Julia Dalger of Schenectady used to get so nervous trying to speak in front of groups that she would often draw a blank.
“For some reason, the level of anxiety that I had would force me to become speechless, and if anyone knows me they know I am someone who is not short on words,” Dalger said. To add to the stress, when words did finally come to her, they would come in her first language, Italian. “It would be hard for me to extract from my brain English words,” she said.
Speaking in public is the second most common fear among Americans, right behind snakes, according to a Gallup poll. The fear can range from glossophobia, an extreme fear of public speaking, to a general angst about it. “People might not be scared to death, but they’re not comfortable with it,” said Barbara Fehr, professor of communication at the University at Albany. “It is, by and large, an anxiety-producing situation.”
The nervousness could stem from something that happened in the past, even as far back as childhood, said Judi Clements, owner of Judi Clements Training & Development in Clifton Park. It could have been a deeply embarrassing moment, a callous comment by a family member or some other situation that left an emotional scar.
The other point to consider is that people are not naturally born with public speaking skills. “Public speaking is a skill that we acquire,” Fehr said. “Like most other skills we acquire, we need to practice it before we become comfortable.” Being at ease speaking in public is not something a person should expect of himself without some training, practice and preparation.
Skill worth having
Public speaking is a skill worth acquiring, as it can help advance a person’s career. When Alissa M. Quinn, a first vice president of wealth management at a local financial advisory firm, was starting out in the professional world, she decided that whatever career she ended up in, public speaking would be required, so she sought out the training that she would need to master the skill. She signed up for public-speaking classes at the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Schenectady and began competing in public speaking contests, winning a spot at the national competition in Wisconsin.
She found herself addressing an audience of 400 people about smoking in the workplace — in a room that was so filled with smoke that she couldn’t see beyond the first row of people. “I was definitely scared, but delivered my speech with as much passion as I could muster,” she said. Today, Quinn finds public speaking a “wonderfully positive business building tool” and credits some of the growth of her business to doing educational financial presentations, an endeavor that requires solid public speaking skills.
Training is key in overcoming a fear of public speaking and becoming a successful and effective speaker. Dalger saw how her challenges with public speaking hindered her effectiveness in group communication and reduced her level of self-confidence. While she wasn’t interested in pursuing a lot of course work in public speaking, she did engage Clements for some training.
There are definite tips and tricks that can ease the stress of speaking in public, and many of them have to do with preparation. Writing the notes of a speech so that visually the main topics are easily seen at a glance is helpful, Fehr said. Memorizing the first line of a speech can also help to lessen anxiety.
Practice is essential
Practicing is key. At first, Dalger didn’t think she had time for that and rehearsing in front of the mirror seemed silly and ridiculous to her. She tried it though, and even uses long car rides to rehearse her talks and responses to questions that she anticipates an audience might ask. “I cannot tell you how much that has benefitted me,” she said.
Fehr advocates practicing in front of an audience if possible, which is something that students in her public-speaking class have a chance to do every class. “That kind of experience over the course of the semester makes it possible for the large majority of folks to get more comfortable,” she said.
Videotaping oneself in practice or at a public-speaking event is also another useful tool, so that a person can evaluate his own performance an see what he wants to change.
Knowing one’s audience is another critical piece of preparation. A speaker should find out the size of the audience and know who is going to be in the audience, Clements said. “Clients fight me on this sometimes,” she said. Obtaining this information might take a bit of research, like getting email addresses or phone numbers and asking questions. She also tells clients to find out where they’re going to be giving the speech and if possible, visit ahead of time to check it out. “The more homework you do before the presentation, the less anxiety you’re going to have,” she said.
Knowing oneself, too, is helpful. Clements likes to reinterpret signs of anxiety, mentally relabeling these as “signs of anticipation.” These might include physical signs like turning red, perspiring a lot, getting a dry throat, an increased heart rate or feeling butterflies in the stomach. “If my heart is beating fast, it means I’m getting ready for my game because I don’t want to be overrelaxed when I step up to the plate,” she cited as an example of relabeling.
Other signs can be addressed ahead of time. If you have a dry throat, have water handy. If you perspire a lot, dress appropriately so that perspiration won’t be an embarrassment, Clements advises.
She also suggests that people have a “speaking kit” with a bottle of water and cough drops.
Calming the nerves
Just before the speech, there are some things people can do to ease nervousness. Fehr tells students to flex the muscles of their whole body, hold that for five to 10 seconds and then let go. If you’re sitting at your seat waiting to be introduced, you can still flex your legs. “Nobody can see that you’re doing it, and it really helps just pull some of the tension away,” she said.
In the way of mental preparation, Clements tells clients to see their presentations as a gift to the audience. “Your nervousness will dissipate because you’re in a reciprocal relationship of give and take,” she said.
Learning how to get comfortable public speaking doesn’t necessarily mean that all nervousness is banished. Even the “Iron Lady,” former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, admitted to being nervous every time she had to give a major speech.
“As I didn’t have a fear of public speaking per se, it doesn’t mean I still don’t get nervous,” Quinn said. “I get nervous every time I speak in front of a group of any size.”
The nervousness shouldn’t be a cause of embarrassment, though. “There’s nothing to be ashamed about being stressed out about presentations,” Clements said. “It’s just a matter of taking hold of the task and knowing that you’re capable of taking care of it.”