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Public Speaking 101: Succeeding In
The Face Of Overwhelming Fear!

Steve Clements

You’ve silenced the alarm clock and lay in bed reviewing the events of the day ahead:  take the kids to school, pick up the clothes at the dry cleaner, and—you sit straight up—give a half-hour speech to 500 association members.  ARGHHHH!!!

Remember the look on MacCauley Culkin’s face when he screamed upon learning he was home alone. That’s nothing compared to the fear now engulfing every muscle and nerve of your body.

Take a deep breath and say to yourself “I can turn this frightening situation into an exhilarating one.”  Really.  Here’s how.


When most people prepare their notes, they do everything possible to increase the level of difficulty ahead.  How do you avoid that?

  • Don’t write out the speech.  It will make you sound robotic and leave your audience thinking “just hand me the text and I’ll read it myself!”  By the way, this includes reading all the words on your beautifully designed Power Point to that audience.
  • Don’t memorize the speech.  This is not a play.  If you forget a line, Hamlet is not going to throw you the right cue.  You’re up there by yourself, my friend.  Instead, and here’s what will make your life easier and keep your audience more interested:
  • Prepare typed key word/key phrase notes on 8 ½ x11″ paper.  Don’t crowd the paper with single spaced clutter or you’re asking for a delay before you find what you need. The result: anxiety and embarrassment. Instead, leave lots of white space so your eye can “grab” the right word when you need it.  Just a word.  Your mind really will make the connection to the next thought.
  • Actually write out what you want to say in those first 15 seconds.  This will give you a chance to relax and get used to being in front of your audience
  • Break your speech down into introduction, body, and conclusion.  The intro should have an “attention-getter.”  This is a strong statement, a question or startling statistics.  (If you are a naturally humorous person, it could be a joke but make sure it and your delivery are effective.)
  • For the “body” of the speech, decide what you definitely want covered, based on the length and purpose of the presentation.  First leave lots of space between items.  Then go back and fill in key words and phrases that give detail and body for each heading.
  • Once you have completed this “body of the speech,” move on to the conclusion.  This is your “big finish”-your summary of the major points you have made, or direction your audience must take as next steps.

“Popular” Fears

During my 40 years working with company executives, television personalities, and MBA candidates, I have seen every possible manifestation of anxiety.  Identify with any of the following?

Shaky Hands–You think everyone is staring as your hands shake uncontrollably.  Solution: Put your notes on the lectern or attach them to a weighted clipboard.  As someone with a natural hand tremor, I know this works.

Shaky Voice–Who hasn’t experienced this symptom?  For some us, it’s worse than puberty. Solution: If your voice does not clear up easily, “break the ice” by joking about the sound that is being emitted from your mouth.  Everyone laughs, everyone relaxes and that voice straight out of  “The Exorcist” goes away.

Paralyzed by Fear–You have spent the last hours, days, even weeks being unable to picture yourself getting through the presentation successfully.  You have fantasized the scenario of staring at the audience as they stare back. The result?  You anticipate is failure and humiliation.  Solution: First, don’t go there.  Keeping hitting the “stop’ button in your mind.  You have the power! And at the presentation itself, visit around the room before you’re introduced to give the speech.  By the time you begin the actual presentation, you’re revved up, and the transition to the stage is much, much easier.  Plus, it beats sitting in the corner studying your notes, waiting for the “moment of doom.”  I can’t emphasize enough how important this step is in order to break the “worst case scenario” script you have written in your head.

With proper preparation and the ability to determine the best ways to succeed rather than get stuck in the mire of fear and anxiety, you are not only looking at survival in public speaking situations-but triumph!

Appeared in Connections, Georgia Society of Association Executives (GSAE)’s quarterly membership publication.

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