As I walked behind two professionally dressed older men, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. I was heading to a class that promised to address public speaking anxiety. Apparently, these two men were headed in the same direction.

One said to the other, “I’d rather run naked through downtown Portland in the snow than take this class.” The other replied, “You’ve got to get over it or you’re going to get passed over.”

That conversation took place over 25 years ago, and it so happened that I was the instructor for that class on public speaking.

 
 

A Fear of Public Speaking Is Normal

These two men were no different than many other adults I’ve worked with over the years as an associate professor of speech communication. No matter what our age, most adults experience some apprehension related to public speaking, and some experience extreme public speaking anxiety.

At one time, I was one of those people. Not only did I have extreme speech anxiety, I’ve always been an introvert. Yet I realized that my fear of public speaking and my natural aversion to the spotlight got in the way of my own potential.

A World of Opportunities Awaits When We Face Our Fears

Once I made the critical decision to face my fear of public speaking, a world of opportunities opened up for me. I’ve had opportunities to speak all over the country and speak up for causes that were important to me.

Last summer, at age 65 – the age of new possibilities – I had an opportunity to give a TEDx Talk. The experience gave me one of my first global platforms.

I realize the idea of speaking in public doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. Some of us would rather work behind the scenes. We’d rather write or blog than face a live audience. Yet we need to advocate for ourselves and for others. Now is our time to move to the forefront.

As individuals with a lifetime of expertise and wisdom, our voices matter, now more than ever before. Whether we’re promoting an encore business venture, speaking up for a cause or sharing our personal stories in schools or on college campuses, now is our time to speak up, speak out and be the difference.

We’ve got too many opportunities ahead of us to let fear stand in our way. As FDR said in his 1932 inaugural address, “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

As someone who has faced my fear of speaking up and has helped others do the same, here are four suggestions that can help those of you who may be a bit reticent about speaking in public.

Think About the Interests, Values, Attitudes and Needs of Your Audience

What does your audience they need? What do you know that can help them succeed? When you are asked to present to a particular group, do your homework.

Put your focus on the audience rather than on yourself. Your audience is far more concerned about themselves than anything you forget to say or don’t say as you intended to say it.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I have been speaking for 40 years. Yet even now, I will practice for several hours before giving a 15-minute presentation. Public speaking can open a world of opportunities, but it does require work.

Polish Your Skills

All of us can benefit from watching others and from getting consistent feedback. I first gained confidence as a speaker by participating in Toastmasters. Toastmasters International provides mentors, models, step-by-step instruction and lots of feedback. Click on the link to find a club near you.

Other than helping people become aware of speaking ‘potholes’ – such as frequent “ums” or other fillers – I don’t stress delivery when working with individuals who have high speaking anxiety. With sufficient practice, delivery generally takes care of itself. We all have something important to say.

Organize What We Have to Say

Here are two common structural patterns that can be used as containers for ideas:

Information Sharing

When sharing information, start by getting the attention of the audience. Always include why what you are going to say matters to them.

As humans, we are natural storytellers. Telling a story or short anecdote is a great way to get the attention of an audience. Briefly establish why you are qualified to address the topic. Then share the focus of your talk.

Next, provide an overview of points you plan to discuss. Cover each point and give examples, illustrations, explanations or other support.

Then remind the audience of what you just covered by recapping your points. Finally, close with a challenge, quote or something that gives the audience ownership of what you said.

The Power of Persuasion

When wanting to persuade the audience to take action, again start with an attention-getter. Establish relevance for your audience. Show them you understand a problem they are facing. Then provide a solution. Finally, ask them to take a specific action.

These four suggestions – focusing on the audience, getting sufficient practice, polishing your skills and using appropriate patterns are time-tested strategies for increasing public speaking confidence and skill.

Now is the time for us to share our wisdom and expertise. If fear is holding you back, I challenge you to take steps to address that fear staring this week. Speak up, speak out and be the difference. Your voice does matter.

If you have dealt with the fear of public speaking, what helped you get over that fear? If you are using your voice by speaking in public, how has it helped make a difference in your life or the lives of others? What advice would you give others who have a lot of speaking anxiety but could benefit from facing their fears? Please share your experiences with the community.

Paula UsreyIn 2004, after becoming a grandmother, Paula Usrey started an encore career as an associate professor of communication. She is also a speaker and workshop facilitator. Her topics include communication and personal life planning. In July 2017, she gave her first TEDx Talk: Your Best Life at Any Age.

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