“The retirement planning firm I work for has just begun holding seminars where various strategies are discussed with an audience of, usually, around 50 people. My problem is stage fright. I’ve been reading your columns for years and know that you are a trial lawyer, did some research and found several articles in the ABA Banking Journal on presentation skills — including overcoming stage fright — by a Dennis Beaver. Is that you? Any advice or books on public speaking you can recommend will be greatly appreciated. Thanks, ‘Gary.’”
Yes, That’s Me
Prior to attending law school, I had planned on becoming a college speech teacher and did bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech/communications. After becoming a trial lawyer, I put those degrees to work, teaching speech at our community college and, for many years, presentation skills to bankers at the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison every August.
A week prior to the August session, I phoned each banker in my class, learning why they were taking a course in public speaking and what specific problems they needed addressed. Among other issues, many reported they had a problem with stage fright! In order to advance professionally, they had to become better speakers. Our class gave them the tools.
Performance Anxiety/Stage Fright Is Real
The fear of death comes in second to someone who suffers from serious stage fright.
Resulting from your body pumping out too much adrenaline, symptoms before and during a presentation include a racing heart, shaky hands, vultures flapping their wings in your stomach, all of it leading to the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
Afterward, “I felt physically exhausted, drained and glad that it is over,” are frequent comments I’ve heard, along with, “I know they think that I was just a bundle of nerves and stupid.”
The surprising truth about stage fright is that audiences rarely have a clue as to how nervous a speaker actually is — unless you do the wrong things and reveal behaviors that communicate fear. However, where the person appears to enjoy speaking before a group, credibility and effectiveness go way up.
How to Avoid Letting Stage Fright Show
No matter how nervous you feel on the inside, your audience won’t have a clue unless you reveal those feelings through rigidity behaviors — standing motionless with tense arms and hands, gripping the lectern for dear life — or inhibitory behaviors — a monotone voice, speaking too quietly or too many “and … uhs.”
In class, I ask all those who suffer from bad stage fright to raise their hands, and over to one student I walk and engage in normal chitchat — about her job, family, kids — just light conversation. At some point, I take her by the hand, and we walk to the front of the class, still maintaining this pleasant dialogue.
Backing away, yet still chatting with the student, I soon leave her alone, engaged in a wonderful little dialogue with me — about anything by this time. And then I turn to the class and ask, “How’s she doing?” I hear a Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger response: “GREAT!” And I ask her, “How do you feel?” Another “GREAT!”
“What did we just prove?” I ask.
“That’s it’s mostly in your head!” is the response from the class. The student admits to initially feeling very nervous, afraid it would be obvious, and then began to enjoy our little experiment.
Ways to Reduce or Mask Signs of Anxiety
1. Be the first person in the room. We are more comfortable speaking with people we know, and the way to accomplish that is by being the first person in the room. By introducing yourself to a handful of audience members as they arrive, it creates a highly positive feeling. “Wasn’t that nice? The speaker actually went up to me, introduced himself, and we talked about his topic,” they think. Your level of anxiety will mostly fade away.
2. You are not obligated to open your presentation with a funny story. If you have a cute story that fits, then use it, but if you are someone who can’t tell a joke, then don’t audition for Saturday Night Live in front of this audience.
3. Think dialogue, not speech. Audiences love to participate in a dialogue with the speaker, so consider opening your talk with answerable questions. “How many of you are concerned about funding your (kids’ college education, retirement, etc.)?” Look for raised hands. Then, with hand gestures that make it clear you would like this person to explain, ask, “Betty, please tell me your concerns.”
4. Use the room to mask any nervousness. Feel earthquake hands about to come on? Simply rest your hands on the podium or edge of the table. No one will see them shaking.
To establish good eye contact, move across the room, but do not pace. The audience will follow you with their eyes, and you, in turn, will appear to give eye contact to everyone without trying.
5. Do not rely on visual aids — they will fail you! Keep it conversational! Build reviews into the presentation. Visual aids are just that — aids — and often fail at the worst moment. Remember that an audience is not a pile of digital voice recorders — they can’t recall everything — so build in points where you review the material you’ve covered.
6. Really want to fail? Distribute handouts at the beginning of your talk or start speaking, if a meal is being served, when everyone is cutting into their steak. Distributing handouts at the beginning of your talk could ensure your talk is completely forgettable, because your audience will be fumbling with the material rather than paying attention. It’s best to distribute the handout at the end. And if you’re speaking at a dinner or luncheon, let everyone finish eating before you begin your talk, as food is far more important than anything you have to say.
Here are two great resources for more help: What to Say When … You’re Dying on the Platform by Lilly Walters and Do’s and Taboos of Public Speaking: How to Get Those Butterflies Flying in Formation by Roger E. Axtell. Both are available on Amazon.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com.
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."
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