Letting Logic, Not Panic, Guide Your Public Speaking
by Lawrence M. Kohn & Robert N. Kohn
Some people say they fear public speaking more than they fear death and even for those not quite that extreme, the experience can be nerve-wracking.
If you can’t avoid a speech, the anticipation can be so physically, emotionally and mentally debilitating that it reduces both productivity and quality of life for the time between the planning and the presentation.
The remedies to this phobia are often not practical. Some instructors suggest imagining the audience naked (though this might be considered more frightening than the speech). This and other solutions miss the mark because they focus on the anxiety rather than the root of the problem.
Fear of speaking comes from the anticipation of being embarrassed. It’s unnerving to imagine being judged in a negative way. Often, the reason people worry about being embarrassed is they have all kinds of misconceptions of what the audiences expect from them. They expect audiences want them to be smarter, more articulate, attractive, funny, charismatic, dynamic, inspirational, or motivational. They think audiences expect them to memorize the material or know all the answers. All of these feelings of inadequacy will surely instil the fear of being embarrassed.
These misconceptions are self-destructive.
While audiences certainly enjoy an exceptional speaker, all they really want is information. Therefore, the key to overcoming fears is to not focus on feelings of inadequacy, but to invest in meeting the needs of your audience.
Take the pulse
The first thing to do is talk to people who will be attending your speech. If you can’t, talk with people who know the audience. Find out how much is known about your subject.
As you prepare, keep in mind that all audiences want to know the answers to the following eight questions. Some are simple, others more demanding, but all are important:
– How long will you be talking? Time is valuable and people want to know when they can move on to other things. Never talk longer than necessary to make your point, and always finish on time.
– How many parts does your speech have? People feel better when they can track the status of your talk. Make sure you clearly identify when you finish one part and are transitioning to the next. As they see that you are on track, they will be relaxed and can stay focused on your message.
– What is your main message? Audiences want to quickly understand what you are trying to say. Review your speech and make certain the material accurately communicates your intent. If you can, create a slogan or sound bite that captures your meaning and is easy to remember. Consider making it rhyme, using alliteration or a famous quote. Whichever you choose, repeat it several times throughout your speech. People like leaving a presentation with an idea they can take with them. Just as in a TV ad, make your message clear and easy to remember.
– Why should they believe you? Fill your presentation with logical and sensible examples, stories, metaphors, personal experiences, facts and statistics that support your main point.
– Why is your message important? To minimize your fear, remember that your message does not have to be of monumental importance. It just has to be important enough to be helpful. Be as practical as you can. People want to know how your message will realistically help them succeed.
– What risks will they face if they fail to respond to your message? Be accurate don’t inflate the risks. Inflating the risks will position you as an extremist and they will consider you untrustworthy. By the same token, don’t minimize risks. Responsibly presented, valid risks hold the interest of your audience. Always compare the risks with the rewards and make sure you offer a net gain.
– What steps should they take? Even if people agree to take action, they’ll still want guidance. It’s smart to be reasonable and provide small, achievable tips. Overly ambitious suggestions produce pessimism and lack of confidence in the speaker and the message.
– What resources do they need? Audiences want to know that they have the support they need to succeed. They also want to know the cost of those resources. Be accurate in your estimate.
By addressing these eight question, you’ll be prepared to give the audience what it wants useful information. It won’t matter if you mispronounce a few words or rely on notes. It won’t matter if you’re not funny or charismatic. The only thing that will matter is that you will be informative. Once you’ve written your well thought-out speech, you’ll feel optimistic about being appreciated. As a result, your fear will disappear.
Lawrence M. Kohn and Robert N. Kohn are principals of Kohn Communications, an executive coaching firm in Los Angeles. They can be reached at www.kohncommunications.com.