Countless books have been written about how to make an audience sit up and take notice when you give a business presentation. But what about the people who become so nervous and anxious that they have trouble simply speaking and thinking clearly in front of a group? For those folks, we offer the following tips:

Consult with a professional

nofearpublicspeakingJust about everyone gets nervous before speaking in public. But if your nervousness is debilitating, the root cause is most likely something from your childhood: other kids laughed when you spoke in front of the class; an adult criticized your speaking; you watched a friend get humiliated in public. These are deep-rooted traumas that only a professional therapist (or hypnotist) can help you overcome. Make this the year that you finally put those childhood memories where they belong: in the forgotten past.

Start small to gain confidence

You can’t simply tell yourself to be confident. Rather, you need to gain confidence by actually experiencing some public-speaking successes.

Start small. Give a presentation to your children about the benefits of keeping a clean room or going to college. Make a presentation to your spouse comparing two vacation options.

Then, start using public meetings (school / neighborhood / community) as an opportunity to stand up and say something. Often, these call for organizing your thoughts on the fly and speaking into a microphone, which is great practice.

Finally, join a local chapter of Toastmasters, an international social club that allows business people to practice public speaking in a supportive, positive environment. Here, you’ll also be encouraged to start small before taking on bigger and bigger speaking challenges designed to improve your technique and increase your confidence.

Before you know it, you’ll feel far more at ease with public speaking, and the size of the group won’t really matter.

Temper expectations (your expectations)

When it comes to public speaking, you can’t be a perfectionist. You’re going to lose your train of thought, you’re going to stammer, you’re going to mispronounce some terms, someone is going to ask a question for which you have no good answer. Accept that. Even embrace it. The sooner you do, the less performance pressure you’ll feel.

Focus on the first three minutes

You’re going to be most nervous the first three minutes of your presentation, so practice that portion the most. Once you move beyond those critical first minutes, you’ll feel less anxious, and the rest of your speech should flow more easily.

Take deep breaths

While much of the stress associated with public speaking is mental, you feel it physically. To relax your body, make a concerted effort to take deep breaths – especially before your speech, but also while you’re giving it. Find spots in your speech where a pause makes sense, and make a note telling yourself to “take a deep breath” at that point.

Practice a few recoveries

Since you know you’re going to make mistakes, come prepared with a couple ways to recover (and practice them):

  • If you trip over a word, simply stop, repeat the word correctly, then carry on. Don’t make any comments about how nervous you are, or what a dumb thing that was to do.
  • If you find yourself going off on a tangent, just stop talking, then say, “My point is ….”
  • When you realize you made a mistake previously, say, “It just occurred to me that I misspoke earlier,” then quickly correct the mistake: “The previous chart was for 2015; this is the chart for 2016.”
  • If something prevents you from continuing (for example, there’s an equipment failure, or you drop your notes), say, “I’m going to take a short time out to fix this. Please take a minute to introduce yourself to your neighbor.” If the problem can’t be corrected quickly, give your audience a task, like brainstorming a solution to a problem you’re going to discuss in your speech.
  • When an audience member points out a mistake, be gracious, not defensive. Say, “Thank you, George. I’m covering a lot of material here today, and figured I might make some mistakes. Did anyone else have anything to add?”
  • If you realize, after the speech, that you made a major mistake, send an email to all who attended and say, “Dear friends, I was so eager to share my learnings with you yesterday that I misstated a few of the facts in my presentation. The correct data is included below.” Forget about any minor mistakes you may have made.

Do it again

If your speech goes bad, be sure to give it again – to your spouse, a friend, or even in complete privacy. You need to prove to yourself that you can do the speech justice. And you need to end the experience on a positive note.

If your speech is even a partial success, look for an opportunity to do another. Public speaking is a powerful business tool; and those who learn to do it well gain a significant competitive advantage.

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