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How I Learned To Tame My Nerves Before Speaking In Public

15/05/2017 10:17

How can people become more comfortable with public speaking? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Dorie Clark, professor, author of Reinventing You & Stand Out:

I do a lot of public speaking. In fact, between 2013-2016, I gave 231 talks. After that much practice, it's probably no surprise that speaking in public doesn't phase me these days. But that wasn't always the case.

Admittedly, I never had a crippling fear of public speaking. But like many people, I used to get nervous. The 'fight or flight' system kicks in when we're experiencing a threat, and these days in the developed world, our threats are often more reputational than physical - but our body can't tell the difference. My heart would race before I'd go onstage, and my voice would catch. It was fear.

What helped me reach a point of total comfort in public speaking - so that my body literally doesn't notice the difference now between speaking to two people or 500 people - is sustained, repeated exposure to the stimulus. In other words, practice.

You could do it at Toastmasters, which is a great option for practicing getting up in front of other people. But in my case, well before my 200+ speaking engagements over the past few years, I was a university adjunct professor. Technically, that's public speaking, but the classes were small - 20 students maximum - and it certainly never felt intimidating.

The key to my success, though, was the schedule. At one university I taught for, the weekly classes were four hours long. For 18 months, I was on a schedule of Monday night classes from 6-10pm. You began the night with hungry college students, and ended with sleepy college students, and had to somehow keep them entertained in between.

Learning how to improvise onstage to keep the audience engaged - that's really what it was, regardless of however much preparation I'd put into my lecture notes - taught me to take mistakes and missteps less seriously. If you fumbled, there'd be a chance to recover, and frankly, no one was listening that hard, anyway. It taught me to watch for signs that the audience's attention was waning, and if so, to try something else, whether that was moving around the classroom, altering my tone or cadence, or focusing on a different aspect of the material.

I trained my body that public speaking wasn't a threat. It was simply my job. And when you're able to separate out the fear response, you can focus on what really matters in a presentation - honing the information you present, and sharpening your delivery.

Repeat exposure works for other people, as well. In my book Stand Out, I profiled Angela Lussier, a Western Massachusetts-based entrepreneur who launched her career coaching business with very little money in the bank and a need to land business immediately. Despite being petrified of public speaking, she knew it was the best and fastest way to connect with potential clients, so she did an astonishing 500 talks in her first year in business, literally speaking 2-3 times per day for libraries, Rotary Clubs, and more in her region. That full-on assault launched her business, won her clients, and today, she has a podcast called Claim the Stage for women who want to become public speakers.

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