Which do you fear more: snakes or public speaking?
For many of you, the answer is probably not snakes. Indeed, roughly one in three say they are afraid or very afraid of public speaking, according to a 2019 survey from Chapman University. That’s a higher percentage of people than those who said they feared snakes, walking alone at night, germs and dozens of other common fears.
But Yolanda F. Johnson—president of YFJ Consulting and creator of All the World’s a Stage, which teaches participants public speaking and presentation skills—says there are things you can do to overcome your fear and become a stellar public speaker.
Here are five tips.
1. Prepare well.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” says Johnson, quoting Benjamin Franklin.
She says preparation is the first thing you need to do ahead of public speaking, as it “keeps your stress levels at bay,” Johnson says. That means studying the subject you will be speaking about, understanding who your audience is and trying to anticipate what questions people will have.
2. Don’t try to be all things to all people, says Johnson. Instead, “try to be your best authentic self. I call it the treasure trove of fabulousness that every woman has. Go and open it up and ask yourself: What fabulous aspect of myself, in particular, might I need to take to this meeting or presentation today? Because I’ve got it,” she says. For example, if you’re funny, try to insert a few jokes.
“We don’t breathe enough,” says Johnson, who adds that “when you don’t breathe, it makes the audience really nervous.” Breathe in big deep breaths, which serves to calm you down and help you slow down your speaking, she adds. Taking a breath also works when you get asked a question or put on the spot and you need a second to collect your thoughts and answer, she adds. “It lowers the stress level, gives you a bit of confidence and gives you five seconds to think, “oh my God, how am I going to get to this question?” she explains.
4. Know how to pivot.
We all get asked a question we don’t know the answer to from time to time, and that’s when you need to pivot. As Johnson puts it: “You always have to give a response, you don’t always have to give an answer.” In fact, “the worst thing you can do is try to pull something out of your back pocket that’s untrue, that’s not accurate. That will follow you around and you’ll have to deal with it later,” she explains. “You have a right to revisit something with someone and to say, ‘you know, I’m not quite sure about that, but I really look forward to looking into it and getting back to you,’” she says.
5. Learn how to present yourself better on camera.
Zoom and Webex are likely here to stay, even after the pandemic, so it’s important to know how to present yourself on camera too. Indeed, what might look good in person doesn’t always look good over Zoom. Johnson advises that you should look for soft, natural lighting, and create a “set” around you that might include art, books or plants. And she says with a laugh, when it comes to your lipstick: “Gloss, not matte.”
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