Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking

Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking

How audience-centered speaking can help you conquer stage fright in your career.

Given the choice between picking up a live snake or a live microphone, many of you reading this would reach for the reptile. Even the name of this new column-Center Stage-may produce a tiny trill of atavistic fear at the thought of standing in front of a room full of people, all eyes upon you, listening to what you have to say.

But fear not. The art of public speaking and the satisfaction of communicating well with your fellow human beings are skills you can learn, improve upon and even come to enjoy. You don't have to be a charming, attention-seeking extrovert to shine on stage. In fact, some of the best speakers are introverts who started out dreading the thought of being center stage.

What they discovered about improving their communication skills is that there is a methodology. There are best practices. There is an abundance of useful advice from experts, authors and speech coaches-all of which I'll be sharing in these Center Stage columns in every other issue of CIO magazine.

Let's start out by taking the pressure off of you and your performance.

Whether you're giving a keynote speech at a conference, a business presentation in the executive boardroom or just a casual talk over lunch with your IT managers, your focus needs to be in one place only-on your audience. It's not about you. It's all about them.

Audience-centered speaking is one of the key themes in Nick Morgan's wonderfully instructive book, Give Your Speech, Change the World: How to Move Your Audience to Action. The need to "listen" to your audience from the moment you step in front of people comes down to sending nonverbal signals with open, relaxed body language.

"When you ask, 'How are you?' of an audience, wait to see how some members of that audience actually are," Morgan recommends. "Don't continue until you've learned the answer, either verbally or nonverbally."

That means taking a good look around the room, smiling while you're making some eye contact, taking a few steps toward the group and letting your hands fall open gracefully toward the audience-as though you wished you could give them a big hug. (Maybe that's too girly a concept, but you get the idea.)

What to do with your hands during a talk is more important than it sounds. Human beings instinctively read all sorts of nonverbal signals into hand gestures and facial expressions.

If you're a hand-talker by nature, your hands will be working overtime once you get nervous or excited. I tend to wave my arms around like some lunatic windmill, so solving this problem was always high on my list. Then one day I watched then- Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a serene but compelling presence on stage, and noticed how she laced her fingers together at waist level with her palms facing upward. I adopted that gesture and have used it ever since to keep the windmill in check.

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