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Public speaking. It sounds pretty simple – instead of communicating with your friend or family member over the dinner table or at the water cooler, you say similar things to a crowd of people. However, just the mental picture of this can strike fear into the heart of many people. Public speaking is the most prevalent form of social anxiety, and something close to 27 million Americans suffer from the fear of public speaking. 

You thought heights and spiders were scary? Public speaking is one of the all-time top fears throughout the population. An article by Chapman University shows among “personal fears”, public speaking is up there along with clowns and vaccines! 

Personal Fears: Tight spaces, public speaking, clowns, vaccines

Why is speaking in front of a crowd or a small group, or even giving a toast at a party, so distressing to so many people? Because… they are all looking at you. Focused on you. Listening to you. In most of life you can get lost in a crowd, but when you speak TO the crowd, all eyes are on you! It’s unnerving and unsettling because it doesn’t seem normal to most people. They are hanging on your every word, and what if you make a mistake, or say something stupid or – Heaven forbid – have your dress stuck in your pantyhose or your tie askew and someone else notices before you do? Having all eyes and ears on you can distract you so much that your well-practiced words become lost and you can’t even remember what you wanted to say in the first place!

Becoming a confident public speaker is important. You never know when you will be asked to present a report to colleagues or management at your job, or give a toast at your best friend’s wedding, or share some insights at a book club or with a group of people who are learning something like you. Being able to come across confidently can elevate your stature in so many ways, but not having a confident approach can just as easily detract from what you know and what you want to convey.

Joining a club like Toastmasters can be very helpful to get some practice in a safe environment where everyone is trying to improve. Role playing with a friend or family member who will give you honest feedback is good. As you work to lower your anxiety around public speaking, try and put the emphasis on the audience. The more you care about their taking something away (yes, even from your wedding toast), the less you will focus on yourself. Changing your focus to the listeners, the audience, is a massive mindshift away from “How do I sound? How do I look?” as you speak in front of the group.

Consider the Six Keys to Confident Presenting®:

  1. Know why. Every time you speak to a group, consider what you want to have as an outcome. Is there something they need to learn? Do they need to be inspired and excited? Do you need to motivate them or engage them? Write down what you hope to accomplish. This allows you to set expectations at the outset, too: “By the time I finish with this toast, I’m hoping you will find some of the antics of my best friend, the groom, as funny as I have over the years.”
  2. Know your audience. Do the people listening have the same background information you do? Do they come from a similar culture or knowledge level? What’s funny and engaging to one crowd might not be so to another. What’s “high level” information to one group might be basic and uninteresting to another. What do you know about the people listening? Ask questions. Have them raise their hands. “How many people here have heard a speech on trends in biotechnology prior to today?” Get them to tell you, somehow, what they know and what they don’t so you can focus your comments appropriately.
  3. Develop a flow to your commentary. Look at the information you want to convey and then chunk it into groups of no more than 3-5 topic categories. Be sure not to jump all over, and go back to slides or recall a point you wanted to make. Stay with a clear flow you can outline in the beginning and then refer to throughout – “I mentioned that we would cover three areas; let’s now look at topic number two.”
  4. Create context for your listeners. Why should they care about what you are saying? What does it matter to them and their lives? People are busy, and they want to get something valuable somehow. What can you tell them that’s important? “You came here tonight to learn about financial literacy; let me tell you a story about someone I worked with who learned what they needed to know about financial matters and was able to change their lives.” Then insert your story. Make it meaningful to your listener.
  5. Watch communication style – yours and theirs. You may be an energetic, effusive person, waving your hands around and really getting into your material, but your listeners are more stoic and low-key. Be sure to modulate your tone, your gestures, and even your voice to match as much of your audience as you can.
  6. Bring closure. Lastly, put a bow on the end of your present(ation). Remind them what you started out to do, and then confirm that you reached the goal. Ask “How many people learned something new?” and have them raise their hands.

The more you can make the message about the audience, the more the audience will focus on that message, and the less on the person delivering it.

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