How to Stay Cool When Speaking in Public
By Dr. Joan Curtis

Does the thought of speaking in public make you tremble inside?  Are you one of
those people who would rather die than speak before a group?

If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then fear not, you are not alone.  The
majority of people would prefer to turn tail and run than to rise up and speak before

Most of these people will tell you they have no trouble speaking one-on-one, but
when asked to stand and speak before groups, they cringe with fear.

This article will put that universal fear of public speaking in the proper perspective
and give you some tips for turning the fear into positive energy.

The Paradox of Fear

Most people do not realize that fear is a good thing. In fact, if you are too relaxed you
will not perform as well on the podium. Seasoned speakers know this.  It's a big secret
we like to keep to ourselves. If everyone knew that fear was a good thing, everyone
would confidently walk up to the podium, knowing that the fear would soon
disappear. Others would not be so impressed with our prowess on stage.

Let's look at what happens to effectiveness in relation to fear.

When you first walk on the stage, your fear factor is very high.  This is called the red
zone, when all of us, even the very best speakers experience the greatest fear.  In the
red zone when our fear is highest, we are most alert.  Blood is really pumping through
our veins.  Our effectiveness as a speaker rises.  

As the speech progresses, our effectiveness continues to go up, side-by-side with our
nervousness.  After about 2-4 minutes into the presentation, we all hit what is called
the comfort zone. This is where you begin to sense some relaxation.  What you hope as
a speaker is that you remain in your comfort zone through the remainder of your talk.

Very nervous speakers do not allow themselves to hit the comfort zone.  They stay in
the red zone throughout the talk, causing their fear to take over.  This phenomenon
causes fear not to propel but to paralyze.

If, on the other hand, you become even more relaxed past your comfort zone, guess
what happens to your effectiveness as a speaker?  It goes down!  In fact, the more
relaxed you get after your comfort zone the less effective you are on the stage.  That
little edge that brought you to the podium is now gone.  

Have you ever seen a speaker whom you thought was so good in first few minutes
and then he/she began telling off-color stories or rambled on about something
irrelevant to the topic? These are people who surpassed their comfort levels.

Knowing this paradox about fear and effectiveness, we as speakers embrace our fear
and use it to propel us, rather than paralyze us.  Fear then becomes the energy, the
enthusiasm, the spark, our friend.

Tips to Manage Your Fear:

Identify the fear.
 What are you afraid of?  What specifically do you fear?  Are you
afraid of what the other people will think of you?  Are you afraid of losing your train
of thought?  Are you afraid you'll fall off the stage? Write down everything you fear.  
Make the list as long as you need to.

*Isolate Each Fear.  Once you've identified your fears, list the things you can do to
prevent that dreaded event from happening.  For example, if you are afraid you will
lose your train of thought, prepare clear, precise notes.  If you fear what others will
think of you, imagine what they are thinking.  How can you turn their thoughts from
negative energy to positive energy?

*Take Baby Steps.  Instead of making your first speech to the local Rotary Club, ask a
question in a Sunday School class.  When you feel comfortable asking questions in
public, then teach a Sunday School class or volunteer to give a little talk in your public
schools.  You might consider joining Toastmasters International.  This organization
offers many opportunities for practice and feedback.

*Practice, practice, practice.   I wrote another paper on How to Write a Speech without
. In that paper I outlined a practice model.  Take a look at that model. If you
practice your speech to the point that you are absolutely sick of hearing it, you will be
prepared for your speech.

*Make the Unknown Known.  One of our biggest fears of speaking is the unknown.  
We do not know the audience.  We do not know the location.  We do not know what
will happen when we open our mouths.  This list is endless.  Of course you cannot
make all the unknowns known, but the more you make known the more control you
will get on this fear.  

For example, how can you make the audience known?  Here are some tips:

*Research your audience.  Find out the kinds of people who usually attend this
session.  What are their ages, sex, socio-economic background and likely interests?

*Greet people as they walk in.  Shake hands and make eye contact.  If possible, ask
people their names.  With a large audience you cannot meet everyone, but each person
you greet becomes your new friend.

*Engage Your Audience.  Look out into the audience no matter how large and get
them involved in your talk.  Bring them along with you.  Don't just talk to them and
please, do not read your notes or your PowerPoint presentation.  When your eyes
point down to read, you do not engage! Ask open questions that make the audience
think.  Challenge them to become part of your presentation.

Remember, fear is not something to fear. It is something to embrace.  No matter how
cool a speaker appears, he/she is shaking in his/her boots.  We all have that little
edge of nervousness when we walk onto the stage.  We're all in this together.  You are
not alone in your fear.  What seasoned speakers have done is to learn how to make fear
their friend.  You can, too!

About the author: Dr. Joan Curtis is a nationally known communications coach.  She has over 20
years experience as a trainer and educator. She has taught communication skills and presentation
skills to leadership groups throughout the country.  With a doctorate in Adult Education and a
Master's in Journalism, she has a strong knowledge of what it takes to communicate successfully.
Visit her site at
Total Communications Coach.

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