More Americans are terrified of public speaking than are afraid of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, loneliness, dying, theft, volcanoes, aging, needles, mass shootings, kidnappings and ghosts.
"Glossophobia," the medical term for stage fright, makes 28.4 percent of the adults in the U.S. either afraid or very afraid, according to The Chapman University Survey of American Fears. Meanwhile, volcanoes scare 19.7 percent of American adults and 8.5 percent of adults are afraid of zombies, according to the report.
Despite the fact that public speaking often induces terror, it's a vital skill for potential entrepreneurs and business owners who must be able to have to get up in front of a crowd to make a pitch, present an idea, or close a deal.
Here are 13 great secrets from professional speakers, experts, and coaches to help you overcome stage fright and give an ace presentation.
Talk about your own experiences. "Telling personal, true stories is the best way to impart information and inspire others. And it is easy to remember our own stories!" says Gary Schmidt, Past International President of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization that helps members improve their public speaking skills.
And avoid overly complicated language. It loses the audience. "You don't need jargon to sound like you know what you're talking about; bring in your own personal stories and experiences to build a persuasive case for why you are passionate about what you do. Your enthusiasm is your best sales tool," says Allison Shapira, founder and CEO of Global Public Speaking.
"There are many who prepare mentally minutes before speaking or maybe on the same day. One of the strongest factors is to prepare mentally from the instant that a speaking engagement is confirmed," says Mohammed Murad, Past International President of Toastmasters. "Visualizing the venue and audience contributes greatly to the build up of confidence."
Being aware of your breath gives you control of your nerves. "Deep breathing before and during your presentation or pitch calms your nerves and adds power and strength to your voice," says Shapira, who has been a Harvard lecturer, opera singer and TEDx speaker and has launched her own communication consulting firm. "Deep breathing also keeps your voice centered and prevents dangerous uptalk which undermines your credibility and confidence."
Rochelle Rice, an accredited Toastmasters International speaker, recommends standing with your feet in a wide parallel stance and your arms up before speaking in front of a crowd and then taking five deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. It's also helpful to lift your right arm up and stretch to the right and vice versa, she says. "Lower your arms, bring your legs together and feel the sensation of the breath and the circulation in your body," she says.
Powerpoint is a gentle lullaby to your audience. "People will invest in you because of your energy, confidence, and enthusiasm, not because of your slides," says Shapira. "Make you and your business the focus of your presentation instead of spending hours on the perfect pitch deck."
Simulate the experience of speaking to an audience in your rehearsals, says Sims Wyeth, an executive coach, business writer, author, and speaker. Wyeth started his career as an actor and has previously taught theater, and voice & speech at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, the Michael Chekhov Studio, the Actors' and Directors' Lab, and the University of New Orleans.
"Be well rehearsed, which means you should rehearse under performance-like pressure," says Wyeth. "Rehearsal is the work, performance is the play, and rehearsing under performance-like pressure acclimates you to the demands of public speaking."
There are neurological changes that occur when you practice. "Rehearsal transfers your words and ideas from the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher order conscious thought, to your cerebellum, which orchestrates the lightning fast motor activation needed to perform complex actions, like speaking to crowds, teaching your fingers to play a new piece of music, or learning your lines for a play," says Wyeth, who is also the author of The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking.
"Don't assume you need to be born a natural public speaker; recognize that it's a learnable (and vital) skill for promoting your business to investors, customers, and partners. Put aside time for practice and get feedback from colleagues and friends," says Shapira.
And if you are the head of a business, you are the one who is going to have to be on stage. "You can't outsource public speaking; as an entrepreneur, it's up to you to be the face of your business," she says.
Your opening sets the tone for your speech and your closing is what you will leave your audience with. Since entrepreneurs have only eight words to get the attention of a venture capitalist in a pitch, skip the "So, Yeah," at the start, says Shapira. Jump right in. And in your conclusion, leave your audience with a call to action or some other way for people to get involved.
"The most important parts of a speech are the opening and the conclusion," says Shapira. "Rather than expecting those sentences to happen spontaneously in the moment; write and practice them in advance."
Even better: memorize. Have the opening, and closing nailed down and then have a bullet point version of the rest of your speech memorized, suggests Rochelle Rice, one of the 69 Accredited Speaker with Toastmasters International and a board member of the National Speakers Association.
Practice, practice, practice. "Don't wing it, no matter how good you think you are at thinking on your feet," says Schmidt. "Mark Twain said it best: 'It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.'"
If you put on a front, the audience will pick up on it. "Speaking is not acting," says Murad. "People usually sense the personality, and it becomes apparent that the speaker is acting by trying to be someone else. There is no harm in researching other speaker styles, but a speaker needs to develop a style distinct to their personality, never imitate styles."
Enthusiasm and boredom are contagious. "If you are passionate about your topic and are excited to present to others, it will be infectious," says Schmidt. "If you are having fun as a speaker, your audience will have fun observing your speech."
Even if you have given the speech before, be sure to make tweaks to engage the specific audience.
"Without exception, audience, venue, and setting are all different each time. We can never be over-prepared," says Murad.
Your brain gets slowed down by complicated instructions, says Wyeth. "Psychologists have established that one-word instruction to yourself when you're under pressure generates the best performance. Sports psychologists encourage professional golfers to pick one word as they get ready to putt. 'Smooth,' is a good one," he says.
"Instructing your brain to remember to breathe, smile, stand up straight, slow down, and look at the audience will result in a disaster. Choose one word to be your North Star, something like, 'Relax,' or 'Fun,' or 'Easy.'"
You probably won't be Tony Robbins on your first try. "Public speaking is not easy. It takes time, practice and patience to hone your skills," says Rice.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, intense concentration will trip you up, says Wyeth. "The cerebellum is responsible for orchestrating lightning fast recollection of your words and ideas when you're speaking, but it's not reliable. It's not consciously accessible. You can't knock on its door and say, 'Ok, cerebellum, I'm ready to speak.' Open up and do your thing," he says.
"The science is clear. If you don't want to choke, don't monitor your own performance. Be well-rehearsed, trust yourself, and get on with it. Well-meaning people will tell you to slow down and continuously assess yourself. Don't do it. Dive in with both feet. It'll keep your feet out of your mouth."