. Breathing: My three favorite breathing techniques – 3 Deep Belly Breathes, Ujjaiy breathing, and the Alternate Nostril technique – these techniques are explained in further detail at the end

8. Listen to Music: Watch a boxing or MMA competition or an NFL or NBA pre-game show and you will see world class athletes entering the locker room listening to music, getting in the zone, eliminating distraction and chasing away anxiety and negative thoughts. It works prior to public speaking as well; an iPod can be a presenter’s best friend.

9. Visualization: It works. Professional boxers, when shadow boxing, do not throw random punches — they are visualizing an opponent and quite literally sparring with that visualization. Ballplayers do the same thing before approaching the plate. Elite athletes, musicians, actors and dancers utilize visualization regularly — Todd Hargrove has an excellent article on visualization in athletics here. Visualization, if done properly, works for speakers and presenters as well.

10. Body Movement: A few minutes before “taking the stage” – “Waggle” (lateral movement) your jaw; bend forward and dangle your arms and let them shake; shake your hands over your head; utilize simple stretches and isometric stretches (more on that later) — all of these movements, when incorporated with proper breathing, warm the body, relax the mind and calm your nerves.

11. Body Movement, Pt. II: As a former amateur boxer, nothing prepares me to speak better than light shadow boxing a few minutes before I have to speak. I know a CEO who (literally) does 20 pushups prior to every earnings call. Focused movement helps even more than just generic movement because it tends to take your thought process in a different direction.

12. Do Sit-Ups: There is a school of thought that suggest that constricting the abdominal wall prevents the production of epinephrine, a hormone associated with fight or flight response. The most effective way to utilize this approach prior to speaking is to “crunch” and release the abdominal muscles while standing (lying down and doing sit ups is probably not optimal!)

13. Put the Pressure Elsewhere: The more interactive your presentation, the less pressure you will feel, as the presentation becomes a true conversation, and most people are much more comfortable in a conversation than delivering a presentation.

14. Caffeine Free: I always avoid copious amounts of caffeine (due to the epinephrine effect), and salty foods (to avoid drying out my mouth) on presentation day. I also tend to eat lighter on performance day as this keeps me sharp and “light.”

15. Utilize Props: A properly placed water bottle and well-timed break in the presentation to take a sip not only gives the presenter a break for a few seconds, it draws attention back to the presenter, and can be effective to “reset” the audience.

16. Work on your Open: The first minute of the presentation is usually when your tension will peak; having a well prepared, effective, engaging open will lessen anxiety dramatically. You can find some ideas on how to open effectively here.

17. The Restroom: Don’t laugh, on presentation day the restroom is your ally. Ten or fifteen minutes before presenting, head into the restroom to allow yourself the opportunity to breathe, listen to a last minute song or inspirational music, close your eyes and get into your zone. If called upon to do a last minute presentation, you will always be able to steal five minutes in the restroom – use it to pull yourself, and your thoughts, together.

18. Anxiety…Interrupted: When the anxiety is building and you are less than five minutes from taking the stage, your heart is starting to pound, heat is building and you keep telling yourself to calm down my favorite technique is to pick a random number – 1,795 and start counting backwards….by another random number – 7s, 9s, 11s, etc. It is not easy and allows for thought interruption, essentially plateauing the building anxiety

19. Anxiety…Distracted: Maybe you are a math wizard, or the number technique is not effective for you. Start reciting the alphabet backward (mentally). Again, more thought process disruption.

20. Remember the reality: I have worked with thousands of speakers over the years and have to come to the conclusion that you are always more nervous than you appear.

21. Remember the reality, Pt. II: In most cases, your presentation is infinitely more important to you than to your audience members – it is your job to peak their collective interest. The reality is that 99.9999…% of the time, the nightmare scenarios you envision will not come true.

22. Breathing Exercise # 1: Three Deep Belly Breaths – Sounds like what it is. Slowly inhale through the nose for a count of 5-15 (15 is optimal). Keep one hand on your diaphragm and feel it enlarge as you inhale. Hold for 5-10 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth slowly, again for a count of 5-15 seconds (15 is optimal). Repeat three times. This is awesome to do for the few minutes before you are actually going to be speaking.

