You’ve no doubt heard that death is the only fear that’s more common than having to speak in public. Fortunately, most people only die once, but you may face multiple occasions in your career or civic life in which you’re forced to get up in front of a crowd of people and share important information. Hesitating to do so may even hamper your career or erode your hard-earned professional image.
There are many folk cures for reducing the anxiety associated with speaking. One of the most common involves pretending that your audience failed to dress themselves that day. However, with my Midwestern upbringing, the thought of speaking to a large group of naked people only makes me that much more nervous, so I had to find a better way to overcome those fears. And I found two simple ways. You’re already familiar with both of them.
The first is called preparation. Being prepared for a public speech does more than simply keep your stomach’s butterflies down to a gentle flapping. It dramatically increases your ability to capture the audience’s attention and deliver the message you want them to absorb. Why? It’s simple: the better prepared you are, the less nervous you’ll be.
Your audience will be able to concentrate on what you’re saying, instead of on watching your knees wobble and your forehead sweat. In addition, being less nervous makes you appear to be more confident (even when you’re really not), so your audience is more likely to assume that you truly are a knowledgeable expert on the subject at hand.
I recommend that you start by writing your speech (or having it written for you). Put it in a large font with at least double spacing. Triple-spaced is even better. Yes, I know that many experts suggest that you should get by with no more than bullet points or rough notes, but taking the time to write out a speech provides two key benefits.
First, writing the speech helps you think through and organize everything you want to say, so you can ensure that the important messages are delivered. Next, having a copy of your speech can be a life preserver if your mind chooses to go blank while you’re standing at the podium. (Reading your speech may be less impressive than reciting it from memory, but it’s a lot more impressive than trying to tap-dance when you have no clue of what to say.)
The second secret is to rehearse the speech once it’s written. Don’t settle for just once or twice — try to practice it at least 10 times before the actual presentation. You don’t need an audience. A quiet room where you won’t be disturbed is perfect.
The goal of rehearsals isn’t to allow you to memorize the speech (although you may). You’ll discover that each rehearsal will make you more comfortable with the material. By the time you actually present it to an audience, you’ll know it so well that it won’t sound like a prepared speech. The audience may see that you glance down every few words or sentences, but your delivery will sound natural. You’ll sound as though you actually know and believe in what you’re trying to convey.
These days, we’re all so busy that we tend to regard things like preparation and rehearsal as unnecessary luxuries. But they’re actually sound investments in ensuring that we present ourselves in the best possible light. If your speech is critical to your company’s stock price, your professional reputation, or a cause you support, it’s well worth the extra time and trouble up front. After all, you’ll have one opportunity to either succeed magnificently — or manage to embarrass yourself because you thought that time would be better spent catching up on Facebook and your fantasy team.