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Nail Public Speaking in 5 Easy Steps

Would you rather have a root canal than give a public speech? Don’t be silly. Here’s how you do it.

Public speaking has been ranked in some studies as the No. 1 fear amongst Americans. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that a whopping 74 percent of Americans have speech anxiety, but according to a few local experts, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Story by Lindsey Kennedy

1. Practice makes perfect.

Practice speaking in front of others, whether it’s family members, colleagues or even a peer public speaking collective like Toastmasters International, where professionals mentor each other and improve their public speaking skills in a supportive group setting.

“Toastmasters organizations are a tremendous platform for anyone to improve their communication skills,” says Krishna K B Nair, vice president of membership and marketing for The Articulator’s Club, an Overland Park-based Toastmasters group. “Once you join, you will get an experienced member to mentor you through your first three speeches. Toastmasters are committed to the goal of improving public speaking skills and have gone through similar challenges.”

Nair stresses the importance of practicing with Toastmasters as well as rehearsing with a friend or relative. “It helps me to understand if I am comfortable with the flow of the material and time limit,” he explains. “A successful rehearsal will work wonders to your confidence when presenting to a larger audience.”

2. Visualize the end result.

As you prepare, it is also important to visualize an ideal outcome and to mentally envision how your speech will go with all elements in place. Joyce Layman, an accomplished public speaker and president of the National Speakers Association-KC, uses visualization techniques in her preparation.

“Athletes use visualization to improve their sports performance, and I used it to move outside my comfort zone,” Layman says. “I would do several walkthroughs of my talk and then visualize doing the same thing while standing in front of the group I was speaking to, including my hand gestures and feeling relaxed as possible.”

Having trouble visualizing? Try videotaping your speech. Layman suggests videotaping practice sessions to look for potential improvements. “It’s helpful to watch the video without sound and listen without the visual since you’ll pick up on different things that can be tweaked,” she says.

3. Don’t rely on presentation tools.

It’s easy to use presentation tools and visual aids as a crutch to lessen your anxiety. However, truly successful speeches are those that use visual aids only to emphasize the speaker’s main points. Andy Garrison, a public speaking instructor at KC-based Actor Training Studio, warns against relying too heavily on visual presentation tools.

“PowerPoint and other visual aids are there to support you and your speaking, not the other way around,” Garrison says. “You should be able to do your speech without any visuals at all. Put pictures in your visual presentation as much as possible (instead of words). If they have to read too much, they’re not listening to you.”

4. Know your audience (because they’re rooting for you)!

Keeping your audience in mind is important for every step of public speaking preparation. An experienced public speaker knows how to connect with—not fear—his or her audience.

Nair says realizing that the audience wants to see the speaker succeed allowed him to harness their positive energy in order to boost his own confidence. “I used be uncomfortable with the feeling of all eyes looking at me…critical about what I am going to say,” he recollects. “Once I realized that thinking just the opposite gives you tremendous energy, everything started changing for me. Now I feel relaxed and confident in front of the audience.”

5. Utilize helpful resources.

One substantial advantage for public speakers is the plethora of online learning resources available for free. A simple Google search will reveal public speaking courses like on coursera.org, a site that provides online university courses from a diverse array of subjects at no cost.

Some universities offer free classes called Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. The University of Washington provides a free online public speaking course (also available on coursera.org) that was attended by tens of thousands of students from all over the world this past summer.

Apple offers what it boasts to be “the largest online catalog of free education content” on iTunes U, where users can complete courses using the iTunes and iBooks applications. iTunes U offers several speech classes including a nine-part course from University of California-Davis scholars about overcoming anxieties in public speaking. Utilizing these resources can be a cost-effective and time-flexible way to gain confidence and improve your public speaking.