Of all the skills that are essential in life and business, communication is at the forefront. Whether you are a student in college, a professional at work, or an entrepreneur—at some point you will be faced with stepping in front of an audience to deliver a message. Regardless of the stage you are at in life, and your career, the following situation can be an extremely nerve-racking experience. We all have been here:
You are standing at the front of a room. Met with a crowd of blank stares. Heart beating intensely. Sweat accumulating. Legs shaking. Mouth dry. As you open up your mouth to speak, your mind goes blank on what you are about to say…
To cope, you decide to stare back at your PowerPoint slides, or read directly from notecards, rushing through your lines and skipping key points in your presentation so you can get over it and be relieved of the discomfort that you feel in front of all the people staring at you.
Sound familiar? Well, if you’re like the roughly 75% of Americans with speech anxiety then it should.
Mark Twain once said:
I saw this quote some time ago, and it really resonated with me. Maybe it was because I found comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the only one that struggled with a fear of public speaking. I didn’t even realize that I had this fear until I went to college. My phobia was so paralyzing that I chose to avoid class presentations entirely.
For my freshman year, I went to Franklin Pierce University to pursue my dream of playing NCAA basketball and gaining a Bachelor’s degree. It can be a challenging time for any kid leaving home for the first time. But balancing athletics and academics made school significantly more difficult for me. In high school, I was more interested in playing basketball than studying—choosing to spend my nights at the YMCA instead of the library—so I wasn’t particularly a good student (ball was really life). However, now that I was in college and responsible for financing my education, during a time when the country was recovering from the recession, I knew it was time to focus.
Overall, it was a pretty good year. During that year, I flew on a plane for the first time for a tournament in Fort Lauderdale and traveled all cross the East Coast for scrimmages and games in states I had never been to, to play against Brown, Princeton, and the teams of the Northeast 10 Conference. I sacrificed a lot that year. Instead of going out, partying and enjoying the college life—I was attempting to get my game right, walk-on to the team, and get grades that my family and I could be proud of. I can say that I am satisfied with the results of those goals except the last one—I finished with a 2.8 GPA. Although it was much better than my high school GPA, it was still a disappointment. It was a disappointment because it would have been much higher had I not chosen to skip presentations out of fear of speaking in front of a classroom full of other students. When it came to presentations, I was a no-show.
Despite having a solid year and enjoying life as an NCAA athlete, I knew FPU wasn’t the place that I was going to spend the rest of my college career. However, because my fear of public speaking interfered with the outcome of my GPA, it limited my options for transferring.
Therefore, I did a stint at Bristol Community College where I was able to get my grades up before transferring to Northeastern University in Boston. At BCC, you are required to take a public speaking course which I made sure to push off until my very last semester so I could prolong having to feel the anxiety and discomfort I experienced while speaking in front of others. I dreaded taking that class but there is one lesson that has stuck with me until today. On the day of a presentation, our professor used to tell us to say to ourselves:
“I’m an important person and I earned the right to speak today.”
However corny it may be, the mantra had a powerful message behind it…
Feed the Positive Thoughts, Silence the Negative
Much of public speaking comes down to confidence and comfort. It is natural to be nervous. Even to this day, after all the presentations I’ve given, I still experience nervousness. If you have to give a presentation then you might as well make the most of it. Dwelling on negative thoughts or thinking about unrealistic embarrassing outcomes—that aren’t going to happen—will do nothing but increase your anxiety. You must think positively about the great presentation you are going to give. Visualize yourself in the room or venue you will be presenting, picture the faces in the crowd, see yourself reciting the speech, and imagine the crowd applauding you and anticipate the feeling of empowerment and accomplishment of successfully delivering your presentation. Once you get to the venue and it is time to deliver the speech, you will be more confident because you have already been there before.
After moving on from community college, I went to Northeastern where I still grappled with an apprehension toward public speaking.
In the first week of classes, otherwise known as syllabus week—you get your course syllabus and can see which projects are scheduled for the rest of the semester. You can also see the weight of each assignment. For anyone that has taken college classes, you know that just about every class requires class presentations. However, during my early days at Northeastern, I would get my syllabuses and based off of presentation requirements, switch out to a different class that wasn’t so presentation focused. It mostly depended on individual presentations. Group presentations were more manageable for me but I still rushed through or skipped lines.
As my Northeastern career went on, I got more presentations under my belt, gained more experience, and took on leadership roles that challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone and forced me to grow.
Experience is Key
As a board member of the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club, I directed events like InnoWeekend and the Entrepreneur Dinners, and led entrepreneurship workshops for the university’s welcome day orientation. Had I not built up the experience through constant practice, I never would have been able to do it. I actually took on the roles before I felt qualified for them because I wasn’t going to let my fear of public speaking interfere with the great opportunities that were presented to me. Accepting these kinds of roles often pressures you into action to learn how to perform in them. The pressure caused me to seek out public speaking help.
I found out that our university had a public speaking chapter of Toastmaster’s International—an organization that empowers individuals through meetings centered on giving speeches, gaining feedback, leading teams and guiding others to achieve goals. I joined immediately.
I would highly recommend that you join a Toastmasters group because it provides several opportunities to practice your public speaking skills in a low pressure, supportive environment. Toastmasters was paramount in my development as a public speaker and helped me to learn how to manage my nervousness, feel more comfortable and confident, and become a more effective presenter. I can’t understate the importance that Toastmasters played in my public speaking development.
Other than becoming a better public speaker through Toastmasters, I have improved by using the following tips:
HYDRATE — Be sure to drink a lot of water leading up to your presentation to avoid your mouth drying up on you and making it difficult to articulate your words. Bonus tip: go to the bathroom before your presentation starts so you don’t have that as an added distraction when presenting.
EXERCISE — Workout on the day of your presentation. Exercising will release endorphins which will alleviate anxiety and make you feel more relaxed for your presentation.
POSE — Power poses boost confidence. Before you are set to deliver a speech, go to the bathroom, empty stairwell, or any other isolated location to do power poses. For more on this, watch this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy about how your body language shapes who you are.
MOVE — Experience nervousness? It can be a good thing. Use it to your advantage by converting your nervous energy into excitement and enthusiasm by moving around on the stage.
PRACTICE — Your presentation shouldn’t be the first time you recite the lines that you are going to say. Leading up to the presentation, identify what you are going to say, and practice it! Go over the lines in your head. Say them in front of a mirror. Recite them to a relative or friend. Just be sure that you prepare before the presentation. “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”
By using these tips and frequently practicing, I have greatly improved as a public speaker. Although I have come a long way, I still have a lot of work to do. I still personally struggle with adjusting the speed and tone of my voice to emphasize certain statements to tell stories that paint vivid pictures in the minds of the audience. Storytelling is something that a couple of public speakers that I admire ( Steve Harvey and Alex Banayan) do so well as you can see from this video and this video.
This is something that I will continue to work on so I can give keynote presentations that inform, inspire, and entertain.
You can too by remembering the lessons from my personal struggle (and ultimately triumph) over public speaking anxiety, and implementing the previously mentioned tips.
Now that I’ve shared my story, what is yours?
Please let me know about your struggles and triumphs with public speaking anxiety, and any other tips that you use, in the comments.