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FOR MORE THAN 10 years, Janet Esposito, 48, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, lived in fear of public speaking -- something she had to do frequently for her job. During her presentations, audience members saw her as poised and confident, but internally panic overwhelmed her. Her heart raced and she struggled to breathe normally.
"I felt a loss of control. I was in that fight-or-flight mode with my body," recalls Esposito, whose problem only worsened with time. While formal presentations terrified her the most, even introducing herself at meetings became cause for alarm. "I was losing more and more confidence in myself as the fear took over," she says.
Today, Esposito has mastered her anxiety. In fact, she's now president of In the Spotlight, a Danbury, Conn.-based company she founded six years ago to help people overcome their fear of public speaking and performing. "A lot people are very embarrassed about (their fear)," says Esposito, who says many of her clients have gone to extremes -- such as claiming the death of a relative or even quitting their jobs -- to avoid speaking engagements. Esposito, who runs workshops and has written a book on the subject, now uses some of the coping techniques that helped her to control her fear to help others.
Let's face it: No task causes as much anxiety as public speaking. (Remember the old Seinfeld joke that at a funeral most people would prefer to be in the casket than reading the eulogy?) Like it or not, however, it's a job skill most professionals must learn. "You can't sit there at a meeting and not speak up. You can't not get up and do a presentation. It's going to hurt your career," says Laurie Rozakis, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Public Speaking."
So you've got a choice: You can either master the fine art of presenting, or, when forced to do it, you can humiliate yourself so profoundly that no colleague of yours will ever want to look you in the eye again.
The good news: Achieving the former probably isn't as hard as you imagine. (And the chances of the latter aren't nearly as high as you think they are.) Here's how to deliver a knockout speech.
Know What You Want to Say
The first step to a good presentation is, of course, to create a compelling outline or draft. Start by understanding what your audience is expecting from you, says Dilip Abayasekara, a public speaking coach and senior vice president of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people improve their public speaking skills. So be sure to ask the person who's invited to you speak about who will be attending your presentation, and why.
Next, think about the content of your speech. Don't feel that you need to cover your topic exhaustively: A common mistake of novice presenters is to overwhelm their audience with too much information. Instead, think about the main points you'd like to get across and how best to support them. Don't have a lot to say? Don't struggle with filler. Take a tip from Abe Lincoln's Gettysburg address: Be brief. If you need to fill up some time, answer audience questions, says Rozakis. (The exception here is if you're facing a hostile audience, in which case you should avoid a Q&A if possible.) You can even plant some friendly faces in your audience to throw you some softballs.
Of all the sections of your speech, the introduction is probably the most important. It's during this time that you need to make a connection with your audience and convince them to should pay attention.
Conventional wisdom holds that a joke is usually the best way to kick off a speech, but experts say this should be done only if you're actually funny -- and, let's face it, most of us aren't. And even if you are a laugh riot, telling a joke that's genuinely funny but unrelated to your topic isn't going to accomplish much.
Not much of a comedian? A good alternative is to start off with a (relevant) anecdote from your own life. You could also begin with an evocative question or fact -- one that's geared to startle the audience a bit, says Abayasekara. The key is to create a bit of drama, and to get the audience -- which is no doubt full of people who are thinking about 1001 things other than what you're about to discuss -- entirely focused on you.
It's also essential to close your speech on a powerful note. End by summarizing your key points, and if appropriate, give the audience some next steps, says Abayasekara. This is particularly important with speeches that are meant to persuade. "You may have persuaded them mentally, but they haven't really bought it until they do (something) -- maybe write a letter to their congressman or write a letter to the school board," says Abayasekara. "Until they buy it, you haven't sold it."
Practice, Practice, Practice
A terrific presenter gives the illusion of being able to breeze through a speech with little or no effort. But most must put in an enormous amount of work to create that artifice.
Ideally, you want to rehearse your speech enough so that on the big day you don't need to read your presentation. "The audience does not hire a reader," says Abayasekara. "They want a speaker. If they wanted you to read, you could just record your well-crafted document onto a tape and play that tape."
As preparation, do some practice runs of your presentation -- out loud, and perhaps in front of a mirror. Some people choose to videotape themselves, while others record themselves on cassette. One advantage of the latter: You can pop the tape in the car and listen as the audience might. Ask yourself: "If I were in the audience, would this make sense?" suggests Abayasekara. Either way, you might notice that you stumble on certain words, or say "um" or "like" far more than you ever imagined. A final step: Have somebody watch you who will tell you the truth about how you've done, says Rozakis. Better to get that feedback now than in an audience review form.
Practice enough, and by the time the presentation rolls around, your speech will be old hat -- and while you may have an outline or note cards with you at the podium, they won't be a crutch, but rather just a way to jog your memory for the next talking point.
The Big Day: Coping With Nerves
For most folks, the most unpleasant part of presenting is dealing with nerves. "People fear being noticeably nervous," says Jonathan Berent, a licensed clinical social worker and certified psychotherapist who specializes in social anxiety. Sadly, Marcia Brady's strategy of picturing your audience in their underwear isn't likely to calm you down much.
A better plan of attack: Don't fight your symptoms of stress, says Berent. Cold hands, butterflies in your stomach, a racing heart -- even the most seasoned presenters experience these feelings before starting a speech. "Our natural response is to resist, but that worsens the anxiety and tension," says Esposito.
So rather than work yourself into a full-blown panic attack, breathe deeply and think positive thoughts. And while this may sound like a page taken from Stuart Smalley's Daily Affirmations, before you head up to the podium you might want to engage in some mental imagery of you succeeding or doing well. (Hey, professional athletes regularly use this technique, so it's not as goofy as it might sound.)
It can also help to remember that your presentation is really not all about you -- it's about the audience. Many presenters work themselves into a fit worrying about how they will be perceived, says Abayasekara. They wonder: Will I sound good? Will I look good? Will I make a mistake? Will the audience discover I don't know this topic as well as I should? "It's all me, me, me oriented, when it should be you, you, you oriented," he says. So get over yourself and remember you're there to serve your audience.
On the day of your presentation, eat a good breakfast, wear comfortable shoes and dress in appropriate clothing. "If you look good, you feel good and your stomach isn't grumbling, you will be a better speaker," says Rozakis.
Be sure to act professionally the second you enter the room you'll be presenting in. "Your speech starts the moment (the audience) sets eyes on you. It does not start from the moment you speak," says Rozakis. "If you're sitting in the audience, and they're introducing you, your speech has actually started." So smile while you're being introduced, but look appropriately modest. No matter what: Don't fidget or exhibit some other nervous habit, like playing with your hair.
Once you arrive at the podium, use a technique Rozakis suggests to get the audience's rapt attention: Pause three seconds before you start to speak. In fact, never underestimate the power of pausing throughout your presentation. "It can be overwhelming to audience if you're speaking at record speed," says Esposito. "Take breaths. Give the audience a chance to digest the material."
And what of the frequently used strategy of enjoying a little liquid courage before delivering a speech? Always a huge mistake, experts say, since alcohol may give you the confidence of a stand-up comedian, but rarely the skill. So reserve your drinks for a post-speech celebration, rather than a pre-speech catastrophe.