How successful we are at selling ourselves, our products and our services depends on our ability to stand up and be heard. What often prevents us from telling our story successfully is not our inability to articulate what we do, or how strongly we believe in the value of what we offer. Instead, it is simply the fear of speaking in front of an audience. Being nervous while presenting can put a dint in your credibility and have an adverse effect on achieving your business goals.
To manage the fear of speaking in public, you need to first understand the root cause of the fear. One of the best explanations comes from Scott Berkun, in Confessions of a Public Speaker. "The design of the brain's wiring-given its long operational history, hundreds of thousands years older than the history of public speaking ... makes it impossible to stop fearing what it knows is the worst tactical position for a person to be in," Berkun says. That "worst tactical position" is standing alone, in an open place, with no place to hide, without a weapon, facing a large group of creatures staring at you. As Berkun puts it, being in this situation "meant the odds were high that you would soon be attacked and eaten alive ... Our ancestors, the ones who survived, developed a fear response to these situations."
Understanding that our brain can't tell the difference between a real threat (a pack of wolves about to attack you) and an imagined threat (a group of your peers watching you present) is the first step to overcoming the fear. This awareness can help you manage the "false alarm" that happens in the absence of real danger. How so? As you feel your heart racing when you first start your presentation, you can consciously and deliberately interrupt the fear response with a quick deep breath and a rational thought, "This is just a false alarm." The more you get into the habit of interrupting the fear response as soon as you feel it happening, the quicker you'll prevent it from being your default response every time you present in front of a group. You must ingrain in your mind the thought that the fear of public speaking is simply a misfiring of the caveman "fight or flight" fear response, and that you can overcome this.
Here are 11 practical tips to help you manage performance anxiety so you can focus on your key messages:
1. Reframe the questions you ask yourself. When you worry before a high-stakes presentation, you may have a tendency to ask yourself negative questions, such as "What will happen if I forget my material?" or "What if I mess up?" This form of self-talk is like throwing gasoline in a room on fire. All it does is heighten your anxiety. Replace these negative questions with positive ones. Take an inspiration from Seymour Signet, a specialist in helping people overcome public speaking anxiety. He advises to ask yourself: "What will happen if I knock it out of the park?" You can view more of Seymour's tips in his video "Ask Yourself Good Questions." Give this a try; it will calm the noise in your head.
2. Practice as if you're the worst. When you know your material well, there's a tendency to get sloppy when practicing a speech: You might flip through the slides, mentally thinking about what you are going to say, without actually rehearsing out loud exactly what you plan to say. This results in a presentation that's not as sharp as it could be and might cause you to be nervous once you have 100 pairs of eyes staring at you. You can also forget some important sub-points and key soundbites.
3. Avoid this by practicing out loud and verbalizing your complete presentation. For a high-stakes presentation, do this at least five times, at spaced intervals, to encode your material in long-term memory. It's also crucial that you practice your transitions-the words that link one idea in your presentation to the next. These are easy to forget if you don't practice them and you end up with a staccato presentation. Transitions are the silken thread that guides your listeners through your story. Some examples: "Now that we have established ..."; "This leads us to ..."; "My next item is particularly crucial ..."
4. Memorize the sequence of your slides. Knowing the sequence of your slides so you can anticipate and announce a slide makes you look in control. Nothing erodes your credibility faster than having to look at a slide to know what you have to say next. Being perceived as credible boosts your confidence and reduces your anxiety and the fear of failing.
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