Posted On December 21, 2015

microphone on blurry background

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two? Does that seem right? To the average person that means that if they have to go to a funeral, they’d be better off in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld’s observation is amusing yet informed; there are indeed lists that show public speaking as either the number one fear or one of the top ten fears for the average person. This is above the fear of death which comes in at number two or lower depending on which list you look at.

Let’s assume that the statistics are  true: what does ‘public speaking’ refer to, and why do people fear it so much? Perhaps even more importantly, how to overcome fear of presenting?

The Focus Is On You

For some of us, ‘public speaking’ might conjure up images of addressing a crowd at a rally or function, or making a speech at a wedding, funeral or other significant occasion – the sort of address you are only called upon to deliver once every so often.

But there’s another form of public speaking that many of us have to experience at work on a far more regular basis: making a presentation.

These days, delivering a presentation at work can be a regular expectation, whether it’s to a team or group of colleagues, or a gathering of stakeholders or clients. And when it happens, the focus is on you. There you are, in front of a group of people you may or may not know; they could be team mates with kindly faces who laugh at your corny jokes, or external stakeholders with hostile expressions who look as if they’re ready to rip you to shreds as soon as you pause for breath. Is that really what we think might happen?

What Can Possibly Go Wrong?

When we’re under pressure we can imagine all sorts of worst case scenarios, culminating possibly in our sudden and unexpected death. That’s a little extreme. But are there presentation fears that are justified? What is it we’re worried about? Here are a few of our concerns:

  • Looking stupid
  • The audience asking difficult questions
  • Being heckled
  • Going red
  • Forgetting our words
  • Equipment not working, and
  • Being boring.

Overcoming Our Anxieties

So how can we overcome these anxieties? Surf the net and you’ll find any number of sites offering advice on how to overcome your fear of public speaking. Here are seven tips from the dozens available that are worth bearing in mind:

  1. Start by planning your purpose and outcomes. What’s your key message and what do you want the audience to know, do or think at the end of your presentation? If everything you say is guided by your purpose and outcomes, you’ll be less likely to go off on tangents or deliver something that’s irrelevant, and more likely to keep your audience interested and attentive.
  2. Speaking of your audience, make sure you know them: who they are, what they do, what’s important to them, how you can best influence them. If you don’t know, find out! Greet each person when they come in and SMILE – it’ll help you to build rapport with individuals and will help you feel more relaxed too.
  3. This one’s obvious, but do know your content. Your audience expects you to be the subject matter expert, so do your research.  Consider the questions you’re likely to be asked and prepare some answers.
  4. Know the room and the equipment you’ll be using. If you’re using a projector, practice with the remote control and the clicker. Know how to blank the screen and go forwards and backwards in your slides. If you’re using a communal laptop, check you know the login and password. If you’re presenting to people remotely, check the position of the webcam and any other conferencing equipment. Adjust the position of the whiteboard and flip chart stand if necessary, and make sure you have markers and pens as appropriate (and try not to confuse the two). Check where the light switches and electric cables are, as well as the seating arrangements for your audience.
  5. Prepare a strong introduction. Engage your audience from the start. There is actually a formula to a great introduction; check out some of the TED talks and spot the similarities. Rehearse your intro, and, if necessary, learn your opening lines by heart.
  6. Prepare your conclusion: link back to your introduction and your hook if you can. Recap the main points of your presentation and your objectives. Make sure you leave time for questions.
  7. Slow down your speech. Most people talk too fast when they’re nervous. If you know that’s you, rehearse talking slowly! If you know you get tongue-tied, do some mouth muscle exercises – it’s what radio announcers, singers and voice-over artists do before they perform. When you present, you’re performing, so remember to warm up.

Preparation Makes Great Presentations

It is possible to overcome the fear of public speaking by using a collection of strategies that will help you feel more comfortable in your surroundings as well as help you to deliver a presentation that looks and sounds prepared. And there’s the key: preparation. There’s no way around this, no quick, convenient shortcut. If you really want to succeed then you need to put the effort in beforehand. And if you do, you might just find that your presentations improve and you get positive feedback from your audience, which leaves you feeling much more confident.

What About That Fear Of Death?

You never know, after all this, you might even accelerate your career. So there’s ultimately a reward for all of your hard work.

As for the other fear on Seinfeld’s list: well, death comes to us all at some point. But when the next presentation is lurking round the corner, you’ll be prepared…

Help build your presentation skills with these extra resources from MCI Solutions:

Workshop: Presentation Skills

Workshop: Presentation Skills: Advanced

Article: 9 Essential Tips for Making a Memorable Presentation