Overcome the Fear of Speaking to Groups
by Ron Kurtus (revised 22 December 2001)
A great fear that many people have is speaking before a group or audience. The primary reason is that they are afraid of looking foolish in front of other people. The way to overcome this fear is through preparation, a safety net, and a positive attitude toward the audience.
Questions you may have include:
- Why are people so afraid of public speaking?
- What are ways to overcome this fear?
- How can I apply these methods?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Reason for fear
The fear of speaking is rated as only second to the fear of snakes and before the fear of dying.
Effects of fear
What happens to many people is that--even before they start speaking--their heart starts beating faster and their mouth gets dry. Some may even get nauseous or feel like fainting.
Once the person starts talking, the heart keeps beating rapidly and the person may hear his or her voice tremble. The legs or even the whole body may start shaking. The person may also stutter or start speaking rapidly.
Although some people calm down, once they get going, others may ramble through the material incoherently.
Do you wonder why many people don't want to go through that ordeal again?
When I was in high school, I was terrified of speaking in front of the class. I would tremble and my mouth would fill with saliva. The only way I could effectively give a presentation to the class was to sit in a chair. My English teacher frowned on this and thought I was just trying to be different or difficult.
The reason most people get anxious when required to speak to a group is that they are afraid of looking foolish or stupid in front of many of their peers and important people. They are afraid that their mind will go blank or that their lack of speaking skills will lower the opinion others have of them.
Being humiliated can destroy a person's ego and confidence. In fact, it can really ruin your day.
Steps to overcome that fear
There are several steps of tricks to use to overcome the fear of making a mistake or looking foolish when you speak to a group:
- Be well-prepared before speaking to a group
- Practice your speech
- Have a backup, in case you forget what you want to say
- Reduce the fear of your audience
- Relax yourself just before you speak
In the following material, I will explain each of those points.
1. Be well prepared
One of the best ways to make sure you don't make foolish mistakes is to be well prepared before you speak to a group. You should know what are going to talk about, who you will speak to, and under what conditions you will speak.
Leave nothing to chance
A professional in any field does not leave anything to chance before a big game, important performance, or critical presentation to corporate executives. Strategies are laid out, all material is ready, contingency plans are made, and every detail is taken care of.
When you are well prepared, chances of failure or goof-ups are greatly reduced. You feel more relaxed and sure of yourself, because you have all the bases covered.
You need to know exactly what you are going to talk about. This doesn't mean to memorize exactly what you plan to say. Rather, it is to have a good outline of facts and information that you can talk about.
It is good to be aware of what type of audience you will be speaking before. This will give you an idea of the subject matter and tone of your speech. If you are speaking before some important people or at an important event, that fact may increase your anxiety. But it is good to know up front, so that you can properly prepare for the occasion.
It is good to check over the conditions under which you will speak. If you can, go up to the lectern to check things over and get a feel for things. If you will use a microphone, check it out.
In some situations, a person may simply make a presentation in a meeting room at work. Even then, it is a good idea to check out the room beforehand and try to visualize how you will be doing things.
Note that going through this process will actually relax you and give you more confidence when it is your turn to speak.
You should practice your speech many times before you give it.
Even if you know your material very well, practice is extremely important. The more you give a talk, the more automatic it becomes, the more meat it can have, and the more confidence you have in your abilities to give the speech.
Ways to practice alone are to first simply say the speech out loud. This is good to get the material more ingrained in your memory.
Use a mirror
Then say the speech, looking into a mirror. This is good to do, because you must concentrate more. You also get an idea of how you look when speaking. Finally, if you must refer to notes, it allows you to practice eye contact with the audience.
Stand in the corner
An interesting trick is to say your speech while standing in the corner. The sound reflects back to you, and you can get a good idea how you sound when you speak.
Record your practice
Another way to practice is using a tape recorder. This forces you to avoid pausing to try to remember things. It also allows you to play the speech back to study how you sound, your phrasing, and the content of the material.
Use a friendly audience
Practice before friends. This is a very important way to practice, because it is getting closer to the "real world" of speaking to a group. Even an audience of one person is good for this type of practice.
3. Have a backup
It is worthwhile to bring along a "security blanket" or "safety net" in case something goes wrong in your presentation. The main thing to worry about is forgetting what you were going to say next. This can happen even if you've done extensive practicing of the speech.
It is good to have your speech outlined on a few sheets of paper or on 3 X 5 cards. You can then refer to them in case you have a mental lapse. Referring to your notes is certainly acceptable to an audience, as long as you are not reading a speech word-for-word from a script.
One thing that having a safety net provides is that it reduces you anxiety about forgetting what you were going to say or having your mind go blank. You may never even use the cards, but the fact that you have them--just in case--can greatly reduce the butterflies.
4. Reduce fear of your audience
The more important the audience or the occasion, the greater your fear can be. You don't want to look like a fool in front of the bosses at work, your peers, or even your friends and relatives.
Not that important
One method to overcome this fear is to visualize the people as not all that important. An old trick is to imagine that the audience is naked. Or perhaps imagine them all in clown outfits. A ridiculous image will make them seem not all that important.
Use positive approach
The problem with that method is that it seems somewhat negative. If you look down at your audience, it may be reflected in your speech. I prefer a more positive approach.
You have to realize that the audience is usually on your side. They want to hear what you have to say and to see you do well. Before you give your speech, think of them as caring, friendly people who want to hear you speak. It is just like talking to your friends.
The positive image should relax you and put you in a good frame of mind. The audience will also read your body language and respond accordingly.
5. Relax before speaking
When you are introduced to speak, take three breaths to settle you down before you get out of your chair. Then when you go up to the lectern, thank the person who introduced you and then count to 10 before you start speaking.
This will allow the audience to get settled and ready to hear you. It also is a way that you are showing that you are now in control.
It is not easy to do, because you have to look at the audience and panic may settle in. But if you have made all the preparations, you can be sure of yourself and deserve to be in control of the situation. It is a good feeling.
Applying your skills
If you have to speak before groups at school, work or in some organizations, it is good to practice speaking more often to hone your skills and to reduce any fears you may have. You can take classes in public speaking in night school, join Toastmasters, or find other opportunities to speak to groups.
A good place to practice your speeches and to get helpful guidance in giving presentation is through your local Toastmaster Club. It is a well-run organization that helps millions of people hone their speaking skills and overcome any fears they have in speaking.
Check the Toastmaster World Headquarters web site to find a club in your area.
Many people are afraid to speak before a group or audience, because they fear looking foolish in front of other people. The way to overcome the fear of speaking to a group is to make sure you are well prepared, have some backup material ready in case you forget your lines, visualize your audience as not so important, and practice as much as you can before you speak.
Take a deep breath and just do it
Resources and references
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