Overcoming the big fear

Public speaking is something people dread, but it doesn’t have to be so frightening

Bruce Spotleson

Bruce Spotleson

There’s a Jerry Seinfeld joke about how public speaking is the average person’s greatest fear.

“Number two is death,” Seinfeld says. “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

As with many jokes, there’s some truth to it. And as with other challenges in business, there are people who can help.

Amy Ayoub, president of the Zen Speaker, is one of them. Her company trains people to be “calm, confident and compelling in the spotlight.” Ayoub says it makes good business sense to overcome a fear of public speaking.

“I’ve found that people can gain credibility faster by being a good speaker than any other way,” she said. “It’s an effective and inexpensive marketing tool that few people take advantage of.”

According to Ayoub, many of us overlook opportunities to become more comfortable in front of an audience. Like the experience of introducing a speaker — a seemingly small action that can help boost confidence. “People miss a huge opportunity in not putting more effort into introductions,” she said.

Ayoub suggests doing research to get relevant information about a speaker, then using it to explain why an audience should listen closely. She notes that when introductions are handled well, both the speaker and audience tend to be grateful.

Some speakers get off to a bad start, lose their audience and can’t get it back. So Ayoub trains people on how to begin presentations. One tip: Don’t try to draw laughter.

“It could be asking a question, sharing a statistic, maybe a short activity,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean telling a joke. Jokes are sure to alienate at least one person in the audience. And don’t begin and end with pleasantries. They kill time and don’t engage the audience.”

You can use a good tale, if it’s appropriate.

“Personal stories are powerful,” she said. “But in any presentation, remember, it’s about the audience. It’s about them and how you can help or empower them.”

Preparation is critical, of course.

“When you write something, practice it out loud and change it if it doesn’t work,” Ayoub said. “If you don’t prepare your speech, if you don’t ask questions about who your audience is going to be, then you’re probably not a good public speaker.”

Ironically, the more you prepare, the more spontaneous you will appear, Ayoub teaches.

Always inquire about your setting and equipment, she says. Hand-held microphones, for example, aren’t ideal for every speaker since they inhibit gesturing. The goal is to be comfortable because your stress level will likely be reflected in your tone, which should be conversational.

People who master public speaking often find they are perceived in a whole new way.

“People are so afraid of public speaking,” Ayoub said, “that when they see someone do it well, they think that person can do anything.”

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  1. One of the most useful classes I took in college was Speech. I learned to speak in front of a group and continued in Toastmasters for 2 years after that. It has paid enormous dividends in my career ever since, in many different ways.

    I strongly urge anyone who needs to speak with customers, managers, or make sales pitches to take this class as well as one in logic (critical thinking.)