Conquering Your Speaking Fears

Posted by on Jan 28, 2012 | 0 comments

It was bound to happen.

You’ve been invited to speak to a group of peers. Congratulations!

Wait, what’s that? You’re NOT excited? You don’t want to take the assignment? You HATE to speak in front of people? Oh my. Hmmm. Well, we better get to work!

A lot of very successful people have made it “to the top” without ever gripping a podium or looking out over a vast audience. How this happens is a topic for another blog post, but for today we’ll just state it as a  fact: great leaders are not always great speakers.

Having made this observation, we should also add that great speakers are not always great leaders. However, when the two are one – great speaker, great leader – there is a powerful energy for motivation and inspiration that cannot be denied.

So, what makes a great speaker? Let me break it down to two factors: Knowledge and Presentation. These are the two most critical elements of a presentation of any kind, whether speaking to a small group of attentive colleagues or an auditorium filled with sleep-deprived conference attendees.

Knowledge. It is imperative that a speaker know his stuff. Experience, training, and education on the topic you are presenting not only gives you a foundation to speak from, but gives you a degree of credibility before you ever open your mouth. This isn’t something you should cram for. Certainly there are instances where we’ve been given a task to teach that we aren’t 100% skilled in, so cramming is probably a good idea on occasion. But when speaking to an audience, either as a panelist, a keynote, or a session presenter, it’s important that you have a foundation of experience and knowledge to establish yourself as an “expert” of sorts. There are a lot of people with knowledge, but without the ability to present the information in a captivating, organized, motivating way…who cares? And that brings us to….

Presentation. It really doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or what your life’s experiences are, if you don’t have the know-how or ability or desire to share information in a creative, attention-holding manner, you shouldn’t be speaking at all.

  • Posture – how you stand at the podium (or sit at the panelist’s table) tells your audience a lot about you. Stand straight, sit straight. Lean forward. Rest your elbows on the table or place your hands on the podium when you’re not using them for communication. Assume a position of comfortable, assured presence.  Your posture and presence should tell a story about you: you know why you’re there, you know your audience, and you’re prepared.
  • Speech – your voice is a tool. Keeping your voice in mid-range when speaking allows you to lower it or raise it for emphasis. You can incite excitement in your audience, or make them go wide-eyed, simply by using different voice inflections as you deliver a well-prepared speech. Practice, practice, practice – before the event. Use a mirror, a tape recorder. Listen to yourself. Notice your pauses, when your voice cracks. Check your breathing, slow down, take breaths. Stop saying “Um” or “Uh”.
  • Preparation – there is a lot of necessary preparation before a successful presentation. First and foremost, know your audience. Find out who they are, why they will be in attendance, and what they need to know. And second, draft your presentation to that audience, remember who you will be speaking to and speak to them as you draft your speech. Start with a topic, draft an outline, fill in the blanks, rewrite and then rewrite again. Ask for a second pair of eyes to read through it. Maybe a third pair of eyes too. Include facts. Include personal stories. Make it something your audience can identify with. Use humor, even if your (or especially if your) subject is somewhat dry. Humor and lighthearted quips give the audience an opportunity to connect with you on a more personal level.
  • Confidence – granted, confidence comes with experience, but as you prepare for a presentation, remember that you are bringing to the table YOUR knowledge on this topic, and you’ve been asked to speak precisely because of YOUR knowledge. Share your strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. Have the confidence to be real, to know that you are the person that should be speaking to that audience on that day on that topic. You can do this!

It was Ann Landers who said, “The trouble with talking too fast is you may say something you haven’t thought of yet.”  So, take a deep breath, be prepared, stand tall, feel confident, speak clearly, stay on topic, use humor, and enjoy this assignment.

You may already be a great leader, but now it’s time for you to be a great speaker too.

Yes, it was bound to happen, but you’ve got this one. I know it.


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