I vividly remember the moment when I became a confident public speaker. I had been a member of my local Toastmasters club for many months, dutifully delivering my share of speaking parts. But my personal breakthrough remained stubbornly elusive.
My mind remained susceptible to random whiteouts when I locked eyes with an audience member. I would fumble over words as my mouth raced ahead of my brain like a drowning man desperate for oxygen.
This condition is no doubt familiar to anyone who struggles with public speaking. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects about 73% of the population.
The fear is so great that many people just avoid it like the seafood section of a buffet. That would be a mistake. Various studies show that unpolished or nonexistent public speaking skills can cost you promotions and raises.
And besides, wouldn’t it feel better to conquer that fear rather than surrender to it? I’m going to cover some strategies for doing just that, along with some speaking tips.
A Jackie Story
But first, let’s get back to my story. On the night in question, in March of this year, I was delivering a five-to-seven-minute talk on the great Jackie Robinson. On April 15, 1947, Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I have been a baseball fan since I was old enough to read the back of a baseball card. The speech was going well. Then I told this anecdote, reprinted here from my speech draft:
During Jackie’s third year in the game, one scary incident took place when a man threatened to shoot Jackie if he took the field in Cincinnati.
Everyone was very nervous in the clubhouse before the game when Gene Hermanski spoke up and said “I’ve got it. We’ll all wear No. 42 and nobody will know which one of us is Jackie!”
It’s a cute and funny story, made better by the warm message it carries. I nailed the funny line perfectly and scanned the room. People were laughing all around me, and not the forced laughter my supportive Toastmaster friends sometimes give.
I realized later it was not my topic or my speech skills that made me feel good talking that night. It was my confidence that lifted me up — confidence I had earned through hard work and repetition.
Simply put, I tackled my fear, got knocked down, got up and repeated the scene. Eventually I didn’t have to pick myself up anymore.
Take The First Step
This has been a lifelong bugaboo for me. So if I can speak comfortably in front of a crowd, I really believe that anyone can. Here are three general strategies to get started:
1. Find A Toastmasters Club
This is not a commercial for Toastmasters. Any speaking organization will suffice; I am just not aware of any others. The idea is to find a space where you can find your voice.
Toastmasters uses the Pathways program for communication and leadership. You fill out a questionnaire and design your own path. The important part is the supportive audience willing to listen and provide constructive feedback.
2. Speak Up!
Crazy as it sounds, I see a lot of people who join my Toastmasters chapter and then never speak. That’s like going to Disney World to take a walk. You paid for the ticket, you might as well ride the ride.
While that fear of speaking can be a powerful emotion to overcome, presenting in front of a speaking club is the place to start. Just remind yourself that nobody is going to die.
Otherwise, speak elsewhere, too. You might get random offers to speak at work, or the Rotary Club or at your child’s school. Yes, yes and yes — accept them all.
3. Preach It
I believe there is at least a small part in all of us that enjoys being in control and delivering information. Think about it: You have an audience that isn’t going anywhere until they hear you present whatever you want to talk about.
Share Your Passion
Recommend a book. Show those vacation slides. This is your chance to demonstrate your mastery of a topic. You’ve earned it.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? As I noted, nobody has ever died from public speaking (to my knowledge). Heck, Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest on his way to delivering a speech in Milwaukee and he talked for 90 minutes with a handkerchief over his wound.
If Teddy could do it, so can you.