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Mic Drop: How to Get Over Your Fear of Public Speaking

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How to Get Over Your Fear of Public Speaking with tips by Public Speaking Coach Jennifer Doody Sleepless nights, anxious butterflies, sweaty palms – it can only mean one thing. You have a presentation coming up and a big ol’ fear of public speaking to go along with it. You’re not alone. Cited as one of people’s biggest fears, upwards of 80% of people say they do not enjoy public speaking.

The good news is you can conquer your glossophobia. The keys? Preparation and practice, says public speaking coach Jennifer Doody. And, she adds, it’s vital to your future success.

“Overcoming your fear of public speaking is one of the most empowering and impactful things you can do in life,” says Doody. “We’re engaged with public speaking every day of our lives, and often with very high stakes: at an interview, an important social gathering, a networking event, even delivering difficult news to your employees. Mastering your fear of public speaking can have an incredible impact on your confidence, your career, and your relationships, not just now but 10, 15, 25 years down the road.”

As a public speaking coach and instructor at Harvard University, Doody has helped upwards of 200 students and faculty members make their way to the podium. OK, now let’s make that 201.

Public Speaking Coach Jennifer Doody of Harvard University Q: This is one of people’s biggest anxieties – in college, and in office life. Where should someone with a fear of public speaking start?
A: The most important thing to realize is that your presentation isn’t about you, it’s about the audience. Most speakers are so focused on themselves, their content, and their own anxieties that they forget that the point of any presentation is for the audience to have a positive, perspective-changing experience. Thinking about the audience’s experience shifts your focus entirely. When you begin to consider their point of view – what unconscious biases might they have against the topic, how to frame your point in a way that is thought-provoking and attractive to the audience – it shifts the focus dramatically. A big bonus of this perspective is that it often lowers the speaker’s stress, too.

Q: What are some of your other tips for facing a fear of public speaking?
A: Speakers often feel like they need to launch into their presentation right away and barrel through it, but that doesn’t reflect our day-to-day interactions: we often take a moment before speaking, and pause when we’re trying to convey something important. Pausing for just three seconds before you begin your speech, as well as pausing at specific points in your speech, gives the audience a chance to settle in or really think about what you just said – as well as giving you the chance to take a deliberate and calming breath for those few seconds. It can be a game-changer.

Q: And what about for the visual presentation?
A: When people put a lot of text into their PowerPoints, they usually wind up reading the slides out loud, and suddenly you’re no longer a public speaker, but a public reader, which will bore any audience to tears.

Q: What are people’s biggest mistakes when it comes to giving a speech or presentation?
A: By far the greatest mistake is that speakers focus on tweaking their words, and not on practicing their speech out loud and on their feet. We tend to think that all you have to do is find the right words and your presentation will be a success. But that doesn’t reflect our daily interactions: an enormous amount of in-person communication is about body language, inflection, and eye contact. So it’s vital to practice a speech as you’re going to deliver it: on your feet, and without your speech in hand.

Q: Anything else?
A: I highly recommend that people film themselves presenting in advance to see what needs work, and that they also practice it before a trusted friend who will provide honest but encouraging feedback. It can be a challenging process – no one likes to be vulnerable – but it’s absolutely the best way to see first-hand what you’re doing well and what needs to improve. Rehearse it until your presentation really shines.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for how to outline a speech?
A: Absolutely! Your introduction should start with what I call a “WOW” statement: something that really grabs your audience’s attention. You want to follow that with an expertise statement, something that lets your audience know that you’re an expert on your subject due to years of experience or in-depth immersion experience. The third statement should indicate what’s in it for the audience - why should they listen to you, or how your information is going to improve their lives in the short or long term. The body of the speech can take a variety of forms, but having a strong closing statement - another “WOW” - is vital to leave a lasting impression on your audience. Most audiences remember the beginning and the ending of a speech most of all, so it’s important to spend a lot of time into crafting those statements, and really making them sing.

Q: How do you feel about humor in presentations?
A: Humor is tricky – it’s something you definitely want to practice before a trusted friend who will tell you honestly whether the joke works or falls flat. There is one approach that works most of the time, and that’s self-deprecating humor. You don’t want to undermine your expertise in your subject, but poking fun at yourself, particularly in the beginning of your speech, shows a high level of self-awareness and confidence, and can quickly get an audience on your side. Poking fun at others, of course, has the exact opposite effect; it can alienate your audience immediately. Leave that to the professional comedians!

Check out more of Jennifer’s public speaking tips on her website, World Class Words.

Some of Jennifer's book recommendations that may help with a fear of public speaking.

The Art of Public Speaking by Stephen Lucas

The Art of Public Speaking by Stephen Lucas

Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo

Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo