A Cup of Leadership CaffeineFew phrases are capable of sending shivers down a person’s spine, like,  “Bob or Mary, why don’t you present your ideas at our next meeting.”  Except perhaps, “Bob or Mary,” why don’t you present your ideas at our next Board of Directors meeting.

For some people, this seemingly golden opportunity to show and share is akin to receiving a prison sentence with no hope for parole.

Speaking as Cruel and Unusual Punishment?!

While never seeking to engage in cruelty by invitation to present, I’ve had people tell me (after the fact) that they basically shut down from the time they were “invited” to present until it was over.

One individual volunteered that during the weeks leading up to the board presentation, he suffered from a number of symptoms, including sleeplessness, grinding of teeth, loss of appetite, disengagement from family, feelings of excessive stress and finally, a rolling wave of panic attacks.  While he did a great job, that’s not a desirable or sustainable process for anyone to have to deal with when it comes to preparing to present.

Most everyone would agree that the extreme fear of speaking in front of a group is not rational, yet, for those so afflicted, the fear is every bit as real as if the judge was handing down the sentence and offering the choice between execution and delivering the speech. Many people would hesitate on making that call. “Hmmm, if I choose the former, I can skip the presentation.”

While part of me wants to say, “man up,” or some other gender appropriate, much more politically correct phrase for “grow some,” (oops), I can’t.  I consistently spend 10 hours per week and often 20 in front of groups ranging from workshops to keynotes to classes, and my journey from something resembling the individual above to someone that truly loves and seeks out opportunities to engage an audience, is all too fresh in my mind.

No amount of cajoling will help someone overcome his or her fear of speaking. This is an intensely personal foe that is difficult to wrestle to the ground and pin. While there is some oft-repeated and worthwhile advice, ranging from hiring a coach to joining organizations such as Toastmasters, I’ve observed that a good number of people have learned to manage their anxiety by focusing on preparing their minds.

6 Starter Ideas for Coping With and Even Conquering Presentation Anxiety:

1. Learn from Ben Franklin.  Draw a line down the center of a blank piece of paper and label the left “positives” and the right “negatives.”  Over the course of the next few days, jot down all of the good things that will accrue to you from developing your skills as a presenter as well as all of the negatives.  Return to the list daily, add new ideas and cross off those that have no basis in reality.  For example, “I’ll be fired immediately” for whiffing on the presentation is not going to happen.  Neither will you be bound, have an apple stuffed in your mouth and roasted over an open spit.  And I’ve yet to fall through a trap door on a stage.  The positive list will be much longer…much more rational and this is where you should focus your mind.

2. Turn your thinking around. Develop a fear of not overcoming this bogeyman.  On another sheet of paper, create a list of all of the potentially negative things that will happen if you don’t develop comfort in front of an audience.  Think about an endless cycle of the horrible symptoms described above.  Throw in career derailment, reduced earnings potential and an artificial cap on your ability to succeed.  There are some really great reasons for developing as a speaker and some truly significant implications of shrinking from or shirking this developmental area.

3. Turn your thinking around, part 2. Reorient your perspective to turn developing as an effective and confident speaker into your mountain to climb. You’ve already established the negatives of not succeeding and the positives that accrue from conquering this Mt. Everest.  It’s time to turn this into an all-consuming goal.  Whether you take your inspiration from watching “The Biggest Loser,” (hey, nothing intended here.) or Wimbledon or the Tour De France, make this your event to pursue.

4. Start with some easy practice runs to build confidence.  There are nearly countless opportunities to start practicing in front of groups in your workplace or in your personal life.  Each practice run is an important part of your conditioning.  Set a goal on achieving one opportunity per week in fairly friendly surroundings.  Focus initially on content that you know well or topics that you are passionate about.

5. Learn to plan your message.  I never speak without having first created my message map on a single sheet of paper.  Place your core message at the center, your supporting messages hang off the core and each supporting message is backed by evidence.  Build your update from that template and you will be amazed how much easier this processes becomes.  The preparation of a good message map means that you are not only ready to present your compact in a clear and concise manner, you are also ready to field questions.  The message map is absolutely my best speaking friend.

6. Say it with a smile. As part of your climb up Mt. Everest, learn to manage your emotions.  A simple technique that will help you immediately and that will warm your audience, is to smile while you talk.  Don’t grin like an idiot, but show your warmth and emphasize the smile.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

My intent in this post is to offer hope…and some lifelines for everyone that suffers from Pre-Speaking Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  This is real, and you can shrink from it, shirk it or find a way to shine.  And while there’s a lot more to do than what I outlined in this post, remember, these are lifelines to help you rein in and focus your emotions.  Now enjoy the training and start climbing.  The benefits to you in your career are priceless.