23. Breathing Exercise #2: Ujjaiy Breathing – Also known as Oceanic or Victorious Breathing – it is remarkable. It is a yogic breathing technique I first learned from struggling through Vinyasa yoga classes. Similar to deep belly breathing, however this time the mouth stays closed the entire time.

24. Breathing Exercise #3: Alternate Nostril Breathing Technique (my favorite) – All you need for this is your thumb, your pinkie finger, and your nose. To begin, simply cover your left nostril with your left thumb, and slowly and deeply inhale for 5 seconds to start (10 is optimal). Then immediately cover your right nostril with your left pinkie finger, while keeping your left nostril pressed closed – at all times your mouth is closed as well, so at this point you are essentially holding your breathe. Again, hold for 5 seconds (10 is optimal). Then remove your left thumb from your left nostril and slowly exhale for a 10 count. Wait two seconds and repeat the same technique, inhaling through your left nostril as your right nostril is still closed, etc.

25. Use Notes: Memorization + anxiety = poor performance. An index card with key bullet points, just to keep you on track, will help free your mind to stay in the moment, rather than allowing the pressure to remember to add to the anxiety you are already feeling on presentation day.

There are other effective tactics and strategies including taking advantage of great programs that allow you to practice presenting in front of likeminded professionals (Toastmasters), seeking professional help to develop individual techniques to deal with a specific anxiety or aspect of presenting and in extreme cases seeking the expertise of a therapist.

One last technique is one I frequently suggest to people who have had a traumatic public speaking experience in the past, and the technique is scaling. After a traumatic experience your memory tends to exaggerate how poorly the event went, and the more time that goes by without that thought pattern being interrupted, the “bigger” the event feels, and the more anxious you feel prior to the next presentation. In this case it is critical to break this pattern, and that is done through scaling – finding low stakes…..

The next time you are about to present, do yourself a favor and take a deep breath. Picture Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. Two of the greatest orators ever, both suffering from a fear of public speaking. Think about major Hollywood actors and actresses, many of who also suffer from glossophobia. You are not alone, and I can promise that if you institute much of what you just read, your next presentation will be better.

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Fear of Public Speaking: A Definitive Guide to Managing and Moving Forward

* Pt I of a 3 part series, as seen on CNBC.com

A random internet search for cures for fear of public speaking produces over 2 million results. That is a shame.

No matter how many books, courses, DVDs, websites or snake oil salesmen promise to “cure” you of your fear of public speaking; it is never that simple, or that easy. And that is ok.

The reality is that every executive has a rush of adrenaline before presenting – the normal “fight or flight” response. Nervous energy, properly channeled, actually enhances a presentation.

So how can you help to alleviate and effectively channel some of the tension and anxiety prior to your next presentation?

Here are 25 Tips that will help:

  1. Prepare - The more you prepare and the better handle you have on the material you are presenting, the better it will go.
  2. Practice – Once you have prepared, you MUST practice, early and often. Rumor has it that Churchill practiced for one hour per one minute of speech content he was delivering. 5 minute presentation = 5 hours practice. How long are you practicing?
  3. Check out the Room – Familiarity breeds comfort. Surprise s the day of a presentation are not fun and ratchet up anxiety tenfold. Is there a podium? What technology are you using and does it work?
  4. Read the Room – While not always an option, when you have the opportunity to meet a few audience members beforehand, take it! Arrive ten minutes early and introduce yourself to a few people. If you are presenting mid-day, arrive before a key break to meet a few folks.
  5. “Seed” the Audience – Ask friends, associates or colleagues come to your presentation. Talk to the conference organizers when you arrive. Locate them before you take the stage, if possible. Identify where friendly faces are sitting. The purpose – to have friendly faces to focus on if the anxiety starts to build
  6. Remember the audience is on your side – 9 times out of 10, the audience is rooting for you to succeed, not waiting for you to fall flat.

Please share this with colleagues as there are a lot of people who suffer from this fear that can benefit from some or all of these tips. Part II will follow shortly.

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Presentation Skills: Do You Know The ABC’s?

What do Lincoln, Kennedy and Churchill  have to do with communicating in 2012?  Everything!

We are a little over three weeks into 2012, with myriad communication disasters, from major crisis communication errors to communication errors that have directly resulted in a crisis. 

Why?

Failure to remember the ABC’s of effective communication.

I am excited to announce that I have written a manifesto, published today by ChangeThis,  entitled “It Really Is As Simple As ABC: What Leaders Can Learn From Masterful Orators of The Past.” 

