When I was an undergraduate student, I put off taking a required speech class until my junior year for one reason: I was terrified of public speaking. It’s a widely shared phobia, so I was in good company, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I just knew that my voice shook, I shook, and I broke out in hives when I presented—and I was desperate to avoid it.
Now, I speak publicly on an almost-weekly basis. And I like it!
Even if you never reach the point where you actually enjoy public speaking, you need to be able to do it. Why? Just think: If you get put in charge of a big event, you need to be able to welcome your guests with calm confidence. If you receive an award for the amazing work you do, you need to be able to accept it without falling apart. If you have to request a permit in front of a governing body, you need to deliver a clear message. And if you have to report on the progress of a large project to the executive board, you need to be able to articulate the steps you’ve taken.
In short: If you want to advance your career, public speaking is an absolutely necessary skill. So here are some tips to help you master this common fear.
1. Imagine the Worst That Could Happen
That probably sounds counterintuitive. But think about it for a second: In any situation, the very worst outcome is that you fall over dead. How likely is that to actually happen from giving a brief public speech? There might be a case of death-by-public speaking on record somewhere, but it’s nowhere near a leading cause of death in any country.
No matter how well or how poorly your speech goes, you are probably not going to die. That’s a win for you. You also probably won’t faint. Fainting is more common than dying, but I would venture to stay it’s still relatively rare. Another win. OK, but maybe you stumble over your words, shake, or turn red. Guess what? That’s still not nearly as bad as dying.
Once you start to give some perspective to your fear, it stops being quite so scary.
When just the thought of public speaking makes your heart race, this can be difficult. But you have a brain, a heart, and lungs, so you do have some control over your body’s physiological response to stress.
Before you speak, take deep, slow breaths. This will slow your heartbeat and help you feel calmer.
Breathe like this before you start. Then, speak slowly and pause periodically to breathe again. Once you have the first 30 seconds or so under your belt, you’ll realize that you’re doing okay, and you’ll be able to keep going calmly.
3. Start Small
I had a phenomenal teacher when I finally took my much-dreaded speech class. He started us off with a two-minute speech. I survived and realized I could probably live through the next assignment—a five-minute speech.
The five-minute speech came and went without any fainting or heart failure. After that, I started believing I could at least manage public speaking, if not excel.
As I pursued my degree, I gave many more presentations and became a little more comfortable each time. And within a few years of graduating, I landed a position with a child advocacy agency that required me to promote the organization within the community and occasionally testify in court.
If public speaking is something you dread, look for opportunities to speak very briefly just to get stated. Consider joining a Toastmasters group, where you can start with a short speech in a small and supportive environment, and then work up as you feel comfortable.
After that, consider joining a civic organization and taking on a leadership role that will require occasional reporting to the group. You’ll build your public speaking skills along with leadership and planning skills—and, of course, you’ll contribute to your community. Win!
4. Be Brief
TED talks have taught us that a powerful message can be packed into a small timeframe. Do you think TED talks would be so wildly popular if they were two hours each?
In your everyday life, you can’t always control the timeframe of a speech you’re asked to give, and some topics and situations aren’t suitable for the TED model. But if you are just starting to master the skill of public speaking, it’s far better to err on the side of brevity than to drone on and on.
Callista Gould with the Culture and Manners Institute recently suggested, “Always have a version of your presentation with half the slides ready, in case the windbag speaking before you runs long and your time is halved. After you create a version with half the slides, really consider how this might be kinder to your audience than the full presentation you initially created.”
It’s a good habit to form, but also provides an important lesson: Often, you’ll find that shorter is better.
Once you’ve given that first short speech, don’t stop there. Like any skill, public speaking is something you need to practice. The more you do it, the better and more confident you’ll become.
When you make your sale, host an amazing event, or have your request granted thanks to your public-speaking savvy, update your resume and use that accomplishment to leverage more responsibility, a raise, a promotion, or all three. Your career will thank you!