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Overcome your fear of public speaking

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 28, 2014 06:00 AM

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Do you fear public speaking? If so, I'm here to say there's a better way to overcome it. As a public speaking trainer and speaking coach, I've heard from countless students how their fear of public speaking has affected their lives and their careers. These stories inspire me to help liberate them from this far-too-often overblown phobia.

By no means am I minimizing the anxiety some feel when it comes to public speaking this is a very real human experience. However, I am saying the fear or anxiety should never hold you back from fulfilling your potential. My life goal is to change this for as many people as possible to free them from fear and open up their lives, personal and professional to endless opportunities. To be clear, this fear or anxiety is perfectly natural, but it is how we respond to it that makes all the difference.

Fear and anxiety, like all emotions, are simply a message or call to action. In the case of the fear of public speaking, this is driven from what we call the "fight or flight" response. We react to speaking as we would a real mortal danger; we have a physiological reaction to a misperceived "threat" of speaking. Beginning speakers in my courses do an inventory of their emotions while reflecting on speaking and they all report the activation of this response.

This is a very useful response if you are being confronted to a venomous snake or a tiger, but not for approaching the podium. We are not under threat, but oxygen and blood flow are directed to our muscles and not the place we need it most to think clearly our brain. These emotions, like all others, are more a call to action or an impetus for change than anything else. Coupled with this unproductive response, beginning speakers often focus on ruminating or worrying over speaking opportunities rather than positive change. They focus on the bad feelings and experiences of the past rather than the possible solutions to these poor habits. I'd like suggest several ways for you to overcome these self-defeating habits and reframe speaking in the positive light in which it truly exists.

Prepare & Practice
One of the most fundamental methods for dealing with the fear of public speaking is to plan and prepare to be successful in it. As I said previously, if our emotions are simply a call to action, we should then interpret our anxiety as a rally cry to prepare. If we spend as much time preparing and practicing as we spend ruminating over our dislike or discomfort relating to speaking, we will see far more positive returns. Our first steps should be to dedicate time to preparing our speech. My suggestion to the students of my classes is to put aside several hours a week for the process of producing and practicing your speech. This includes the activities below.

Writing & Editing
This first step is one that is often neglected as many simply open up PowerPoint and begin "writing." PowerPoint, if required, should come later. First steps should include developing an outline and working out the key points you will cover. You can do this by my method of boiling down the content to simple single sentences per section from its original written form. These then can be even further condensed into the key subject matter you want to deliver. Your final form can be four or five sentences or the key thoughts or ideas. In this way you don't have to worry about delivering your speech word for word, but rather you can deliver your message in a conversational and authentic manner.

Practicing & Record Yourself in Front of a Webcam or Smart Phone
Recording your speech allows you to go back and review what you are doing right and what needs improvement. It make you more conscious and focused on the speech content, delivery and your use of your voice and body language. Try it and you will see and hear many opportunities where you can improve.

Creative Visualization
Many misunderstand visualization as hocus pocus wishful thinking rather than the scientifically based practice for optimizing performance. Just ask any Olympic or professional athlete. Sports psychologists have been using these science-inspired methods to help their athletes optimally perform for many years. Legendary athletes such as Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods (to name a few) tell stories of the transformative power of creative visualization. We as speakers can use the power of visualization to re-imagine our speaking outcomes to our desired positive end. We can break the anxiety/rumination habit and instead visualize our speaking success. We do so by dedicated practice of the following:


  • Find a quiet, relaxed space and sit comfortably.

  • Close your eyes and visualize yourself in a positive place of your choosing. I like to see myself surrounded by endless positive white light in the presence of something benevolently infinite. For you, it can be anything you like that it is symbolic of peace, confidence and focus.

  • Visualize giving your speech in vivid detail. Actually see yourself in your mind's eye making positive eye contact with the crowd, using powerful body language and vocal variety. See every detail; use all of your senses.

  • Notice your negative self talk and intruding visuals that may come up during this practice and let them go by just labeling them as thoughts you no longer practice. Let them go and refocus on delivering your speech with enthusiasm and power. Remember the new you is about framing speaking in a positive light.

If you believe in and consistently practice this method it can transform your speaking. Trust the method and trust in your future success.

It is important to note that visualization alone will not improve your public speaking but combined with focused diligent preparation and practice speaking success will be yours.

Your goal in any of these exercises is to create new positive speaking habits. We must remember that tired, old habits only keep you in the past far from the successful speaker you want to become. You have an infinite potential that sits before you. Challenge yourself to write, practice and visualize, and it will lead to quantum improvements in your speaking skills.

Here's to your success in speaking and life!

Joseph Guarino is owner and senior trainer of the Institute of Public Speaking, a Boston-based international public speaking training organization. You can connect with him on all major social networks.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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