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09 September 2014

Overcoming the fear of public speaking

There’s no doubt that fear of public speaking — or ‘glossophobia’, to use its technical term — is extremely common. Some estimate that as many as 75 percent of us experience this at some time in our lives.

I’ll readily admit that I’m no stranger to this phenomenon. Shaky hands, shortness of breath, anxiety: I’ve been there and felt it all.

Several years ago, I was asked to make a series of public addresses. To my great surprise, in doing this I experienced a public speaking ‘eureka moment’.

I’d been asked to speak to a group of retirement village residents during their weekly trip to the public library. I knew my content intimately, I’d met the group organiser, I was presenting in a familiar environment. But still I was racked with nerves.

My time to speak arrived. I cast my eyes over the audience: they seemed a kindly bunch, but would they like what I had to say? Would they ask difficult questions? Would they laugh at me if I made a mistake?

I cleared my throat and got started. Everything seemed to be going to plan until… someone started to snore!

I was mortified — I’d bored my audience to sleep (or so it felt)! My immediate impulse was to run out of the library and leave town. But then I saw the expectant faces of those still awake — I couldn’t let them down. They may also have been sleepy but their faces showed an eagerness to continue.

I suddenly realised that this was not about who delivered the speech — it was about what I had to say. My only failure up to that point had been to forget the nature of my audience.

I took a deep breath and carried on (although I did shorten the length of the address).

At the end of the speech, my listeners applauded with terrific enthusiasm, some nudging their snoring neighbours awake to join in the thanks. I felt an immense sense of achievement: I’d overcome an unexpected hurdle and ended up with happy listeners.

My ‘eureka moment’ was when I realised I’d taken myself too seriously and forgotten about the unique nature of my audience. I now use the lessons I’ve learned, combined with a number of coping techniques, to overcome my fears — and I even enjoy myself in the process!

Some of my colleagues at Write have shared how they overcome anxiety before a speech or presentation. Here are a few tips of my own.

Remember that:
* people are there for the content of your presentation, not to see you personally
* everyone makes mistakes
* it’s okay not to have answers sometimes
* public speaking can be fun!
Most importantly, be prepared and know your content well.

Find out about our speaking and presenting workshops.

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