Overcoming public speaking jitters

Nervousness about speaking in front of a crowd is normal—even for seasoned executives.

In a recent article published by Harvard Business Review, Sarah Gershman, speech coach and president of Washington D.C.-based communications firm Green Room Speakers, notes that the fear of being watched is the most common public speaking concern among her clients.

That fear dates back to prehistoric times when humans associated being watched with a threat to their survival. “Public-speaking anxiety is in our DNA,” she says. As a solution, she urges public speakers to pay less attention to themselves and focus more on helping their audience.

She then suggests three ways of using generosity to combat public speaking anxiety:

  1. Prepare with your audience in mind
    When preparing to give a speech or presentation, don’t start with the topic you are speaking about, but instead the audience to whom you are speaking. Ask these questions: Who will be in the room? Why are they there? What do they need? After identifying the audience’s needs, both spoken and unspoken, “craft a message that speaks directly to those needs.”
  2. Refocus before speaking
    Anxiety levels are highest in the minutes before speaking. During that time, firmly remind yourself of your purpose: to help the audience. Gershman says doing that before four to six presentations will train your brain to be less nervous.
  3. Eye contact is key
    A common public speaking mistake is scanning the crowd without truly connecting with audience members. Gershman recommends speaking to an audience as individuals by “making sustained eye contact with one person per thought.” This can be hard to practice, but it will eventually help you calm nerves and foster connection with the audience. Don’t forget to look at those sitting at the far edges of the room.

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