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July/August, 2006 - Volume 85 Number 4

Fearless Public Speaking

Making a good presentation is as simple as learning the three P’s: Prepare, Practice, and Present. Once you master them you minimize your fear and will be able to speak anywhere.

by Anne L. Anastasi, CLTP

Many people are afraid of public speaking. They say it is the most feared thing amongst Americans today. I don’t know who “they” are, but since I have heard this statement so many times, from so many people, I tend to believe it. Americans fear public speaking more than the next three items: death, snakes, and going to the dentist.
Now think about that statement: People would rather die, encounter a snake, or have a root canal than get up in front of others to give a speech. They would rather die! In my opinion, all we need to do is get to a level of comfort so that we can get back to fearing the more important things in life, such as running out of chocolate sauce or the outlawing of elastic waistbands.
I will not make light of the fear felt by most people prior to a talk because fear is a very personal thing. No one should tell you that you should or should not be afraid because you feel what you feel. The goal of this article is to help you reduce that fear or at least help you cope with it.

Nerves are OK
You have heard that great performers typically get nervous prior to stepping on the stage and that it is good to be nervous. There is some truth in that because if you are not nervous, you have probably taken your audience for granted; the audience will know it immediately, and they will resent you for it. Butterflies in your stomach and an attack of nerves actually help by increasing your breathing and making you focus. And when you are forced to focus, you have engaged your brain - always a good thing. So accept the attack of nerves as your wake-up call to focus and breathe.
Whether you are a salesperson making a presentation to only one person, a CEO making a difficult speech to shareholders, or a manager working to motivate a team, the steps to preparing for a successful presentation are simple, gimmick-less, and proven.

The first step in my simple, three-step process is the preparation for your talk. “Winging it” is not acceptable. It is not fair to the audience that has taken time to come and hear you; it is not fair to the people who have asked you to speak; and if you are making a sales presentation, it is not fair to you, since you are shortchanging yourself. Begin With an Outline of the Topic.
All good speeches, like all good movies and books, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your outline should follow this premise.
Your outline is simply a guide for your brain. Whether you are giving a motivational talk or a technical talk, you need to put the information in a logical, understandable order that is easy to follow. Start with the key pieces of information and write them down. Then fill in the subthoughts you wish to share. As you start filling in the outline you will undoubtedly think of other things to say and can edit the outline. The outline should be fluid and ever changing during this course of the preparation.
But it should remain an outline and not a fully written speech. It is your guide, your map; you will fill in the words during the practice part of your preparation.
One of my favorite authors is Nelson DeMille. His books are intelligently written, entertaining, and most importantly to me, they have a sense of humor. One of his frequent characters is a former NYPD homicide detective turned government agent, John Corey. John is a sarcastic malcontent who finds irony in most everything, yet he is a man who fights for justice without concern for his personal well-being. He is also a man who has no patience for stupidity, carelessness, or people who lack integrity. All and all, he’s a cool guy.
In DeMille’s book Night Fall (2004) John Corey made a comment that I quickly wrote down for future use: “The problem with doing nothing is not knowing when you’re finished.” If you do not have an outline, if you do not have a map, if you do not have a goal, how do you know if your speech or presentation is doing what you want it to do?
And it is of the utmost importance to say something. Just filling in time without content is worthless, and you don’t want people leaving your presentation thinking it was a waste of time. Personally, when I hear a presentation, I want to walk out invigorated, smiling, and mulling over what I have just learned.

The second step in our three-step process to better speechmaking is all about practicing your talk. It is simple yet imperative.

Talk to Yourself.
Once you have the outline, take it to a quiet, private room and speak out loud from the outline. Jot down the intelligent things you said during each section of the outline - not verbatim but in enough detail so that you can remember what you said.
Make sure your technical facts are correct and put them in the outline so that you do not have to pull them from your nervous brain when you are standing in front of your audience. If you are unsure about the facts, either do more research or omit them from your talk.
During this “talking to yourself” period, your outline is beginning to grow into a speech. If you do not have time to cover the whole outline during this segment, do it a portion at a time, but the key is to do this out loud at least three times, jotting notes as you go.
You may decide to change the order or your focus during the first practice session. Don’t get married to any single idea until you have heard it delivered aloud. If it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t convey the thought you had hoped, you will be the first one to hear it, which is far better than having your audience hear your meandering. It is difficult to change your mind and start over again, but I have always believed that it is ok to change your mind because if you never changed your mind, what is the point in having one? After your outline and crib notes are completed, put the talk aside for a day to let your brain rest.
There is no substitute for practicing out loud: it will help you become comfortable and it will also allow you to time your speech.
If you are asked to speak for an hour, you will not know if you have enough material if you don’t practice out loud and time it. Without knowing your timing you will either run out of material or you will only be partially through your thoughts when the moderator stands in the back of the room pointing to his or her watch.
More is always better than less however. If during your talk you decide to skip over a point that was made by another speaker earlier in the day, it is always a good idea to have a few extra notes, slides, or points to use.
The reason you need to practice your speech a number of times prior to the presentation is that the talk needs to become routine. You need to have the ability to get in the “zone” and allow yourself to get out of the way and let it happen. This will only happen if you have practiced it enough so that it becomes second nature.
You can also deal with the fear of giving speeches by understanding that the audience is full of people who are afraid of giving speeches. They are rooting for you to succeed because if you fail, two things will happen:

  1. They will feel very, very uncomfortable, and
  2. One of them will have to take over… and remember they would rather die.

