Six Steps to Get Control over the Biggest Fear on this Earth
It is said that people fear public speaking more than death. “In other words,” as the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked: “At a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
Research suggests that the cause of our fear may well go back to prehistoric times, when humans were subject to predatory attacks. And being isolated on stage retriggers that primal anxiety of being separated from others who can protect us.
Anyone who has experienced stage fright, or “performance anxiety” as it is technically called, knows the symptoms: a churning in the pit of your stomach, dry mouth, a raspy throat and trembling in your limbs or voice.
This does feel like a fate worse than death – after all, death for most people is far away. But with public speaking the act is close at hand and we are very much there and the audience is staring at us and judging us, or so it seems.
If you experience this fear, don’t despair. There are ways to get over it. And it’s worth working on because this fear could keep you from important career opportunities. “Large room” speaking events can give you a higher profile. Speaking up in meetings can provide “air time” for your ideas. A silent voice does not do justice to someone who has ideas worth sharing.
Over two decades ago I founded The Humphrey Group, a Toronto-based firm that helps leaders around the world learn to speak with confidence and clarity. There are several steps you can take to get more comfortable on stage.
Step #1: Say “Yes” to Speaking
Accept every speaking opportunity you can. This doesn’t mean just formal speeches, but seize every day opportunities to speak – whether you raise your hand at a meeting, volunteer for a committee, go to more networking events, or say “yes” to your boss when he asks you to do a presentation, instead of saying “no” to make yourself feel more comfortable. All these situations will give you an opportunity to build your confidence and skills. Each time you do it, you will get better.
Step #2: Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you have decided to accept a speaking opportunity (or raise your hand at the next team meeting), prepare as much as you can. This sounds like an obvious step, but when we are afraid of something, we tend to avoid it; so we avoid preparing for public speaking because we are afraid. Instead, seize the opportunity to get better and more confident at it. Plan what you are going to say, and write it out – either fully or in bullet points. Practice it in your mind or out loud. Ask someone in your family to listen to you. And make sure you memorize certain key words or sentences that will ground you.
Step #3: Don’t Apologize
When we get on stage we tend to show our nervousness by using apologetic or weak language. The more you do this, the weaker you will feel and sound. So avoid the following expressions that diminish your on stage power:
- “I am sorry,” “Excuse me” [apologies]
- “I think,” “I feel,” “I hope” “I want” “I need” [weak verbs]
- “I just . . .” “A little bit….” [weak modifiers]
- “I could be wrong” or “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” [negatives]
Step #4: Be Yourself
Fear can cause us to “shut down” – yet you will get a better response from your audience and feel better yourself if you are authentic. This means expressing the qualities you like in yourself. Perhaps you are funny – then be funny on stage. Perhaps your warmth is what you like – then show your warmth. Or you are passionate about your ideas. Then be passionate. Decide in advance what two or three qualities you like in yourself, and bring those out when you speak.
Step #5: Connect with Your Audience
One thing that brings on fear is feeling isolated on stage – or being subject to the audience’s gaze. Well, turn the tables on your audience. Instead of feeling they’re staring at you, make strong eye contact with them. Even though you may be talking to 10 people…or 100…look at one person at a time. Really look at them! Not only will that tell them you are not afraid (although inside you may be!). It will also ground you, and make you feel stronger and in control.
Step #6: Congratulate Yourself
Once you have spoken up – whether on a big or small stage – take credit for what you have done. If someone else says, “Great comment” or “Great presentation,” don’t say “It was nothing.” Say, “thank you.” More importantly, congratulate yourself for having had the courage to speak up when your heart was beating fast. You have proven to yourself and to others that you can take the stage. You will have fewer nerves next time.