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Media and Crisis Management

Coping With The Fear of Public Speaking

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Presentations: Coping With The Fear of Public SpeakingSpeaking

Movie actor Harrison Ford – aka the fearless Han Solo and Indiana Jones – admits that there is one thing that truly frightens him not only in real life, but also when he is just acting. Giving a speech! He said he was even nervous filming Air Force One while delivering a speech in his role as President of the United States.

Not surprising really. The fear of public speaking is so intense and nearly universal that many speakers pop Prozak, Paxil, Zoloft and other anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs to endure the sense of panic.

I have felt, and still do feel, that cottonmouth even though I logged more than 20 years as a nightly TV news anchor. Decades in front of the cameras did nothing to insulate me from sweaty-palms.

Certain situations particularly agitated: anchoring entire newscasts live outside the studio with no teleprompters. The absence of a prompter, lots of memorization, the presence of gawking bystanders and a relentless clock poured on the pressure.

I, like most everyone else, also had anxiety before giving speeches. It remains today even though I am confident of my skills although the intensity has decreased as the quantity of presentations has increased.

I learned to function despite the queasies. You can too. So let me give you my recommendations for how to moderate the nervousness.

Avoid the terror? You can’t! There is this myth that professional presenters are successful because they do not get nervous like the rest of us. Wrong. They expect it, endure it, and give the impression they don’t feel it. An often-quoted aphorism is “You can’t get rid of the butterflies, so make the butterflies fly in formation.”

There are a very few individuals blessedly unafflicted by stage fright. They probably aren’t reading this anyway or they wonder what the fuss is all about. We won’t talk about them.

Minimize the terror? You can! You probably already know these common, but effective tension reducers:

• Arrive early at your speaking site to familiarize yourself with the surroundings, audio-visual equipment, and to make any last-minute adjustments.

• Greet each member of the audience before the presentation so that they, and you, are acquainted with each other. This is a good icebreaker.

• Practice deep breathing exercises and relaxation techniques if they work for you. They do not help me, but one approach that works is to remind myself that “I” am creating most of the nervousness with my own thoughts. I smile to myself and say “these feelings are normal, you know this presentation like the back of your hand, you will do fine” and often calm down considerably.

Preparation. By far the hands-down single most effective stress reducer for public presentations is preparation. A survey found that 75 percent of speakers believe good preparation is the best fortifying influence.

So if preparation is the key, how to do that?

• Write early. Begin writing your presentation as soon as you place it on your calendar. Exploit the word processor and massage the content at every opportunity – daily if you can. Every rewrite grooves the presentation in your mind. Also, by working so far in advance you have the freedom to make wholesale changes without hurting your confidence.

• Write linearly. Make the content proceed in a logical order. Thought A should lead to thought B should lead to thought C, etc. If each idea and illustrating story (and you must have stories!) naturally lead one to the other, it will be far easier for you to remember and the audience to follow you. And the audience has only one chance to get the message.

• Finalize 3 days early. Finish the final draft no later than three days ahead of time. Make only minor changes from here on. Your goal is for repeated rehearsals to make the presentation fit like a glove. Drastic last-minute adjustments can derail that. This is fine-tuning time. Time for practice, rehearsal, and familiarization.

• Practice. Rehearse the presentation aloud as often as possible leading up to the actual address. A minimum of two consecutive rehearsals each morning, each night, and in the hours just before the presentation is best. You will feel the anxiety abate as you come to realize “I know this!”

• Exploit “midnight madness”. Especially important presentations may awaken you the night before the presentation. Don’t freak! Get up immediately and rehearse. This very act will again reassure you, “I know this!” You will calm down and usually return to bed more relaxed and go to sleep. Even if you don’t, lack of sleep won’t kill you. I know some people who are always restless the night before. It comes with the territory, so get over it.

• Make your body your ally. Know your metabolism and take advantage of it. Eating before a presentation calms some people. Those who suffer from hypoglycemia (nervousness due to lack of food) will find that a protein snack an hour or so in advance of the speech will reduce that panicky feeling. Avoid caffeine and sugar unless they calm you. Only you know what works for you. Learn to listen to your body. I once felt faint during a speech because I had exercised and not eaten at all before stepping up to the podium. That happened because the civic club surprised me by asking me to talk before the food was served. I almost passed out from lightheadedness. Bad planning on my part and I totally ignored what makes me perform best! To this day, before any kind of presentation I eat a high protein sandwich – no carbs – and drink water. I do it even if my speech is at a luncheon. I need the calming effect of the protein at least 60 minutes in advance. So what if I don’t eat much of my hosts’ lunch.

• Ignore negative thoughts and have faith. In the final hours leading up to an important presentation your mind will often run away with itself and dwell on self-defeating thoughts. Expect it and ignore it. Talk to yourself. Remind yourself, “I know this, I really know this.” Once your speech begins, and you hear those now-familiar words from the many rehearsals, you will settle down and do well. PREPARATION WILL MAKE IT SO.

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