Public speakers, like others who perform well under pressure, didn’t get that way overnight. I saw this over and over again in two decades as an agent to elite athletes, coaches and broadcasters. I watched them perform as I represented them, and no one can deliver under pressure if fear gets in the way.
Yet fear is pervasive. According to a National Institute of Mental Health study, 74% of people suffer from speech anxiety. Fear of public speaking even has a name: Glossophobia.
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The good news is that you can develop habits to take the fear out of public speaking. What I learned in high-pressure situations inspired me become a keynote speaker, and hopefully these nuggets from my upcoming book, Fearless at Work, can boost your next presentation, too. Practice these rituals in small moments, and expect a big outcome when you step in front of your audience.
When my aging grandparents moved from their farmhouse to an apartment, I helped stock the refrigerator with two dozen eggs. Space ran out with one egg in my hand.
“Grams, toss it?” I asked.
She was my mom’s mom, and had worked all of her life on a chicken farm. She and my grandfather were successful enough to have the first car in their town. She looked appalled at my question.
“Oh no,” she said. “Wrap it up, we’ll take it.”
As I grew up, I learned not to ask a question like whether to toss good food; asking about the egg was my way of learning from them how to survive and succeed. My grandparents came from a time and place where margins were slim, and they all had a sense that they never knew what tomorrow would bring. Working hard and saving was a given.
This story is about values and teaching by example, which is what great stories and conference speakers accomplish. “Wrap it up, we’ll take it” is what your audience does with your message when you deliver it via compelling stories.
Fear thrives when you see your audience as critics and not as people receptive to your message. Who are they? What are they worried about? Excited about? Get into their hearts and heads as much as you can before you speak. Have conversations with the people who understand your audience—their challenges and opportunities. Show up early so that you can listen authentically to the conversations around you and get a sense for the overall energy and mood of the group.
Even simply shifting the language you use to describe public speaking can make an impact. Instead of thinking of it as a stressful “presentation,” think about it as a “talk.” This simple shift can put you at ease and make you feel more comfortable. Remember, 3 out of 4 people share your fear of public speaking and so those listening most likely respect and admire you for speaking up!
In 2012, Peyton Manning was cut after 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Did he and his surgically repaired neck have a future in pro football?
Facing uncertainty, Manning dove into rehab. He held secret workouts with his college coach, and even flew in some of his former Colts teammates to replicate every play, every route and even every timeout of a conference championship game that they had won under his leadership.
It may be difficult or impossible to practice your public speaking skills like Peyton, but simulate the conditions as closely as possible so that the real moment feels familiar. It worked for Peyton: The Denver Broncos signed him and in four years, he led them to two Super Bowl appearances, and he was Most Valuable Player in 2015.
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