To Overcome Fear of Public Speaking, Know What You are Talking About

By | July 12, 2010

More advice about overcoming fear of speaking. Really?

Humans have contended with this fear since cavemen could grunt, and tips for overcoming it can’t have been far behind. Somewhere there is a self-help cave drawing advising aspiring storytellers to imagine the audience without their bear pelts. So no, I don’t want to be the millionth person to suggest imagining your audience naked. Depending on the audience, that could give you nightmares anyway! Besides, the goal isn’t just to overcome fear, it’s to deliver a compelling presentation.

I recently led a pitch training for volunteers in the Berkeley Neighborhood Libraries capital campaign. For many people, asking for money is the least comfortable form of public speaking. So we focused on three steps to comfortable and effective speaking.

  1. Know what you are talking about
  2. Remove fear and discomfort
  3. Make the subject matter your own

It’s always worthwhile to work directly on fear, and for that I recommend the work of supercoach Mandy Evans. But let’s focus for now on step 1. You can get a huge boost in both confidence and effectiveness simply by knowing what you are talking about.

By that I don’t simply mean know your subject area. I’m assuming that you already do know that, or you probably wouldn’t have been invited to speak in front of a group. I mean literally know what you want to talk about in this particular presentation, and to what purpose.

Begin with the end in mind. What is your goal; the one thing you want the audience to do (or think) as the result of hearing your presentation? Do you want them to evaluate your company’s product? Donate to a non-profit? Consider moving their data center into the cloud? Pick just one goal. That’s all you have time for.

Then work backwards. What’s the one main point you need to communicate to get the audience to do what you want? Again, pick just one. Then line up three strong supporting points. It’s hard for you or the audience to remember more. Structure your presentation around your one main point, and prove it with the three supports.

Whether you walk onstage with an index card, PowerPoint slides, or just your own memory, this simple structure helps keep you on message. It steers you clear of the “too many words, too little point” disease that infects so many talks. Even if you get lost, you will always know what you are there to accomplish, which will naturally lead you back to what you need to say.

And if you find yourself speaking to a group of nudists, just imagine them with their clothes on!

2 thoughts on “To Overcome Fear of Public Speaking, Know What You are Talking About

  1. Nigel

    Funny way to end the article! A good one too. I find it interesting that people do indeed get very nervous in front of a crowd. When I have had to coach a colleague co-presenting I have always made sure he/she knew the subject cold, knew what our key message was and rehearsed. It is a wonderful feeling to take a nervous unsure colleague and see him/her present a powerful, strong and confident presentation. Hope all is well with you.

    1. jeffrey Post author

      Agreed. I wish more presenters had the benefit of that kind of coaching. When I get a chance, I’ll also write about what we did on step 3, “Make it your own”. Once you know your message and key points, it’s time to infuse the material with your own unique personality. We’ve all seen presentations by people who know their material, but come across is though they are speaking by rote. You are always more engaging and convincing when you tailor the material to your unique personality and passions.


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