Speak up to stand out!
Simple techniques for better public speaking

Fear of public speaking prevents many of us from sharing our message with a wider audience. By understanding this fear and practicing a few simple techniques, you can get up on stage with the best of them, says Melony dos Remedios.

What is it about standing up in front of people that is so damned scary? In one of his stand up routines Jerry Seinfeld says, ‘the two greatest fears in life are, one – death, and two – public speaking. That means if you are at a funeral, you’d rather be the guy in the casket than the guy delivering the eulogy.’

I’m not sure where Jerry gets his stats, but it’s fair to say; fear and public speaking go hand in hand.
As a presentation skills coach I’ve worked with a variety of presenters, from executives to fitness professionals. I routinely hear how fearful people are of public speaking. Delving deeper into these fears, I have come to realise they are based on humiliation: they believe they’ll say something silly, be boring or go blank. And they’re convinced that as a result of this people won’t like them and will distance themselves from them.

I’m sure this fear of humiliation has some primitive significance. If we were ostracised from our tribe in prehistoric times, we risked being cut off from food or unable to defend ourselves against a sabre-toothed tiger. However, in today’s world, the worst-case scenario is this: people may not like your presentation. They may not enjoy your slides. They may think your hair looked terrible and they may even question the quality of mints in the bowl. But believe me – you will certainly survive a terrible presentation.

I know this is true or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it! However, you probably want to aim higher than mere survival – especially as public speaking can be a great way of furthering your fitness career. So, how can you overcome the ingrained fears that prevent you from getting out there and delivering your message?

Notice negative self-talk

When coaching people, I encourage them to verbalise their self-talk, the talk that’s usually reserved for inside our heads. They say things like ‘I’ll forget’; ‘I’m not good at this’; ‘I’ll be boring’; and ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’. We’re often our own worst critics. These thoughts can appear threatening and can quickly become beliefs. They can become self-fulfilling prophecies because if we listen to the negative self-talk, we won’t fully apply ourselves.

We underprepare, we don’t rehearse, we procrastinate and we say we’re going to ‘wing’ it. These half-baked attempts lead to poor presentations and disappointing feedback. Then the cycle of negativity repeats itself. We do a great job of making ourselves right so we can say ‘See? I told you I’m no good at this.’

Learning to accept these negative thoughts and feelings as a normal part of the process without attaching too much meaning to them will free up your energy to be present and engage the audience.

Consciously noticing these thoughts and feelings without judgement lessens their impact and prevents panic. Change your talk from judger to observer. For instance, instead of saying ‘I’ll be boring’, you might say ‘I notice I’m thinking I will be boring. Hmmm – that’s interesting, I wonder what I’ll think next?’ This will put you in what is known as the ‘observer’ state, and will allow you to experience your presentation without dwelling on your thoughts.

It’s not about you

‘Will I sound stupid?’; ‘What if I forget?’; ‘Will they like me?’ Me, me, me! This is sometimes challenging for presenters to hear, but… it’s not about YOU! When presenters become too self-focused, they can lose track of the whole point of their presentation, which is what? To provide the audience with ideas, thoughts and concepts to change their behaviour and attitudes.

Fear is often caused when the presenter is so worried about their own performance they forget to connect with the audience. Simply changing the intention from ‘me’ to ‘them’ has a powerfully calming effect for the presenter. Asking yourself questions like ‘What can I give to my audience?’ ‘What is the audience expecting?’ and ‘What does the audience need?’ can be very powerful.

Zosha Piotrowski has 20 years of fitness presenting under her belt. She is highly regarded in the industry and was the 2005 FILEX Presenter of the Year. Zosha realises how important this approach is; ‘I often use imagery’, she says; ‘I try to imagine what the people may want to get out of the presentation, I imagine what questions they may have and put myself in their shoes.’ This approach allows Zosha to be audience-focused, so when she walks in the room she has an instant rapport with the group.

The first five minutes

How can you be relaxed and audience-focused? How can you make sure you won’t lose your thread? You rehearse. Bad things happen if you don’t.

I recently worked with an IT company, coaching a senior manager for a large conference. He informed me that he was delivering the keynote address. ‘Wow’, I thought; ‘this is going to be good!’ When I asked him what he’d done to prepare, he told me he’d put together a few slides. His keynote was the next day! When I asked him to stand up and present the first five minutes of his presentation, he literally couldn’t. He hadn’t even thought about how he was going to start. When I asked a few more questions he revealed he was really nervous and had put off the preparation because of the pressure he was feeling.

We are most nervous in the first five minutes of our presentation. The fight or flight response kicks into gear and adrenaline pumps through our veins. Some people describe this sensation as an out of body experience. After about five minutes, we realise this isn’t as bad as we thought – hey, there’s no sabre-toothed tiger – our nerves calm down and we settle into a rhythm.

This is why it is crucial to memorise and rehearse the first five minutes of the presentation. I don’t mean just clicking through your PowerPoint presentation and muttering to yourself, either. I mean standing up and imagining the audience is in front of you. Practice where you’ll stand and how you’ll move. If possible, rehearse in front of friends and family.

On the day of your presentation, you will be able to switch to autopilot long enough for your primitive brain to realise there is no sabre-tooth – after which you can relax a little and get on with the task at hand – sharing your knowledge.

Don’t forget to… breathe!

While our heart is pounding and our fears have activated our nerves, we are in the fight or flight mode otherwise known as ‘the stress response’. The good thing is, we can work with this and even minimise the impact by stimulating the opposite response, called ‘the relaxation response’.

What we do physically before we present can have a big impact on our performance. Using breathing exercises will have a positive impact on your nervous system and allow you to get in the zone. I often use the following breathing exercise before I present; the additional oxygen it provides is a real bonus. Try not to fight with your breath, but instead guide it and notice how it changes with a little focus.

Breathing technique

  1. Sit up straight with shoulders relaxed, inhale through your nose for a count of 4
  2. Hold the breath for a count of 7
  3. Exhale audibly through your nose for a count of 8
  4. Repeat 4 times.

If you have an important message to deliver – and if you’re reading this, I’m sure you do – get out there and give it a go. Accept that nerves and fear are natural and usually just indications that you care about your performance and your message. The only way to overcome these fears is to experience them, accept them and learn to use them.

 

Melony dos Remedios
Melony is a presentation skills coach and founder of Actions Speak. A big believer in facilitating the conversations between the presenter and audiences, she believes in ‘blessing more than impressing’ to gain a true connection with an audience. Melony is also a qualified life coach, NLP Practitioner and CHEK Level 2 lifestyle coach and personal trainer. She can be reached at melony@actionspeak.com.au or on 03 8319 0916.