December 5, 2022 • By Dennis Beaver
“The retirement planning firm I work for has just begun holding seminars where various strategies are discussed with an audience of, usually, around 50 people. My problem is stage fright.
“I’ve been reading your columns for years and know that you are a trial lawyer, did some research and found several articles in the ABA Banking Journal on Presentation Skills — including overcoming stage fright — by a Dennis Beaver. Is that you?
“Any advice or books on public speaking you can recommend will be greatly appreciated. Thanks, ‘Gary.’”
Yes, that’s me
Prior to attending law school, I planned on becoming a college speech teacher, and did bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech/communications. After becoming a trial lawyer, I put those degrees to work, teaching speech at our community college and, for many years, presentation skills to bankers at the Graduate School of Banking in Madison, Wisconsin, every August.
A week prior to the session beginning, I phoned each student, learning why they were taking a course in public speaking and what specific problems they needed addressed. Among other issues, many reported: stage fright. In order to advance professionally, they had to become better speakers. Our class gave them the tools.
Performance anxiety, stage fright are real
The fear of death comes in second to someone who suffers from serious stage fright.
Resulting from too much adrenaline, symptoms before and during a presentation include a racing heart, shaky hands, vultures flapping their wings in your stomach, all of it leading to the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
Afterwards, “I felt physically exhausted, drained and glad that it is over,” are frequent comments I’ve heard, along with, “I know they think that I was just a bundle of nerves and stupid.”
The surprising truth about stage fright is that audiences rarely have a clue as to how nervous a speaker actually is unless you do the wrong things and reveal behaviors that communicate fear. However, where the person appears to enjoy speaking before a group, credibility and effectiveness go way up.
What you want to avoid
No matter how nervous you feel on the inside, your audience won’t have a clue unless you reveal those feelings through rigid behavior — standing with tense arms and hands, motionless, gripping the lecture for dear life — or inhibitory behaviors — a monotone voice, speaking too quietly, or too many “and…uh’s.”
In class, I ask all who suffer from stage fright to raise their hands. Over to one student I walk and engage in normal chit-chat — about her job, family, and kids — just light conversation. At some point I take her by the hand and we walk to the front of the class, still maintaining this pleasant dialogue.
Backing away yet still chatting with the student, soon she is alone, engaged in a pleasant dialogue with me — about anything by this time. And then I turn to the class and ask, “How’s she doing?” I hear a Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger response: GREAT! And I ask her, “How do you feel?” Another GREAT! “What did we just prove?” I ask.
“That it’s mostly in your head,” is the response from the class. The student admits to initially feeling very nervous, afraid it would be obvious and then began to enjoy this exercise.
How to reduce, mask signs of anxiety
1. Be the first person in the room
We are more comfortable speaking with people we know, so, be the first person in the room. By introducing yourself to a handful of audience members as they arrive, it creates a positive feeling. “Wasn’t that nice? The speaker actually went up to me, introduced himself, and we talked about his topic,” they think. Your level of anxiety will mostly fade away.
2. You are not obligated to open your presentation with a funny story
If you have a cute story that fits, then use it, but if you can’t tell a joke, then don’t audition for Saturday Night Live in front of this audience.
3. Think dialogue, not speech
Audiences love to participate in a dialogue with the speaker, so consider opening your talk with answerable questions. “How many of you are concerned about funding your kids’ college education, retirement, etc.?” Look for raised hands. Then, with hand gestures that make it clear you would like this person to explain, ask, “Betty, please tell me your concerns.”
4. Use the room to mask any nervousness
Feel earthquake hands about to come on? Simply rest your hands on the podium or edge of the table. Shaky hands — gone!
To establish good eye contact, move across the room, but do not pace back and forth. The audience will follow you with their eyes, and you, in turn will appear to give eye contact to everyone without trying.
5. Do not rely on visual aids — they will fail you! Keep it conversational, build reviews into the presentation
Visual aids are just that — aids, and should never become your talk, as they can fail at the worst moment. Your audience is not a pile of digital voice recorders — they can’t recall everything, so build in review points.
6. Really want to fail? Distribute handouts at the beginning of your talk. If it is a dinner presentation, start speaking when everyone is cutting into their steak
To deliver a completely forgettable presentation, distribute handouts at the beginning of your talk. Your audience will be fumbling with the material and not paying attention.
If it is a dinner talk, let everyone finish eating and then begin, as food is far more important than anything you have to say.
If you have a handout, distribute it at the end.
Two great resources: “What to Say When You’re Dying on the Platform” by Lilly Walters and “Do’s and Taboos of Public Speaking: How to Get Those Butterflies Flying in Formation,” by Roger E. Axtell. Both are available from Amazon.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.