This Fear Can Be Your Greatest Asset

Most kinds of fear are good for you. It is your brain’s security system to keep you from doing things that are dangerous and life-threatening. We SHOULD be afraid of certain threats out there in the world.

One fear – in fact, one of the greatest fears that people have – could be harming your career and your professional brand. That fear is public speaking.

We’ve all been there before, standing in front of a group, our nerves buzzing and heart pounding. Some people get sweaty palms. Some people feel dizzy. Most stumble and stammer over their words.

No matter what your career field or job, you will find yourself at some point in a situation where you need to speak and present yourself and your ideas well. Promotions will count on it. Closed deals will depend on it. Managing a team will be so much easier with it.

While the fear of public speaking is common and normal, you don’t have to let it hold you back from making the best possible impression. Here are a few tips to help you overcome the fear and develop your own SKILL of public speaking.

1. Prepare – don’t wing it. One of the best antidotes to fear when it comes to public speaking is to be prepared. When you have rehearsed your material, have a plan for your talk, and feel firmly rooted in your ideas, your brain knows what to do even when you’re nervous. It’s similar to muscle memory. Make sure your ideas are organized in a way that makes sense and flows well. That way, even if you don’t memorize a script, you will still know the content and order of your points. Then practice, practice, practice. In front of a mirror, in front of a friend, in front of the dog. Keep practicing.

2. Redirect your fear. Before I get up to speak or walk into a presentation, I like to think of fear as misplaced excitement. It’s natural to feel a jolt of adrenaline before these moments, so I choose to name them excitement, instead of fear or anxiety. By acknowledging your emotions and naming them, you can redirect the energy of the moment to be more positive energy. Excitement is always good in a presentation anyway, so channel those feelings into being expressive and engaged in your talk.

3. Talk about what you know and love. When you care deeply about a topic, you tend to know quite a bit about it. Your enthusiasm and personal connection to the subject becomes a well of knowledge that you can share with your audience. You have unique experiences and perspective that is valuable to others. Talking about subjects that have made an impact on you or made a difference in your life comes from the heart. In a professional setting, sharing your personal mission and passion for your work becomes an easy story to tell with your audience.

4. Bond with your audience. Speaking of sharing your own personal mission, humans are wired to form a community. When public speakers give the audience a glimpse of their human side by telling stories of gratitude, vulnerability, and struggle, a bonding happens that not only creates a connection with the audience, but it’s likely to reduce anxiety in the speaker as well. Share a funny anecdote (make sure it’s funny to the average person!). Show a photo of your family or your life in some way. Pick a strategy that fits the setting, but the point is, don’t forget to be a person in the interaction.

5. Mind your body. With public speaking, how you communicate nonverbally is just as important as the words that come out of your mouth. If it’s appropriate, SMILE. Make eye contact around the room (or pick out people to look at around the audience in an auditorium). Keep your feet firmly planted until you’re ready to move, then move with purpose and replant. An excellent public speaker I know says, “do not pace the stage like a caged tiger!” Watch out for your hands. Keep them to your sides until you gesture intentionally. No fidgeting. The key takeaway here is that your body can show that you’re nervous, even when your words and voice do not. The same way you practice WHAT you’re going to say, you should practice HOW you’re going to say it.

What I want to emphasize is that public speaking is a SKILL, and like any skill, it can be taught and learned. There are no “natural born” public speakers; there are only those people who have practiced more than others. The fear of public speaking is not a biologically necessary one; you will not be harmed or die from presenting to others! So harness your fear and make it one of your greatest personal and professional assets.