31/08/2011

By Gavin Meikle, Head of Learning and Founder of inter-activ

One of the most common questions I get asked is “How can I overcome my fear of public speaking”. In this article I want to share my top tips for managing your anxiety and building your confidence.

1) Breathe!

I know this one sounds like a no brainer, but when we are nervous, our breathing gets shallow and rapid and we deprive ourselves of vital oxygen. Deliberately talking two or three slow deep breathes is a great way to relax.

2) Consciously visualise success:

When we are nervous or anxious our minds have a tendency to dwell on past examples of failure or potential failures in the future. In effect we may unconsciously be rehearsing failure. Excellent presenters do the opposite. They deliberately remember past times when they have been on top of their game or imagine their forthcoming presentation going well. The more they can imagine seeing, hearing and feeling success in their minds eye, the more effective a speaker they tend to be in reality.

3) Stand as if you feel confident:

The last tip focused on taking control of our thinking. This one focuses on our physiology. If you want to feel confident and project confidence to others, you have to “act as if” you were confident.

Standing upright with your feet hip width apart and your toes pointed very slightly out creates a posture where your head is naturally up and your shoulders are relaxed and back. If you deliberately adopt this type of posture even though you are feeling nervous inside, your audience will believe you to be confident and you will start to feel more confident yourself.

4) Focus on your audience:

This one may sound a little counter intuitive but trust me, it really works. Aim to make and hold good eye contact with your audience. Not only will this make them feel more engaged but it will also provide you with valuable feedback on how well your presentation strategy is working. Since your brain can only really focus on one thing at a time, deliberately focusing on your audience will prevent you focusing on your nerves and your anxiety will diminish automatically.

5) Prepare:

There is an old saying that says “failing to plan is planning to fail”. The more important your presentation is the more sensible it is to plan well in advance. Don’t try and do it all in one go, and don’t try and do it all at the last minute. If you feel nervous about your presentations you may find yourself procrastinating over the preparation and this is a sure fire way to increase your stress levels.

Make the time to do it a little bit at a time. Plan in 30minutes a day for a couple of weeks to develop your content and structure and then to write and rehearse it. If you don’t put it in your diary it will never happen so a little bit of self discipline is needed.

6) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse:

Writing a speech and delivering it are two very different things. Allow some time to read your speech out loud. I tend to print my first draft then pace around my office, reading it out loud to an imaginary audience. Inevitably I will change the wording during this process as I notice that some phrases just don’t sound or flow naturally when spoken out loud.

Once I have the script nailed down I will then practice giving the speech without referring to my script. I am not trying to memorise it word for word, but I am trying to groove in the flow of ideas and key messages so that I can focus on my audience rather than on my notes. The more I rehearse, the more confident I become.

7) Join your local Toastmasters club:

There is no substitute for practice but finding a safe and supportive place to do this can be a real challenge. That’s where Toastmasters clubs come in.

Despite the name, Toastmasters International is nothing to do with red coats and weddings. It is a worldwide network of public speaking clubs providing a safe place to practice and gain feedback. I am a member of Solent Speakers based in Fareham the UK and despite being an experienced speaker, I still learn something new every time I go.

Google “Toastmasters clubs” in your local area and visit. In my experience you’ll be hard pressed to find a friendlier and more supportive learning environment anywhere on the planet.

Gavin Meikle is the owner of inter-activ learning and development, a Southampton based consultancy specialising in effective face to face interpersonal communication and presentations. He can be contacted at gmeikle@inter-activ.co.uk or by phone on 07810 645309.

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