Overcoming Fear Of Public Speaking: Learning From Comedians

Nervous sensations can often be transformed into positive excitement. Things going wrong can often be turned round to work in your favour, by acknowledging the problem and seeing the funny side of it.

Are you terrified when you have to get up and talk in front of people?

Does the prospect of giving a wedding speech fill you with dread?

Will you do anything in the world to avoid making a presentation at work?

If so, then you're probably...normal. Glosophobia or fear of public speaking affects about 75% of our population; many people admit to being more fearful of giving a speech than they are of dying.

"There are two types of speaker - those that are nervous - and those that are liars!"

- Mark Twain

Most people think that there's not much that can be done about this - that some people are confident speakers and others just aren't. But this is wrong; confident speaking can be developed and learned.

Stand-up comedians are probably the most striking example of confident public speaking you can think of, in probably the most challenging of all speaking situations. Few people are born confident stand-ups; so what do they do to get like that, and how can we use their methods to be both more confident? Here are my top ten comedians' tips and strategies - plus an extra one.

1. Prepare thoroughly

It's impossible to over-emphasise the importance of preparation, on which everything else rests. Comedians may look like they're being spontaneous, but they're not; they prepare their material over a long period, and they test it out to make sure it works. So thoroughly prepare the content of your talk, rehearse as much as you can, and find out all about the setting in which you're speaking.

2. Have good material

Have content that your audience can relate to. Include an element of story within the material. Comedians learn their material off by heart; you probably won't have to do this, but you do need to have good access to the content so you know what you're going to say next, and be able to pick up again if you get lost. This access might be in the form of a script, bullet point notes, or incorporated into a Powerpoint presentation

3. Structure your presentation

Again, comedians do this more than you think. Even a short speech should be consciously structured, with a beginning, middle and end. This structure will help you come across as confident and competent.

4. Make a strong start

Comedians know that first impressions are crucial. They behave as if they own the stage - it's their territory. Adopt a stable and grounded stance and if you move, go back to that strong stance. Adopting the body language of confidence helps you feel confident; it's also what the audience wants to see. Pause and look at the audience before starting to speak.

5. Engage with your audience

Comedians know how crucial it is to connect with their audience in order to hold their attention. Be very interested in your audience - be aware of what's going on with them and how they're responding, and make sure they're getting what you're saying. This helps take your own attention away from any anxiety you may be feeling.

6. Pace and timing

Avoid rattling off your material at high speed, which can easily happen if you're nervous. The simple way to achieve this is to build in pauses, which naturally slows you down. Pausing is also the core of the legendary phenomenon of comic timing.

7. Breath control

Remember to breathe systematically, especially if nervous; this can link into your pauses. Abdominal breathing is most conducive to confidence and groundedness, as opposed to shallow upper-chest breathing. Practice regular breathing exercises if this is an issue for you.

8. Humour

Humour dispels tension and adds impact, persuasion and memorability. The best humour arises naturally out of your material and your natural style of speaking; avoid the temptation to 'shoe-horn' in an unrelated joke to relieve dull material.

9. Fake it till you make it

Comedians routinely demonstrate that it's possible to appear more confident than you are, even when things aren't going well - they go through the motions and show outward signs of confidence, and keep doing this until they get back on track. Remember that many signs of nerves are not visible to the audience, even though they feel overwhelming to you; put your attention on the audience rather than yourself. Nervous sensations can often be transformed into positive excitement. Things going wrong can often be turned round to work in your favour, by acknowledging the problem and seeing the funny side of it.

10. Be yourself

Reveal something of yourself and let your own individuality come through in your style of presentation - just as comedians express their distinctive persona and their unique take on life.

11. Visualise success

If you're nervous before speaking, and keep experiencing negative mental images of things going badly, practice imagining the audience appreciating what you have to say and responding positively. Keep replacing those negative images with positive versions, until this becomes a habit. You can also formulate plans to deal with things that you think might go wrong.

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