How to Get Over Your Fear of Speaking Up—in Public or Not

UPDATED: October 18, 2015
PUBLISHED: July 16, 2015

Not long ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, action film director Michael Bay famously melted down in front of an audience and fled the stage. In the post-presentation analysis, everything Bay did that day contributed to failure on the field.

“He broke all the rules of public speaking,” says media trainer Christine K. Jahnke, author of The Well-Spoken Woman: Your Guide to Looking and Sounding Your Best“There’s a reason why he didn’t hang in and panicked instead. It was a classic worst moment in public speaking.”

Public speaking has been identified as the No. 1 fear of most people, and with good reason. Even the most confident people need to master a few tips to make them ready for their time onstage. Those tips aren’t just for speaking to large groups. Pushing forward in brainstorming sessions and group meetings can be daunting if you don’t have the skills to cope.

Those skills bring about confidence, which is critical in managing your fear. In the words of Frank Herbert in the classic Dune, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Transformers director Bay is probably the poster boy for a litany of public speaking don’ts, but businesspeople commit those same sins every day as they present to groups both large and small. Preparation can make all the difference between success and a Bay-down.

Jahnke recounts the problems, which were revealed later, that led to Bay’s performance anxiety: He arrived late, hadn’t been onstage until the moment he walked in front of the audience, hadn’t met the moderator and was rewriting the script right up to the last minute. When the teleprompter failed, he wasn’t prepared to carry on. Frazzled and ill-equipped to handle a room full of people who expected him to extol the value of a new kind of television, he excused himself and hurried offstage.

“Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES,” he later wrote on his website. “I guess live shows aren’t my thing.”

Jahnke, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Positive Communications, says she has a pet peeve with people who want to speak off the cuff or have a casual chat with an audience rather than being prepared.

“Why? Why would you want to do that? A lot of people I work with operate under the mistaken assumption that they are naturally charismatic. Bill Clinton is an example of someone who has a lot of natural charisma, but he works on his skills continuously,” says Jahnke, who works with leaders in business, government and the nonprofit sector, and has clients ranging from NASCAR to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “There’s no magic wand I can wave, no secret sauce, to make you better. You have to put the time in. Everyone can get better if they are willing.”

Jahnke delivers a “shock-and-awe moment” when she tells people they should spend an hour preparing for every minute they intend to speak. She tells them they need to write, rewrite and get the content down.

“It takes time to get the words right so the presenter can own those words,” Jahnke says. “The New York Times reported that Jerry Seinfeld once spent 27 years perfecting one joke. That’s what it takes to be as good as Jerry Seinfeld.”

The good news is that you don’t have to be Seinfeld to give a perfectly acceptable presentation, although you do have to put in some effort.

Terri L. Sjodin, author of the national best-seller Small Message, Big Impact, says people want the quick fix, which isn’t possible. But there are always three things essential to a good presentation:

• The speaker must make sense, and the listener needs to be intrigued by the talking points and evidence.

• Second is creativity. Your audience might’ve heard the content before, but the way it’s presented can make it seem fresh. You don’t need a great quote or joke, but you do need to create an awakening in the listener.

• Third is the delivery. In today’s market, you want to have an authentic voice that showcases your own personality.

“The takeaway is that your message doesn’t have to be perfect to work. In fact, people almost like it better if it isn’t too perfect. But you have to be prepared,” Sjodin says. “I remember this quote: ‘Polish comes from practice, but charisma comes from certainty.’ ”

The big message from Sjodin is that brevity is your friend. Be clear, concise and compelling. And remember, she says, presentation skills are an immediate demonstration of your leadership and executive ability.

“Nothing moves humans like a beautifully delivered presentation,” Sjodin says. “Some people will never engage. Don’t worry about them as competition because they become moot.”

But no pressure, right? Actually, nerves are fine. They can give you an edge. Preparation defeats fear, enabling you to deliver a killer presentation. But be careful not to overdo it and overwhelm your audience.

Sjodin worked with a rock-solid midrange producer who couldn’t get to the president’s club. Her biggest mistake? Being overly informative rather than persuasive.

“She did a data dump and didn’t concisely bring out the most compelling facts,” Sjodin says. “And she concluded rather than closed her presentation. A conclusion is wrapping up a talk; a close is a call to action.”

Experts say the skills you need to overcome performance anxiety while talking to a big group also relate to small group settings as well. Yes, we all know how frightening it is to stand and speak in front of a group. But that’s probably followed closely by our reluctance to raise a hand during a meeting and put our necks on the line to speak up or to engage in a small group to offer our own take on a situation.

Jahnke says women often have more difficulty asserting themselves in meetings. “There is a gender difference,” she says. “Women tend to measure up against perfection, while men tend to be more realistic and measure up against others in the room. You have to walk in with the right game. You have to learn to own it.”

That begins when you first sit down to the table. There are things women can physically do to make themselves appear more active before the first words come out of their mouths. “Women don’t take up as much space as men. We sit ladylike with legs crossed and hands folded,” Jahnke says. “That doesn’t convey you have something to contribute.”

Instead, be an active listener. How you sit in a chair makes all the difference. Don’t lean back with your hands under the table or resting on the table. A simple trick is to sit up and lean forward from the waist so your head is closer to the table. Put one foot in front of the other as if you’re getting ready to do the 50-yard dash. Get both your hands and your forearms on the table to take up more space, with your arms in a V in front of you.

“It really works,” Jahnke says. “Even if you are not speaking, you look engaged, and if you are looking at the person who is speaking, it’s easier to interject.”

Seek out opportunities to practice outside of business meetings. “Practice with your friends or in a book club where it’s more low-risk,” Jahnke says. “When you gain confidence, you can expand out to the workplace.”

Both Jahnke and Sjodin recommend taping yourself as you practice your presentations, whether for small or large groups, to see what’s working and what is not.

In the end, you need to give yourself credit for what you do right and realize a job well done.

“I’m kind of an introvert myself,” Jahnke says. “When you put yourself out there, you have to be able to pat yourself on the back and keep a positive perspective. Don’t play the self-doubt game and think everyone else is smarter.”

This article appears in the August 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Avoid using 10 certain phrases while speaking if you want more credibility and influence.