A prescription for nervous public speakers

July 26, 2011: 1:13 PM ET

Scared of giving a speech? Forget trying to relax. Instead, a new book says, put your stage fright to work -- or camouflage it.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- There are lots of books out there about how to be a more effective speaker, but few can match As We Speak: How to Make Your Point and Have It Stick for sheer down-to-earth candor about dealing with the all too common problem of stage fright.

Co-authors Peter Meyers and Shann Nix write, "This book is not about learning to relax" (emphasis is theirs). Quoting comedian Jerry Lewis, they declare, "If you're not nervous, you're either a liar or a fool, but you're not a professional."

Noting that Olympic athletes, Broadway stars, and other performers are anything but laid-back in the moments before they go on, Meyers and Nix add, "You're never going to be relaxed in a high-stakes situation -- nor should you be."

Whew. Takes some of the pressure off, doesn't it?

Meyers, who has spent the past 25 years coaching Fortune 500 CEOs, political candidates, and other high-powered types through his Silicon Valley-based consulting firm Stand & Deliver, has a few favorite techniques for turning raw panic into positive energy. (Hint: Don't forget to breathe.)

If, however, you're still visibly terrified at having to address an audience, here are some practical tips on how to hide the symptoms:

Shaking hands. Steady your hands by holding a clicker, pen, book, or notebook. Avoid laser pointers (that red dot moving all over the place will give you away) and while it's okay to speak from notes, don't use loose paper, which "will flap like a sail."

Trembling legs. "Wear baggy trousers. Really!" the authors write. Tight pants or a skirt will just showcase the tremors. So will standing still: Moving around will get your circulation going and help you burn off the jitters.

Sweating. Keep your jacket on, and have a cotton handkerchief handy: "No one wants to watch you wait for that drop of sweat to fall off your forehead," the authors note, so just wipe your face.

Dry mouth. This one is simple. Make sure you have a glass of water within reach, and "don't feel self-conscious about pausing for a sip when needed."

Wavering or cracking voice. It's natural to hold your breath or breathe shallowly as a response to fear, but this will make your voice sound strained. Taking deep breaths will fix that by creating a steady volume of air flow over your vocal cords, and help calm your nerves too.

Turning bright red. Observing that "there are people, generally with fair coloring, who consistently go bright red onstage," the authors advise that you don't worry about it. Even though you may feel you're glowing like Rudolph's nose, "just breathe and carry on. If you don't suffer over it, the audience won't either."

Nice to know.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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