This title is hyperbole, but many people say they would prefer any task to delivering a speech. Three basic fears involve what people think, failure, and the unknown. Presenting a speech may be daunting because it includes all three fears. Consequences of stagefright can even include physical illness. Earl Nightingale made this point vividly. He said this about giving a speech: “You may feel like you are in the terminal stages of some type of tropical fever."
Probably the most frequently asked question of me when training or coaching presentation skills is "How do you deal with stagefright?" The key is not to eliminate these fears, but to control them. Here are a couple of methods.
Practice aloud. I'm not talking about closing the door to your office and pulling out your notes and pondering what you plan to say. That part is important, but to conquer your fears, actually practice what you plan to say. A talented basketball player can't just think about hitting free throws; he or she must shoot foul shots over and over to have the disciplined calm needed to hit two foul shots when the game is on the line. To be in control when speaking to an audience of l0 or 1000, practicing aloud is crucial. This practice helps control the unknown; you know how long you take for your presentation because you timed the speech. You will have less fear of failure because you have successfully gotten through the speech in practice sessions.
How many times should you practice? My comfort level is three times. Going over the material aloud three times gives me opportunities to tighten up structure as well as helping me feel comfortable with the pacing and nonverbal aspects. Any more frequently than three times I am in danger of getting tired of the material before I face my audience.
Arrive early. A second method to control stage fright is to arrive early to check all variables surrounding your speech. Rushing to get to the speaking room is discombobulating, whether it is down the hall or across town or on the other side of the country. Plan to arrive early to check the room where you will be speaking. Check the physical aspects including sound, temperature, configuration of the room, number of seats, and lighting. Sit in the back of the room to see what the audience sees at the greatest distance from the speaker. Do a sound check. If you are using visuals, try out the technology support you need. Walk around the room and become familiar with the space and feel of the room. Talk to the people who arrive early. All of these will relax you and help you feel comfortable with your surroundings. You will be less tense and more at ease because you don't have to worry about getting to the engagement on time and dealing with any unexpected variables.
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Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Visit his site to read other valuable articles on effective speaking and listening or call him at 800.727.6520.