Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

Being able to speak well, whether it’s to five people or to five hundred, is crucial in most positions. Whether you’re a social worker or writer, chances are you’ll find yourself speaking to a group of people during the course of your career – maybe giving a presentation to co-workers or voicing your opinion during meetings.

According to the Book of Lists, Americans are more afraid of public speaking than anything else.

Kevin McCue
I'm one of many who dread public speaking, so I enrolled in Catholic Health’s three-and-a-half-hour public speaking class, taught by Corporate Educator Kevin McCue.

Kevin is known throughout Catholic Health as being an excellent speaker, and in 2010, competed for the title of World Champion of Public Speaking.

Given his profession, you may be surprised to learn that Kevin had once feared public speaking, so much so that he paid his college roommate to speak on his behalf during presentations. But when a new job opportunity forced him to regularly speak in front of groups, Kevin realized that he needed to make a change.

He began attending Toastmasters meetings, where members gather to practice public speaking and receive feedback to develop their skills.

“If you don’t face your fears, fear will always control you,” he explained.

While the anxiety that you feel before a presentation will never go away, you can use it to your benefit. When you’re anxious, your natural instinct is to flee, but Kevin suggests channeling that energy into your presentation.

“Pre-speaking anxiety means that you care. It will always be with you,” he said. “You can let that fear make you feel anxious, or you can use it to feel energized and ready.”

During class, we gave three minute-long presentations. For the first – a description of what we did for Easter – my nerves were working overtime, but by the third, I was at ease with the group.

“The more you speak, the easier it becomes,” Kevin said.

Here’s what you can do to give your public speaking skills a boost.

Prepare

  • Know the material inside and out.
  • Identify 3 to 5 focus points – don’t try to cover everything or the audience will be overwhelmed.
  • Organize your presentation. In the introduction, tell the audience what you’ll be talking about. Use your most interesting fact or story to open the presentation. In the body of your presentation, talk about your main points and supporting materials. When you conclude, summarize your main points or takeaways.
  • Plan to take questions before the conclusion. Many people end their presentations with Q&As, but when there aren’t any questions, your presentation ends with a whimper. Instead, ask for questions before the conclusion. Wait 3-5 seconds, and if you don’t get any questions, say, “Some typical questions I get…” and cover the questions that you’ve prepared. Then move into the conclusion and go over your main points.
  • Gather stories. Presenting is predominantly storytelling. Think of personal stories that you can use in your presentation. Stories will help people to remember your main points and are more engaging than facts. Plus, as you get lost in your story, it’s easier to relax. Begin keeping a file of stories that you can reference in the future.
  • Watch yourself. If you need to improve your public speaking skills quickly, video tape yourself as you practice speaking.
  • Visit the room where you’ll be speaking in advance of your presentation. Understand the layout, and make sure that your equipment will set up properly.
  • Have back-ups in case technology fails. If you’re relying on PowerPoint, always have handouts available in the event that you can’t access your presentation electronically.
If you get a last-minute assignment and are unable to prepare, don’t apologize to the audience. Apologizing tells them that they’re in for something awful. Just do the best that you can.

Practice

  • Never memorize your speech. Memorize ideas, not the words. If you try to recite your presentation word-for-word, you’ll become lost if you forget a word.
  • Visualize your audience when you rehearse.

Present

  • Manage your nerves. Avoid coffee. Take deep breaths. Use affirmations (i.e. “I can’t wait to do this. I’m going to give the best presentation.”) Affirmations will put you in a positive mindset.
  • Project your voice as if you’re auditioning for a play. It makes you feel more confident.
  • Make eye contact with everyone.
  • Smile. Even if you don’t feel happy, fake it. Be an actor.
  • Avoid monotone.
  • Move towards people. Don’t hide behind a desk or table.
  • Use pauses. Pause after key facts, figures and key moments to create interest. Substitute pauses for filler words such as “ah,” “um,” or “you know.”
  • Ask the audience questions to engage them. No one wants to get caught not paying attention.
  • Have passion. If you’re not interested in what you’re talking about, your audience won’t be either.
  • When speaking off-the-cuff, repeat the question to give yourself more time to come up with a response.

Public Speaking Resources

Like any skill, public speaking takes time to develop. To continue learning and building your talent, Kevin recommends:
If you’re a Catholic Health employee, you can also attend Catholic Health University’s Public Speaking course. Register at Net Learning using course number CH351. I highly recommend it!

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