Just got into town for a big presentation? You may well be experiencing that sinking feeling we often call "pre-presentation jitters."

The first thing to realize is that stage fright symptoms seem more severe to the speaker. Start by taking a positive and aggressive attitude about speaking. The first moment that you are asked to give a presentation, respond with, "I'd be honored." Keep in mind that a confident, aggressive approach to presentational speaking keeps most imagined fears from becoming a reality. Next, take the time to prepare for your presentation. Some experts suggest that as much as 75 percent of speech anxiety can be avoided through adequate preparation.

Making the time to prepare for your presentation may be easier said than done, but it is worth it. You will feel more comfortable and confident when you deliver a well-prepared speech. Let's look at some specific approaches for overcoming stage fright. Different techniques will work for different people.

Aware,Accept,Act

This technique uses a simple three-step formula to cope with your stage fright.

Become aware.

Be aware of what is happening to you when you are fearful. Once you are sensitized to your fear, it is easier for you to stop your fear from escalating. Even panic, which occurs without warning, can be curtailed when you recognize what is happening to you. Pay attention to physical symptoms such as your breathing pattern and your muscle tension. Your body tells you how nervous or relaxed you feel.

Accept the emotion.

Accept fear as being valid, and don't feel guilty or foolish or inferior because of it. To insist that it should not be happening to you is going to make you more fearful. Instead, when fear comes, welcome it. Consider it a form of energy that can motivate you to better prepare prior to a presentation and make you a more enthusiastic speaker during your presentation.

Act on it.

After you become aware of and accept fear, you need to act on it. Do something different. Do not become a passive recipient of a feeling you dread. If you don't know what to do to curb your fear, try any different behavior. With some experience, you will be able to identify more specifically what action curtails your fear.

Rational Emotive Theory

Rational emotive theory, first developed by Robert Ellis, states that you can control your emotions, including fear and anxiety, through your thoughts. The crux of theory is that you can deliver a winning presentation by thinking through the situation ahead of time. Take the following steps to use the rational emotive theory to deal with your fear of speaking.

Imagine the worst scenario.

Imagine the worst thing that can happen to you in your speaking situation. Take your analysis to an extreme. Perhaps the audience might criticize you, or maybe they'll laugh at you. Or maybe they will be so disgusted by your delivery that they will start to ignore you and leave the room. Your manager might become so outraged that he fires you,in front of the group! You might become so stressed that you have a heart attack and die on the spot!!

Estimate the chances of its happening.

Now, of all the negative consequences that can occur as a result of your presentation, what are the chances that any or all of them will actually materialize? When you really think about it, the chances of any of the negative consequences really happening are usually very small.

Picture what is likely to happen.

Now, with the worst case scenarios out of the picture, imagine what is more likely to occur in your speaking situations and what specific problems might realistically arise. Think about some of the tough questions people might ask you. What if you can't answer a question? What if your voice cracks? What if you can't remember what you were going to say?

Minimize potential problems.

Decide what you can do to minimize the chances of not being able to handle specific problems that are likely to come up. Resolve not to worry about those aspects of the situation which you don't have any control over.

This theory helps change blind fear into a tangible, rational process that can be examined and discussed. When you do this, the mystery of the unknown disappears, and your energy can be directed towards actions that will do the most good.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization also uses your imagination to confront both the fear and the situation of speaking. It has proven to be one of the most effective methods for helping people who experience extreme anxiety about presentational speaking. With this method you shut your eyes and attempt to walk through the stressful situation from its earlier conception to its final completion. Whenever you feel stress, you stop the exercise and attempt it again at a later time. No analysis is made as to why the fear exists or why it goes away. You repeat this exercise until you can enact the entire speaking situation and associated behavior, such as the speech preparation, without experiencing physical anxiety.

A different approach that uses the same theory is to practice controlling your fright in situations where you know that no physical harm can come to you. A good example is watching a scary movie. You know that the threat is imagined, yet the symptoms you experience are very real. A scary movie serves as an ideal situation to analyze and practice controlling your fear.

Go to a scary movie, and as you are watching, become aware of what your body is doing. Is your body squirming? Sit erect and face the screen full front. Is your heart pounding? Close your eyes and consciously take longer and deeper breaths. Continue breathing in this deliberate manner as you watch. Experiment with giving yourself suggestions.

"This music is not that scary." "This is only a movie." "I am completely relaxed." "The music is scarier than the visual." Find out which suggestions are the most effective in diminishing your symptoms of fear, and remember them so that you can use them in your nightmares of public speaking.

By doing this type of exercise, you learn how to control irrational feelings in a rational way. You use your ability to think to overpower your emotions when they are not serving constructive purposes. Establish the point at which fear becomes counterproductive for you if left unchecked. Learn how to contain or diminish that fear.

Martin Street is a Walnut Creek-based business success coach.

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