Most of you have probably seen the reports of an oft-cited survey, showing that for the majority of people in America, talking in front of a group is more frightening than the prospect of death. Yes, that’s right, our number one fear is public speaking.

Note that the fear is not specifically that we’ll fail in front of a group, or that we’ll make a fool of ourselves, but simply that we’ll have to step in front of a group and talk. And we’re more afraid of that than death!

This is a very real fear, and it holds many people back in business and in life. Well, I’m here to save the day! (Okay, maybe not quite that dramatic, but to help, anyway.)

How can you go from scared to relaxed? From sweaty to happy? It can be a long process, depending on how much anxiety you have when speaking, but there is a process that works for many people.

First, a few disclaimers:

  • Being nervous is okay. Most people are nervous when they do something that stretches them to their current potential.
  • Your anxiety is fear-based (as all anxiety is). You won’t erase it in a few minutes, and re-reading this article won’t make it less. You have to follow a process that replaces your mind’s fear (anticipation of a negative outcome) with confidence (anticipation of a positive outcome).
  • You may need help to complete the process. At the very least, you’ll need some friends, neighbors, co-workers, or other practice subjects. If you also want to improve your skill (rather than just reducing anxiety), you probably need an expert to coach you on speaking. I did.
  • Progress will come in stages. You will “fail” (actually, make mistakes) along the way. It’s part of the journey.

Now, for the process, in brief:

  1. Pick a topic you know well and enjoy talking about. Make it something you could discuss for at least an hour with someone who was interested.
  2. Write out an outline, like you had to do in school before writing an essay. Include the purpose (do you want people to learn something, believe something, or go do something?), a one-sentence summary/thesis, and a one-sentence statement of each major point you intend to make. For this exercise, select about 3-6 key points.
  3. Make yourself a long list of notes under each key point. In this section, absolutely no sentences should be in your notes (just words and short phrases), unless you are directly quoting someone else.
  4. Organize your notes so there’s a natural flow from one sub-point to the next.
  5. Write out a one-sentence transition from each key point (the first list) to the next, and a one-sentence conclusion. At this point, you should have something about a full page of notes.
  6. Standing (as if you were speaking to a group), read from your sheet of notes, connecting the ideas in a way that is easy to understand. When you get to each key point sentence or transition, read it as it is on the page. Cover the material in 30 minutes or less. If you go over the 30 minutes, remove a bit of material to get under that limit.
  7. Repeat step 6, varying the wording for the transitions and other full sentences on the page (in other words, don’t read them exactly as they are on the page – restate them as you speak). Do this until you find the notes aren’t very necessary.
  8. Go back to your notes. Remove anything you know well enough you aren’t going to forget it. Keep exact quotes, specific numbers, and such. Reduce the notes to a single note card, if possible. Where you once had full sentences for transitions, etc., replace those with short phrases.
  9. Repeat the exercise from step 6, using your updated notes.
  10. Visualization: every day, imagine yourself speaking in front of a group. Imagine yourself looking confident, moving easily from one point to the next, and being very interesting to your audience. Imagine them focusing on you, listening intently to your message, and being very appreciative. If you use humor, imagine them laughing. If you are including a touching story, imagine a few tears in their eyes. Imagine what you would see as complete success. This is a very important step, as your mind doesn’t really differentiate between actual experience and imagined experience.
  11. Now the fun part: find someone to speak to. Borrow a friend, neighbor, or anyone else who will promise to take this seriously. They should neither make fun of you nor be overly serious. They should act like they would if they were in an actual audience. Repeat until you feel comfortable with this person.
  12. Now, look for opportunities to use parts of this speech when you are around others. Pop parts of it into conversations where it’s appropriate (with friends, at work, etc.). Of course, you won’t have your notes, but they don’t know it’s a speech, so it won’t matter if you forget to cover something in the same order as your notes.
  13. Last step: Find someplace to actually deliver this speech. There are many opportunities to speak (for free). Look for a group that has an interest in your topic, or find a group that focuses on public speaking (Toastmasters is one example). Speaking in public on a topic you’ve prepared well is the last stage for removing the anxiety.

Some always/never rules:

  • Don’t memorize your speech word-for-word. If you do that, forgetting a single word or sentence will throw off your delivery.
  • Don’t read your speech. Very few people are capable of reading without sounding wooden. This is actually a much higher level of skill than speaking from notes. For most people, it’s even more difficult than learning to speak without any notes, at all.
  • Focus on the transitions. If you get these smooth, your audience will think you are fantastic.
  • Be yourself. Don’t try too hard to imitate others. Let the real you come through when you are speaking – this will help you engage more authentically with your audience.

Those are basics. You may find you need to focus more effort on some steps. There are more advanced exercises I recommend for people wanting to progress and become truly skilled. If you need more assistance, find someone qualified to help coach you through the process. I typically only coach speakers in my area, since this kind of coaching requires some one-on-one time, so find someone near you who can help. If you are within a couple of hours of Asheville, NC, you can contact me to set up speaker coaching time. (In select cases, I have worked out travel arrangements to be able to coach people outside my area. It does add to the cost, but arrangements can be made.)