Some people say that public speaking is one of the top things people fear. In fact, these same people say that most of us would rather get root canal or be audited by the IRS than to have to give a speech.
I don’t know if I agree people would rather face an IRS audit, but I do know that most people fear public speaking and try to avoid whenever possible.
To overcome public speaking anxiety, many people turn to techniques that not only don’t help, but actually make them more nervous and make their presentations less effective.
Here are the five most common bad pieces of advice people often receive when they’re trying to overcome speech anxiety.
1. Look at people’s foreheads instead of their eyes. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this technique you know it doesn’t work. It’s very obvious to audience members when a speaker is looking at their foreheads or over the top of their heads. As a result, you don’t make a connection with your audience and may appear aloof or arrogant.
Instead: Get to your presentation location early and make some new friends. Then, when you speak, look around the room and make eye contact with your new friends. You don’t have to look every audience member in the eye, but you do need to “connect” with the entire room.
2. Drink plenty of coffee so you’ll project energy. The truth is, coffee is just going to fuel your nervousness. You’ll talk too fast, sweat more, and probably stumble over your words, or your own feet.
Instead: Avoid coffee altogether. Your nervousness will give you plenty of energy. I’ve never seen a public speaker fall asleep at the lectern.
3. Start with a joke to loosen up the audience and yourself. I don’t know about you, but I only know two people in my life who are really funny, and I’m one of them. If you’re not the other, you could be setting yourself up for failure by starting with a joke. If the joke doesn’t work because it’s not funny, is in bad taste, it doesn’t tie to your topic, or you just don’t have the gift of delivery, the audience won’t laugh, or worse, will groan. A bad start to your speech will cause your anxiety to increase dramatically.
Instead: Use one of the many other, safer, attention getting techniques. Start with a question, a story, or a startling or attention-getting statistic.
4. Picture the audience naked, or in their underwear. The rationale behind this technique is that you’ll see the audience as human or vulnerable– just like you. I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of anyone who found this technique to work. In fact, picturing the audience naked is likely to either disgust you, or be very distracting.
Instead: Practice your introduction to the point, ALMOST, of having it memorized. I don’t believe anyone should ever memorize a speech. A memorized speech sounds canned and is usually delivered with flat nonverbals that make you sound like you’re reading a script, which you are, the one in your head. However, if you know your introduction extremely well, you’ll be more likely to deliver it with ease and confidence, which will get you off to a great start.
5. Memorize your speech so you’ll know every word, which will make you less nervous. I’ve already mentioned some of the drawbacks of memorization. However, one of the biggest drawbacks of memorizing your entire speech is that you WILL lose your place at some point. Once you do, how do you get it back?
If you don’t have any notes, you’ll have nothing to refer to. You’ll have to rewind the memorized script in your head and will end up repeating things you’ve already said. Alternatively, you’ll have to fast forward to a point you’ve not covered, and will skip things you should have said in between.
Even if you do have notes, it’s unlikely you will have kept up with them, because you’re reading from a script in your head instead. Therefore, when you lose your place, you’ll have to suffer through the uncomfortable delay as you shuffle through your speaking notes to find the spot where you left off.
Instead: Practice your speech several times, to the point you feel really comfortable with the material. Create a great speaking outline with text that’s big enough for you to see, clear transitions, and even delivery tips in the margins, such as “make eye contact,” or “smile at the audience.”
Finally, most great public speakers will tell you that public speaking anxiety will never, and should never, fully go away. If a speaker has no apprehension or isn’t feeling a little energy before a speech, he or she has probably become overconfident and is likely to make a mistake.
Your goal as a speaker is not to eliminate your anxiety, but to manage it and make it work for you. As the saying goes, you won’t get rid of all those butterflies in your stomach, you just want them all to be flying in the right direction.
Best of luck on your next presentation!
For more help in overcoming public speaking anxiety, check out my previous blog post, 10 Tips for Controlling Speech Anxiety.