If you do the first two P’s, you will have less to worry about when it comes time to do the third P - present. With preparation and practice you will have a plan, and you will know the talk backwards and forwards. Much of what makes us nervous is the fear of failing, which you can minimize if you know your talk cold!
All three steps have equal importance, but the presentation part takes passion. The type of speech you are giving, however, dictates the degree of passion used during the presentation. A motivational speech requires the highest form of passion, but having it and conveying it can be two different things. Your motivational talk must convey honest emotions about the topic. During your preparation and practice make sure you are using phrases that will motivate your audience and motivate you as the speaker (i.e. a tremendous idea, an outstanding method, a world-class product, the best in the business).
An educational or technical talk still requires passion albeit at a less flamboyant level. Your passion will come through in your knowledge of the topic and thoroughness of your presentation of the points. A sales presentation takes passion about the product or passion about your abilities to get a job done.

Warm Up Your Brain.
All intelligent athletes spend a significant amount of time prepping their muscles for maximum results and to prevent injury. Treat your brain as you would any other muscle, and you know the importance of warming up prior to any activity involving your muscles. Golfers stretch their arm and leg muscles, as do swimmers, football players, baseball players, and race car drivers.
Our brains too benefit from a good warm-up prior to putting them into motion. If you know your brain is properly prepared to function at its highest possible level, it is one less thing to worry about while standing before your audience.
You ask, “How can I get injured during a speech?” Oh, let me count the ways. If you are giving a talk that includes facts and figures, your credibility is at stake; if you are giving a sales presentation a commission is at stake; if you are giving a motivational talk and you misspeak, your integrity is at stake. Oh yes, you can be injured if the brain does not function well during a talk.
Here are a few simple brain warm-ups:

  1. Run some multiplication tables - start with the fives, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 etc. Fives are easy. Then do the nines, and then challenge yourself with the eights.
  2. I like to pick numbers between one and one hundred and try to remember a professional athlete who wore the number. 17, John Havlicek, 23, Michael Jordan, 80, Jerry Rice, 35, Bernie Perant, 4, Bret Favre.
  3. You could try naming musical bands from a to z: Abba, Beach Boys, Commodores, and so on. Let me know whom you pick when you get to “X”!
Don’t agonize over the fact that you did not name every player or complete the multiplication table. These exercises are not suggested to create anxiety; they are merely ideas to get you ready for your speech.

A Good Beginning
A good beginning will help you make the audience relax, not to the point of sleeping but to the point of comfort. Start with giving thanks to the people who invited you and to your audience for their attendance. A nice comment about the area, town, or state is always appropriate, but sincerity is a must. I remember receiving a speeding ticket in Indianapolis outside the airport, so in the opening of my speech I made the comment about how kind the people in Indiana were since even the police wanted to personally welcome me to their fine state.
If you are a sports fan, as I am, learn what the local teams are doing. You could open with a comment pertaining to a local player or team.
Or you could talk about local celebrities. I was in Salt Lake City in 2004 during Ken Jennings’ reign on Jeopardy. At the time, his winning streak was up to 42 games, and I mentioned at the beginning of my talk that I was nervous speaking to the fine people from Salt Lake City because if they were all as intelligent as the Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings, I didn’t stand a chance to teach them anything new. This was a compliment to the people of Salt Lake, which made them feel good and thus warmed them to me even before my talk began.
There is a school of thought that you should open your speech with a joke, but let’s just say your opening should make people smile. If you need to use a joke because you can’t think of anything with a local flavor, be sure it is clean and noninsulting to ANY sector of the universe. People like to hear good things about themselves or their towns more than they like to hear a good joke, but just get them to smile.

The Speech Itself
You have practiced from your outline and you know your talk cold. Now just get out of the way and let it come out. Look down at your outline when you need to be guided to the next point, but do not panic if you loose your train of thought. You are human, and remember you are standing in front of a group of people who are pulling for you to succeed. So if you have a temporary lapse, just do what I do; I look at the audience, take a visible breath, and say, “I bet this has never happened to you, but I just forgot what I was going to say.” They will laugh, which will then give you a moment to find your place.
The entertainment value of your talk is important but more importantly make sure you say ‘something’. Time is the most precious commodity in our lives today. My point is that people treasure their time today because it has shrunk down to very few discretionary minutes, if you waste their time, they will not be happy campers.

A Bang-Up Ending
You had a good opening, a good middle, and now it is time to leave a final impression. For technical talks you can simply end with a compliment for your audience, saying something like, “Thanks for bearing with me, thanks for paying attention, I’ll stick around if you have any additional questions; but make them easy because my brain is as fried as yours.”
If you have just presented a motivational talk, you should find an ending story about someone you think of as a hero. It may be a figure in history, but more likely it will be someone with an unrecognizable name who has done something that has moved you. I like asking people in the audience to tell me who their heroes are and why. It gets people thinking warm thoughts, and the sharing of these thoughts usually leaves everyone in the audience with a great feeling. I remember giving a speech on customer service, and the talk turned to customer service heroics. I asked the question, “Who are your heroes in life?” I wrote each name on a board and asked the person to explain why that hero was selected.
We had the typical answers of Mother Theresa, Jackie Robinson, and Abraham Lincoln. Then a man in the back of the audience of about 400 people raised his hand and he told us that his hero was General MacArthur. As I turned to write MacArthur’s name on the board, I asked the man why he had selected him. He said, “Because he got me home.” I will never forget how moved the entire group was; it would have been a perfect ending.
Practice your ending story (out loud) more than any other segment of your talk because it will leave that all-important last impression. You want your audience feeling that they have gained something from your words and are thankful that they came.

Anne L. Anastasi, CLTP, is president of Genesis Abstract, Inc. in Hatboro, PA, a member of ALTA®’s Board of Governors, and chair of ALTA®’s Public Relations Committee. This article is an excerpt from her book “Fearless Public Speaking,” which can be found at Anne can be reached at

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