Question: Overcoming the challenge of public speaking

I have always been averse of public speaking. Luckily, my track record as a good technology architect did not require me to do much public speaking.

My new job as the Chief Technology Officer of the company requires me to give a monthly in-person update in an all-hands company meeting. Most people recommend that I should not have high expectations from my first few atttempts at presenting.

So, far I have been letting a fellow executive of the company give my updates in the all-hands meeting... but I think it sends the wrong message to staff, that I work for her in the new role.

What is the best way for me to get better at public speaking?

10 Expert Insights

I have been a presentation coach since 1980, so here’s my advice based on research and my own experience.

First of all, the more you avoid speaking the worse your aversion will become.  To minimize the anxiety of speaking (glossophobia) rehearse under performance-like pressure and give yourself one-word instruction.  According to Scientific American there are only two proven techniques to conquer stage-fright.

But even if you are fearless, you still need to learn the principles and practices of a 2000 year-old tradition:  the art of rhetoric as passed down to us by Aristotle, Quintilian, and Cicero, among others.

1. You need to establish yourself as a trustworthy source of information.
2. You need to define the problem that your information solves.
3. You need to make the case for the importance of your topic.
4. Your ideas must be in marching order, preferably in the form of a story, and you must illustrate your points with vivid examples.
5. At the end, you must remind your listeners of what’s at stake, summarize your key points, and call them to action.

And what about your delivery skills?  Here is Cicero around 50BC.  

"One needs to read others’ motives to the very depths of human nature, since tickling or soothing anxieties is the test a speaker’s impact and technique.  And do I have to mention the delivery itself—how the body is controlled, its gestures, facial expressions, vocal inflections and modulations.  Unless this stands guard over the material, the material will evaporate, no matter how precious it was in itself."  

The best way to overcome the challenge of public speaking is to just do it, over and over.   Sorry to sound like a sneaker commercial, but it’s the truth.  The Japanese say, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”  Which is another way of saying it takes 10,000 hours to make a good surgeon, a good lawyer, a good ballerina, and yes—a good public speaker.

Short Answer: the person asking the above question is not looking to become a professional speaker, just how to get through the process of giving an oral report. To that I recommend keeping your words concise and to the point. You can simply read your report from the platform. The audience will appreciate your brevity.

Long Answer: fear of public speaking is actually the fear of feeling the shame of being negatively judged. This fear is a throwback to your childhood when your peers would laugh at you for making mistakes. Those days are past; you are now speaking to adults who want to hear your message.

Your fear comes from being too focused on yourself and not on your words. You are thinking about yourself and not your message which is all the audience wants. You are worried about what you look like, how you sound, and whether or not you’re going to make a mistake. This is all about you, when your speech should be all about your audience. Think of your speech as a gift you are giving them, and that your content is all that matters. If you focus your thoughts on making sure your audience receives the vital information they need and want, then you won’t have time to think about yourself.

I learned just how much more important the message is over the messenger at a networking event. I was talking with a woman I had just met, when our hostess came over and asked the woman if she had heard me speak. She replied, “No.”

The hostess then added, referring to an exercise I use in my innovation programs, “If you do, he'll have you standing on your chair.” The woman gasped and said, “I have seen you speak!” She then recounted one of my stories which illustrated a creative-thinking technique I teach, and how she now uses it in her business.

I stood there deeply humbled; she remembered my message, but she did not remember my face, my name or my company name. My purpose had been accomplished: she found my information useful and had implemented it.

“The fear of death is only exceeded by the fear of public speaking.” – Mark Twain.  You are not the Lone Ranger.  This fear is especially strong for those of us steeped in technology as compared to the liberal arts.

Over the years as an executive, I “encouraged” the rising technical geniuses aspiring to leadership roles to join Toastmasters, Int. (for at least a year) so they became comfortable speaking without Power Point to any audience.  As an Executive Leadership Coach, I continue to make the same suggestion to those who desire leadership roles.  (Full disclosure: we are ALL leaders, all of the time!)

Only by being comfortable with ourselves will our message be believable and persuasive.  You desire an essential skill that can be acquired by any of us if we will only invest the time and effort.  The Toastmasters approach requires about a year for most of us.  This stretch period can be shortened by working with a coach who can help you quietly and quickly move beyond the negative self talk that is causing your fear.

The fact that you recognize your discomfort and have the courage to do what it takes to overcome it is most of the battle.  Good luck as you move forward.

When people are phobic, they've generally got parts of themselves that have fears a lot stronger than parts of themselves that want to do the thing they're afraid of.  

It can really help to listen to the positive intentions that those phobic parts have.  They're rarely as "logical" as you'd think, and once you really hear what's going on, there's often other ways to provide the safety those parts are looking for.  Additionally, reconnecting yourself to what you're really excited about will help too.  The best speaking advice I ever got was to find the thing I couldn't wait to share with my audience, and start with that.

Toastmasters and speaking coaches can help give you incremental experiences and skills that recondition your experience in a safe environment, as well.

Think conversation not presentation.  You are up there because you have the knowledge - remember that.  understand how the fear manifests itself and then you can counter those reactions which are either physical, mental or behavioral.  

To help manage opening fears, I do encourage to memorize your first line and the transition to your content.  Organize your content and mentally think through why it is important to the audience.  Then tell them WIIFT - what's in it for them.  

