How to skirt public speaking disaster

April 23, 2012: 1:36 PM ET

Just about all of us -- even high-powered public figures -- get nervous in high-pressure public speaking situations. Here are a few pointers to avoid the worst.

By Bill Connor

FORTUNE -- Solicitor General Donald Verrilli picked the wrong day to get the jitters last month. Fighting to keep The Affordable Health Care Act intact in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, he hesitated, he stuttered, he coughed, he gulped ice water – he didn't make a strong impression. The New Yorker's legal writer Jeffrey Toobin summed up the reactions of many observers when he told Politico: "I was just shocked."

Will Verrilli's stumble mean curtains for the President's health care plan? Perhaps not, but it didn't help.

It's a story that's older than dirt, as they say up in Maine. Just about all of us -- even high-powered public figures -- get nervous in high-pressure public speaking situations.

I once had a client -- a bona fide K Street superwoman -- who routinely turned into a quivering tower of Jell-O every time she had to stand and speak in front of an audience. We're talking about a brilliant executive who ran a large industry association, made a seven-figure income, and traveled from Capitol Hill to Europe and Asia and back to advocate on behalf of her member companies.

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The first time we worked together to get her ready for a major keynote speech, we went through our typical process of creating the content for her presentation: brainstorming the raw material, distilling it into a narrative, and designing visuals that would seize her audience's attention and help them remember what she wanted from them.

The process went well. And then it came time for on-camera practice in our studio.

"I have to tell you something," she said. "I get extremely nervous when I have to speak in public."

I told her that was normal -- it just means you're a human being with a pulse. It happens to everyone.

She said "No, I mean it's a lot worse than that."

I told her how impressive she was in every respect, and asked her how she thought she got this way.

"That's easy," she said. "Fifth grade. Piano recital."

When she was 10 years old, she was about to sit her pinafore-clad self down at the keyboard when she saw her mother looking very tense in the first row. And then, as she lifted her hands to begin playing, she heard her mother let out a small gasp. To this day, she's not sure why that happened -- maybe Mom thought her daughter was about to play the wrong piece or maybe she thought she had left the oven on back at the house -- but whatever the reason, it traumatized my client.

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And so when it came time for her to give the keynote we had worked on, I flew with her all the way down to the New Orleans Convention Center -- and quite literally held her hand in the wings until it was time for her to take the stage. I did the same thing for every one of her presentations we worked on together after that. On every occasion, she was petrified beforehand, but calmed down and performed well after about the first two minutes.

A well-known TV newsman once told me that everyone gets the butterflies. So show them how to fly in formation. Harness your nervous energy and transform it into positive energy.  And no, imagining the audience in their underwear doesn't work.

Here are the steps I take to avoid getting weak-kneed:

1. Practice out loud. Repeatedly. Yes, I can hear you saying it's impossible to find time in your schedule to do this, but simple out-loud practice is the best way to calm your nerves. Go into a room and shut the door. Stand and deliver the presentation with passion. If you do this several times, the information will become second nature to you, and you won't suffer from the anxiety that comes with not being quite sure where you're headed.

 2. Have them at hello with a powerful opening.  If you've got a great opening that you know will move your audience -- a story, a visual, an unexpected prop -- it will boost your self-confidence.  Also, you don't want to memorize the rest of your presentation -- that can be problematic if you lose your place -- but memorizing the opening is important. Again, the feeling of certainty will boost your confidence.

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 3. Breathe. I make a habit of the following breathing exercise: Inhale to a count of five. Exhale to a count of 10. Do 15 reps of this and it will have a calming effect. Going to the gym before your presentation works the same way.

 4. Visualize.  Do as pro athletes do. Play a little movie in your brain of yourself succeeding at the task you're about to perform. If you're at the foul line in the NBA finals, you would envision the ball going nothing-but-net before you take the shot. If you're about to be introduced before your speech at a conference, close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself striding onto the stage with confidence and delivering a performance that makes you and your agenda look good. In a sense, you've "already been there" once you do this, and thus the fear of the unknown is minimized.

5. They like you. They really like you. Remember that, in most situations, the audience wants you to succeed. It's boring and awkward to watch someone dying up there on the stage, so draw strength from the knowledge that the audience is genuinely hoping that you'll entertain and inform. And if you happen to spot audience members who are yawning, rolling their eyes, or texting, to heck with 'em. Make eye contact with someone who's smiling or nodding her head in agreement. Instant confidence booster.

A few lucky extroverts out there don't have a problem with this. But for most of us, successfully dealing with stage fright is a learned skill, like correctly holding a nine-iron.  And since public speaking is such a big part of career success, it's worth your while to slay the demon properly.

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About This Author
Bill Connor
Bill Connor

Bill Connor is a principal at Washington, D.C.-based Oratorio Media and Presentation Training, where he coaches corporate executives and other officials around the world to perform more effectively in media interviews, presentations, and speeches. Prior to joining Oratorio, Bill was a White House correspondent for the Hearst Corporation television stations and an anchor and reporter for NBC's WCSH-TV.

Email | @oratorio_bill
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