Change This, owned and operated by business book giant 800-CEO-Read and led by Dylan Schleicher, is changing the way business ideas are exchanged, and I am excited to join authors and thought leaders such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Tom Peters,  Seth Godin , Guy Kawasaki, and many others on this platform.

The manifesto is available for free, can be dowloaded here,  and is a quick read with implementable communication lessons for everyone.  It contains fundamental communication principles that can benefit anyone, whether a CEO commenting publicly or a call center employee answering a customer. 

If you have trouble accessing the document, please let me know and I will forward it to you.  Please forward it on to anyone who may benefit from it, and I would appreciate any feedback or commentary.  Thank you.

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Focus Groups For Public Speaking – 5 Steps

Focus groups have long been the domain of political campaigns – focus groups to test messages, focus groups to test appearances, focus groups to test images, sound bites, opposition research, research on a campaign’s own candidate – just about anything that one can test, political campaigns utilize focus groups to test.  Focus groups have since become a staple in the corporate world, where products, messages, slogans, ad campaigns and competition are tested, regularly. 

Litigators effectively utilize focus groups to test key messages (full disclosure – I often run them for litigators around the country).  I find the true value in a focus group, whether used in politics, the corporate world or the legal world, not necessarily is the ultimate decision – we like your candidate, your product, or we decide for your client; but rather – here is what we don’t like, this is what we do not like about your client, your product, your message, your argument, etc. 

I am a believer that every person, whether front line associate or CEO, can benefit from running a mini focus group prior to a high stakes speech, investor pitch or presentation, again, not to validate how “good” your presentation is, but to see where there are soft spots, weak areas and pain points, so that you can improve before the big day.  Here are a few steps to set up a quick, effective focus group before your next big speech:

1.  Know your audience – Who will be represented in the audience?  All employees?  Board Members? Investors?  Have a representative from the various sectors that will be represented in the audience.  The group does not have to big, nor does it have to be formal – it has to be representative. 

2. Friend are not always your friends – When running focus groups for litigators, I shy away from having a firm member participate as a focus group member- if you are involved, you are involved.  What you are looking for is distance from the issue.  People you know, respect and trust, but do not necessarily spend all of your time with, often offer the best feedback.

3. Friends are not always your friends, Pt. II – For this reason, I try to avoid having people who are very close to each other participate as well – it tends to skew the dynamic and often overpower the group, leading to missing key feedback.

4. Preparation – I like to throw just about everything that I am planning on speaking about out there – sometimes I am just too close to the topic, and miss things that might be more effective and more beneficial to my audience; An unprepared speech or presentation will focus all of the attention on delivery and not much on the message – meaning that you will get half of the value.  Spend some time preparing.

5. Ask! -  If you are a front line associate, ask your mentor to sit in to represent executives. Conversely,  C-level executives often balk at having a lower level associate watch a presentation first, and there is undoubtedly some risk to this – I have done it a number of times and it has worked every time.  The key is to identify the right person to participate.  You are looking for a very small group, again, not to validate how “good” you are, but to offer opinions and bring a different perspective.

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Professors and Public Speaking/Presentation Skills

I have been fortunate to regularly lecture at colleges and universities around the country and am writing this post at 30,000 feet on a red eye flight returning from Boulder following a lecture at a conference at the University of Colorado.  The presentation was entitled Know Your ABC’s, and you will be reading more about it in the coming months.  Aimed at those in the academic community, the presentation helps to take research material and effectively present it to those in, and outside, of the researcher’s discipline and the greater community.

Other recent lectures have included topics ranging from on topics ranging from Public Speaking for Entrepreneurs to Message Development 101 to Pre-Crisis Communication to Connecting with your Class: Communication Strategy for Professors (and a whole host of others) to Communicating outside of the Classroom: Communication Strategy for Faculty and Staff.  

In a university setting, public speaking and presentation skills are just as crucial for faculty and professors as these skills are for students.  Holding a student’s attention is not easy with the distractions one is up against and in a classroom where attendance may not even be mandatory, the challenge is even greater.

If you are a college or university professor or faculty member, and have an interest in hosting one of these lectures in your classroom, or at your conference, please send over an email, and let’s see if there is a time where I will be traveling to your locale in the next few months.

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