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Conquering your fear of public speaking

People fear public speaking more than anything else. The anxiety can be debilitating. It can also affect your career, especially in high-tech. Here are some tips for conquering your fear.

People fear public speaking more than anything else. Anxiety over a simple presentation can be debilitating. Moreover, sufferers are typically embarrassed and reluctant to admit they have a problem. They hide a deep concern about the phobia's affect on their careers in an industry that values presentation skills so highly.

I know quite a bit about this subject. As a senior high-tech executive for many years, I've given hundreds, maybe thousands of presentations and speeches. I even have a reputation for being quite good at it. That's why it will surprise a lot of people to know that I have a fear of public speaking.

Sure, I've come a long way. At this point, the residual anxiety I feel is certainly manageable and may even help my performance. Since I've put so much into conquering this beast, I thought I'd share what I learned along the way.

What causes it?
Understanding the general causes and relating your feelings to those of others will help you to feel less isolated. That's a good place to start. I'm not a behavioral specialist, but this is my understanding of the primary causes.

Fear is a funny thing. Once your brain learns a certain neural pathway, it's sometimes difficult to unlearn it. It's a survival mechanism - the fight or flight response that generates adrenaline. Some people seem to be more susceptible than others are.

In any case, the fear may begin early in your career, and it may simply recur whenever you find yourself in a similar situation. The neural pathway is, for lack of a better term, burned into your brain. Of course, you can unlearn it. After all, you're a reasonably intelligent human being. But it takes time and practice. Those deep, animal reactions are difficult to overrule.

Your fear may initially relate to insecurity, either in general or with respect to a specific subject or circumstance. There's something about standing up there, with all eyes on you, that makes some of us feel like all of our secret fears and insecurities are revealed, as if we're emotionally naked.

In some cases, you may actually have doubts about your ability or knowledge of the material, for example. I would call that a rational cause for concern. You may worry, perform poorly, and subsequently suffer anxiety at the very thought of doing it again.

Some data suggests that successful, career-minded people are unusually susceptible to this fear. Apparently, if you're driven and achievement-oriented, you're likely to worry more about performance and appearances. If you're the kind of person that has to succeed at everything to feel good about yourself, that could add just enough anxiety to make public speaking an uncomfortable, if not a terrifying experience.

How do you conquer it?
Well, there really is no wholesale cure, so to speak. But in a way, that's good news. As big and bad as this fear is, it really only takes a small amount of time, understanding and practice to conquer it.

You see, fear is a natural response to a wide variety of stimuli. As I said before, it's an ancient survival mechanism. It's how you interpret it, however, that counts. Courage is recognizing your fear and doing the right thing anyway. You have to face your fear, and that's where the answer begins.

Face your fear. Admit that you have a problem, seek to understand it, and have faith that you will eventually conquer it. As I said, you're not only far from alone, but you're in very good company. Isolation is a big part of this fear. Talk about it with friends and family. Get it out. Then be brave and determined. You can conquer this and you will.

Know your material cold. When you do get an opportunity to present, it's important to put your best foot forward. You need to know your material backwards and forwards. Be clear on the key points you want to get across and be prepared to converse intelligently on the subject. What we call "thinking on your feet" is really about confidence, knowledge, and preparation, not about any particular skill-set.

Take the pressure off yourself. Most people spend the vast majority of their waking cycles thinking about themselves. Most of the time, they're not even paying attention to what's going on around them. You think the whole world can see how nervous you are, but the truth is that nobody will notice a thing. Even if they did, if you consider that half your audience has the same fear you have, they're likely to be empathetic.

Interact with the audience. This takes us back to isolation, the feeling that you're standing up there all alone; all eyes are on you; all the pressure is on you. Interact with your audience. Draw them into your presentation by asking leading questions and encouraging interaction. You'll instantly feel more comfortable, and so will your audience. A great side benefit is it will make you a far more dynamic and engaging speaker.

Ask what's the worst that can happen? That simple question can diffuse so many life problems it isn't funny, and it certainly applies here. What if your hands shake? What if you screw up? What if you're so nervous you pass out? Or your pitch is so bad that you don't get the funding for your project? First of all, none of that is going to happen; it almost never does. It's all in your head.

The point is you're not going to die or lose your loved ones. You'll always have another chance; there will always be other opportunities to shine. Don't think of your speech or presentation as an event; think of it as part of the process of life. Fear is part of it. Have courage and faith, you'll get through it.

Last word:
If you have the means, or your company will pay for it, hire a speech coach. Most top executives have been coached along the way. Coaching helped my anxiety and certainly improved my presentation skills. A good coach can teach you relaxation techniques and ways to control your breathing.

The absolutely worst thing you can do is ignore your fear and shy away from speaking publicly. Reducing your fear and anxiety is all about reducing your isolation and boosting your confidence. The only way to do that is to understand it, work at it, and get out there and speak.