Don't worry about "being perfect" there is no such thing.  If you are comfortable - you make everyone else comfortable.  Everyone trips on a word or forgets what they were saying - I can't count how many times it has happened to me.  If you think about how you would handle it in a conversation - let that guide you in the presentation.

If you let me know the specific ways the anxiety manifests - I can give more specific ideas.

Hi there,
As a professional speaker there are several elements that are useful to consider:

1. Bring more than you need and use less than you have. This allows for it to be a conversation (as stated above) and not a data dump. Data dumps are inherently challenging because you are little more than a talking email or white paper.

2. Get your attention off yourself. It's not about you it's about something vital 'they' need to have, know or feel in order to move on with what they need to do. Most of people's anxiety is spent in thinking about how they are going to look or come off to the others. It's about being judged. If you put your attention on how it's landing...are they getting it or are they merely physically present in the room while you talking. Keep checking in with them for what they're understanding, keep focused on them and how you can be helping them do things better in their jobs and have more success. Bottom line, public speaking is not about you, it's about them

3. It's about them and their experience. Don't be afraid to throw in a surprise or two. It keeps people attentive.

4. Lastly and most importantly be real. You're not a polished trained professional speaker, so don't try to act as if you have the same 30+ years of mastery that I and others on this post may have. Be real, let them know that at times you're a bit awkward. You'd be surprising how far the image of being human and not perfect goes to engage people more than slick willie car salesman professional.

As an international professional speaker who has provided over 2700 programs world-wide I am often asked this same question:  Below is a short excerpt from an article on my website:

Quick Tips You Can Use in Everyday Situations

A terrific first step to developing speaking skills is to begin to focus on how you speak in everyday speaking situations. Let's take a look at four situations where you can begin to polish your speaking skills.

Situation #1 - Running into someone at the store

How many of you have bumped into a friend while shopping or running an errand? Here you are--another opportunity to practice your public speaking.

* Initiate the conversation.
* Ask the person how her family is doing. What's new with her job? Does she have any vacation plans coming up?
* Tell a funny story about something that happened recently to you, your family, or your friends.
* Think about how fast you speak, how you pronounce your words, and how you organize your thoughts. This is called your natural speaking style and will come in handy here.

Situation #2 - Parties

Parties are the perfect opportunity to practice your public speaking skills. So the next party you attend, make sure you bring your bag of tricks.

* If you find yourself standing alone in a corner of the room, don't just eat all the crab dip: Initiate a conversation with the next person who walks by.
* Introduce yourself to two new people
* Participate in a group discussion, but do not dominate the conversation
* Have a conversation with someone you may have not seen in a while.

I describe other situations on my website which provide additional advice.

Spend a little time thinking about your passion about your message- what is it you really want these people to know/learn/understand/care about. What would you say in private conversation? Make your public speaking a bigger conversation. Interact early- ask a question of the audience- coach them to the point instead of spewing info to them.

Before you start, find a quiet place and practice breathwork to calm your physiology so it doesn't play tricks on your brain and tongue. 4-7-8 breathing is great. Breathe in softly but to the base of your lungs to a count of 4 (belly breathing), hold for 7, out slowly for 8. Repeat at least 8 times- it really makes a difference! Bonus- during the hold bring to mind someone/something/some place you appreciate- channeling the positive emotion calms your brain's fear center.

Good luck- I spent decades petrified to speak and now I love it! Let me know if I can help! Cindi

I, too, was terrified of public speaking for most of my life...and now I do it every day for a living. So I am living proof -- and a true believer -- that this common fear can be overcome.

Three key "P" words to keep in mind are: Preparation, Practice, and Persistence.

(1) PREPARATION: Know your material (which I'm sure you do). Be clear on the key points you want to make. Organize your content logically. If you use powerpoint slides, don't bore people with bulletpoints. Use powerful (literal or metaphorical) visual images that will support your message and capture & hold people's attention. Your audience is thinking two things: WSIC (Why should I care?) and WIFM (What's in it for me) so be sure to put yourself in their shoes and address these two crucial questions. As the CTO addressing a diverse audience at a company-wide meeting, remember that you need to make your message relevant and impactful to non-tech people as beware of using IT jargon. Use metaphors, analogies, and real-life examples that will bring your message to life.

(2) PRACTICE: Rehearse out loud, in front of a mirror, a colleague, a spouse, or even your dog. Get used to speaking your thoughts and words out loud. Your first time is usually your worst don't let your first time be when it really counts. That's why they take batting practice before the game. Practice breeds success, and success breeds confidence. And confidence is what it sounds like you need. You know your stuff...this is your time to get up there and shine!

(3) PERSISTENCE: Sorry to have to say it, but you will not be Martin Luther King Jr. or Steve Jobs your first time up there. In fact you may never be the greatest presenter in the world. And that's ok! The key is to be the best you that YOU can be...and take my word for it that you will keep getting better every single time.

There's a ton of great resources out there. My favorite: The Naked Presenter by Garr Reynolds

Feel free to contact me for more.

All of the responses previous to mine are all good and helpful.  In particular,  Bill Shirley mirrored my reaction to reading of your challenge.  Toastmasters is extremely effective in helping ALL of us increase our comfort level with speaking in front of others.  The other suggestions make sense and what toastmasters provides is the ability to practice these skills with result of increasing our confidence in conveying whatever we have to say ... to others.  I, too, have had numerous clients who serve in leadership positions in their organization follow this path with outstanding results.  I believe this will be an outstanding resource to all of the others suggestions that you employ.