Monday 14 March 2016 3:00 am

Debrett’s Ask the Expert: How can I get over my fear of public speaking?

Tom Welsh is City A.M.'s business features editor.

Tom Welsh is City A.M.'s business features editor.

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Q: Help! I have risen to a senior position within my field, but every time I speak publicly I feel as nervous as a schoolboy. I don’t want my managers or colleagues to see how nervous I am, and I feel my fear is holding me back from progressing in my career. How can I get over my fear of public speaking?

A fear of public speaking is extremely common, and even those with considerable experience can fall prey to nerves when they have to deliver a presentation or pitch to an audience. Speaking in public is a requirement in many professions, however, and struggling with it – or avoiding it altogether – may inhibit career progression, meaning you lose out on sales and commissions or fail to communicate new ideas to colleagues.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to banish public speaking anxiety entirely, but there are a number of steps you can take to help it become less of an ordeal:

Prepare: research your subject and audience thoroughly and ensure you are briefed to answer any questions. While some prefer to write out their speech in full, others work better with notes on prompt cards. Whichever is best for you, ensure you make eye contact with your audience rather than reading off the page. If you are incorporating slides into a presentation, ensure you know how to operate any technology in advance to avoid awkward interruptions, which may disrupt your flow and cause you to feel flustered.

Practise: the more you practise your presentation, the more comfortable you will feel delivering it. Whether you rehearse it alone or in front of a friend, the familiarity gained from repeating the material will lessen the impact of any nerves when you confront your audience. Practising in front of a mirror or filming yourself using your smartphone may help you determine any nervous ticks that you need to eliminate – such as putting your hands in your pockets, avoiding eye contact, or a tendency to over-gesture. Lastly, consider running through a few vocal and facial exercises beforehand to ensure you are warmed up and relaxed: nerves can cause the face and voice to tense up, inhibiting your speech and projection.

Pace yourself: while it’s tempting to rush through a presentation just to get it finished, forcing yourself to speak slowly will give the impression of confidence. Speak more slowly than you would in conversation and pause after important points to give them emphasis. It may help to add instructions to your notes to remind yourself to slow down or pause at appropriate moments.

Pretend: by consciously faking confidence, you can trick yourself into feeling it. Research has shown that adopting certain “power” stances – for example with hands on hips and legs apart – can change the brain’s chemistry and boost confidence levels, as well as influencing the way others perceive us. While a power stance might not be appropriate at the podium, practising it in front of a mirror for a couple of minutes beforehand can have a positive effect.

Be practical: don’t feel compelled to add humour to your speech – silence can be deafening if a joke falls flat, and even expert public speakers can struggle to recover! It’s best to focus on engaging your audience with a smile rather than trying to force a laugh.

Persevere: Even if your first attempt at public speaking falls short of a triumph, persevere. It’s only through doing it that you will improve your technique and overcome your anxiety. Instead of avoiding public speaking, volunteer for opportunities to present a new proposal or pitch: by taking a proactive approach, you will feel more in control of the situation.

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