First Impressions – Public Speaking

You’ve been offered a public speaking engagement, and while you intended to decline, you had one of those moments where you heard yourself answering “yes” before you had a chance to think about it carefully and now it’s too late to change your mind. So you spend the time leading up to your big day worrying about it constantly. You toss and turn the night before and wake up nauseous with a splitting headache. Although you try to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why you need to cancel, everything sounds like an excuse or what it really is, a big fat lie!

As you walk up to the podium, your legs wobble, your knees buckle and you pray you don’t trip. Trembling, you turn to face a room full of strangers with clammy palms, shaking hands and paralyzing fear. You can barely breathe and when you try to speak your voice quivers. Your heart races and beads of sweat drip down your face. You begin a dialogue with yourself, “Did I wear the right outfit? Does my hair look okay? Am I slouching?” And then you hear that annoying little voice inside your head, the one that got you into this mess in the first place, reminding you to stand up straight, make eye contact and don’t talk with your hands until you wish you could scream “shut up” because its making you a nervous wreck! Does any of this sound familiar?

The fear of public speaking, also known as performance anxiety and stage fright, triggers these types of emotional and physical reactions. When we experience threatening, unexpected or stressful conditions, our body’s natural defense mechanism known as the “fight or flight response” kicks in to help us defend (fight) ourselves or escape (flight) a frightening situation. The dictionary definition of public speaking is “the process of speaking to a group of people in a structured, deliberate manner intended to inform, influence, or entertain the listeners”. Glossophobia (sometimes called Laliophobia) is the fear of public speaking, a common phobia among many people. In fact, it is the number one fear outranking divorce, moving and even death. Public speaking is tantamount to being in the middle of a nightmare while you are wide-awake. Personally I would rather have a root canal!

Some people seem to be natural-born speakers and can address a crowd without fear but the majority of the population is not that fortunate. What is it that makes public speaking so terrifying and intimidating? Are these fears real or irrational, or real and irrational? Anyone can develop fears and phobias about anything at any age and the origin of these fears may never be known. All you do know is that you’re petrified. Maybe you’re shy or lack confidence. Perhaps the dread of speaking in public is really a fear of rejection or failure; you worry that the audience will laugh if you make a mistake, that you might bore them to sleep or you will be humiliated, embarrassed or judged unfairly. But your intelligent, well-balanced side understands these fears are unfounded and that speaking in front of a group is not a life-threatening situation. After all, you know your speech by heart; it’s interesting and relevant and you’ve even added humor in all the right spots. You’ve read it over so often you can virtually recite it verbatim, and even though you gave a flawless performance when you rehearsed it several hundred times in front of the mirror, you are still terrified at the thought of standing in front of a group of people, who, without ever having met you, will almost immediately form opinions about you based on three criteria: how you walk, how you talk and how you look. In a society concerned with image and appearance, you can’t blame the audience, we all do it; it’s human nature and while some people may act like they don’t care what others think, most of us do because we know that perception does matter.

“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” ~ Unknown~

It’s only natural that you so desperately want to make a good impression and in spite of all your worries and concerns, your audience wants you to be interesting, funny and effective. Let’s face it, people have short attention spans and limited patience; they don’t want to waste their time sitting through a mind-numbing monotonous speech. The best way to conquer your fear is to stop giving into it. The more you try to avoid your fear by refusing public speaking gigs, the less chance you will have at learning how to build up confidence in order to master that fear. The more you face your fear, the better chance you will have at conquering it. As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect”.

It is also important to understand that you may make a few little mistakes along the way but if you don’t draw too much attention to them and if you are able to maintain your composure and recover from those mistakes with grace, dignity and even humor, it will make you more credible and more human to your audience. Oftentimes people will learn as much from their mistakes as their achievements.

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one”. ~Elbert Hubbard, The Note Book, 1927.

There are several pointers and tricks to the trade that can help to overcome the fear of public speaking. It has been said that the most famous trick is to imagine the audience is naked. This strategy is supposed to give you a feeling of superiority, a feeling of being embarrassed for them, imagining that they are the ones who are uncomfortable in front of you thus making you feel more relaxed. I tried this once and completely lost my train of thought. Quite honestly I wouldn’t want to see that many people naked together in the same room at the same time but if it works for you, have at it! There are far more effective ways to overcome the fear of public speaking. Many people have found success through journaling, support groups, workshop seminars, hypnosis, role-playing, anxiety disorder or presentation skill training; breathing, meditation and relaxation exercises; visualization, social skills classes and public speaking courses. Pick one and if that doesn’t work, try another until you start to feel more confident in your ability.


Prior to the presentation:

Practice, practice, practice. Know your audience demographics.


Welcome the audience; introduce yourself and give a brief description of your background and credentials.

Shock Value:

Open with an attention-grabbing statement, a shocking statistic or a profound quote. You have a captive audience so captivate them.


Don’t strike a pose. Stand up straight, no slouching. However, you don’t want to appear too rigid so move around. If you’re standing at a podium, don’t lean on it or hide behind it.

Infuse Humor:

Everyone likes to laugh, hear a good joke and be entertained. Don’t try to be a stand-up comedian but if you add appropriate humor to parts of your speech, it will break the ice and connect you to your audience.

Express Humility:

If possible, personalize your presentation by sharing some of your shortcomings; something your audience can relate to and appreciate.

Stay on Topic:

Organize your presentation. Have an objective and communicate that objective. In other words, make your point, don’t veer off the subject and don’t ramble on and on.

Helpful Tips:

Ask rhetorical questions; it will get your listeners to listen.

Use a teleprompter, note cards or an outline but do not read your presentation; your audience does not want to be read to.

Deliver your presentation with passion and enthusiasm.

Tell a story; use analogies.

Dress for success.

Don’t worry about the size of the audience; 95% of them would not want to trade places with you.

Control your hands. This may be obvious to most people but do not put them in your pocket and jingle the change or your keys. Don’t put them on your hips, behind your back or cross your arms over your chest. Don’t flail them about or look like you’re trying to give directions.


Remember, you cannot control the behavior of your audience; you are only in control of yourself.
Pace yourself and pause when appropriate, it can help you collect your thoughts and maintain your composure.

Never let them see you Sweat

Try to look and act relaxed. “The trick is not to rid your stomach of butterflies, but to make them fly in formation”. ~ College Professor, Dr. Rob Gilbert


You will deliver confidence through strong vocal projection. Don’t scream or shout or speak too loudly; only raise your voice for emphasis but on the other hand, don’t speak too softly, too fast or mumble. If you project confidence when you speak, that’s what your audience will see, and if you know what you’re talking about and truly believe in what you’re saying; so will they.

Props and Presentation Tools

The use of props, audio/visual equipment, handouts and samples can add a powerful and colorful dimension to your presentation.

Audience Involvement

Get your audience involved. Encourage a question and answer session.

Be considerate

Don’t overwhelm or confuse your audience.
Don’t run over your allotted time.

End on a Positive Note

Make your ending as attention-grabbing as your beginning. Give your audience a thought-provoking clincher statement that not only ties in with the beginning of your presentation but leaves them wanting more. Thank the audience for attending and…

“Break a Leg”!

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