Moving to the front of the boardroom, classroom, auditorium, etc., to give a presentation – the nightmare. Your hands are shaking, you’ve got cotton mouth, and you’re strangely pale. The words stick in your throat, you stutter, you forget your place. The audience is staring, waiting for you to make your point, and you just wish the floor would open up and swallow you whole. This was me when I was presenting my idea for my master’s dissertation to my peers. It went over so well that I completely changed my topic and methodology. How can I get better at public speaking so I don’t have another meltdown? – Sidney in Paterson, NJ
Fear of public speaking is common, all too common. You are not alone, and I was right there with you when I began my career. Unfortunately, I did not have anyone to help me figure it out. I had to go it alone. I was in sales, and if I wanted to work with larger clients it would require speaking and presenting to multiple stakeholders. Public speaking was a skill I needed to learn and master. And, what I learned along my journey will help you overcome your fear and master public speaking, too.
The Journey Begins: Introspection
Whatever the fear is, we need to identify it. This is the first step: to understand our feelings about what’s holding us back, what we try to avoid, and when we register a palpable physical response. Our feelings are speaking to us and we need to listen. Because, only then, can we recognize we have an underlying “ish.”
If you would rather have a root canal than speak or present in public, then you need to make time to connect within to discover why you feel this way. What’s the fear? For me, taking a walk along a wooded trail sets the stage for my mind to wander and ponder over the “ish” I’m trying to understand. You may want to meditate, maybe have a cup of herbal tea while listening to soft jazz, or get on the treadmill and let your mind walk with your feet.
Whatever your jam, make the time for it this week. Invest in yourself to gain insight on what is driving your feelings. Fear of public speaking or presenting to a group could be rooted in so many different things, like a fear of being mocked or ridiculed, forgetting what you meant to say, or a spectacular failure. These are a few of the negative thoughts that could be influencing your behavior, and often they are rooted in our childhood experiences. We then missed out on unlearning the limiting belief. The good news, though, is that it’s never too late to unlearn, relearn, and master a new skill.
Choosing a Path Forward: Learning
Now that you understand the driving force behind your fear of public speaking, it’s time for you grab the steering wheel of your life and career. Now, that doesn’t mean you will wake up tomorrow and be transformed. Just like everything else, we learn by taking steps in the process and by doing. And sometimes we’ll fall down, but you’ll get back up and dust yourself off. When this happens, invoke the image of Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, picking herself up and clenching her fists. You need that level of grit and determination to master public speaking.
You will achieve your goals of public speaking with confidence when you establish incremental objectives and take action. Remember when you learned to ride a bike? It started with a tricycle, then training wheels, and – ta-da – you were riding your bike. Learning to speak and present in public works the same way. The key is to push your boundaries and give yourself permission to fail. Think back to the skinned knees and elbows, and yet you kept getting back on that bike.
Here are some ideas to try to get out of your comfort zone:
- Interject during a meeting with a question or an idea.
- Ask to present a few slides on your project during a departmental meeting.
- Volunteer at a local organization, for your company picnic, or other venture to direct the team activities.
- Arrange to present the recent program results at an inter-departmental consortium.
- Attend a city council meeting and bring up a topic of community concern when they open the floor for constituents.
- Share a story during a family gathering. Be sure to stand up to add more oomph to breaking down your own barriers.
What worked for me was joining a community volunteer organization and taking the lead of a major endeavor. Along with running and managing the committee, I made presentations to the board with our findings and recommendations. I had more confidence in this setting, since I did not perceive it as threatening. With every presentation I was more assured and in charge. Soon I was presenting to the city council and a small audience.
The cool thing was that by actively taking the lead, my learning process was intertwined with gaining experience and repetition. I kept pushing the envelope even when I had butterflies in my stomach. And you can too. Pick your spot, project, or endeavor to step out of your comfort zone. With each step you will learn, grow, and become a master at public speaking.
Stepping Into Your Power: Confidence
As you take each step enlarging your sphere of confidence, look for new challenges and opportunities for growth. These don’t need to be huge leaps. A small jump over a puddle works just as well to learn and gain experience. Things that excite your passions and speak to your values are a perfect way to stretch and hone your newfound skill of public speaking.
Soon you will become accustomed to speaking in front of small groups with presentations or unplanned contributions. This will make the transition to speaking at larger group settings easier. This is how I gained assurance speaking to bigger and bigger client groups, then events, and finally at conferences.
These incremental steps of learning the skill of public speaking totally saved my bacon in my nightmare come to life. I was not supposed to be speaking at an event. But with 15 minutes’ warning, I was “asked” to step in to fill a last-minute gap. The quotes around “asked” is because I really was not given a choice. My initial deer-in-the-headlights terror morphed into gulps of air. Getting a grip, while my heart raced, I forced myself to focus on what I was going to say.
I was able to manage the situation and execute because I had learned how to master public speaking. Don’t get me wrong, I was nervous. Very nervous. Being pitched into this type of scenario was… well, it’s hard to put my trepidation into words. I’m a planner, and that security blanket was ruthlessly pulled away. Okay, I did have 14 minutes to figure it out (I lost the first minute to avoiding panic).
So, as I approached the mic with 15 minutes’ notice, I had poise and grace. I knew I could do this, even if my hands were sweaty. I started by letting the audience know I was filling a gap with short notice and asked their indulgence if I stumbled a bit. They leaned in, and I knew it would be fine. Actually, it was better than fine: It worked out great.
Masterful Public Speaking
All the planning and preparation in the world will not overcome your fears. They absolutely help, but tapping into the hidden drivers of your fear is the foundation to unlearning, relearning, and mastering any skill. This gift of introspection unlocks your ability to forge a new path. With each push against your boundaries, you learn and grow. Your gained experience transforms into assurance, which in turn becomes confidence, as you flex your now masterful public speaking skills.
Lynn Whitbeck is the co-founder and President of Petite2Queen. She is focused on identifying and evaluating opportunities for women at work, helping them define their personal roadmap. She dedicates herself to delivering tools and insights, embracing visualization of the big picture, and identifying and implementing the minutiae of detail. Lynn aims to share lessons learned along her journey and enable positive uplift for women.