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Why You’re Afraid of Public Speaking (And How to Overcome it) – @sparkpresenter
The Agents of Change

AOCP-Pinterest-Andy-SaksDoes just the thought of speaking in public make your heart beat faster, your palms sweat and you feel like you might faint? You’re certainly not alone. The fear of public speaking is the highest ranked fear, even over death. Over death!?

The biggest problem to overcome is how to control our natural “fight or flight” instinct. Although we can’t – and shouldn’t – try to eliminate that natural response, learning how to control it is the key to successful public speaking where you remain calm, insight trust in your audience, and in turn, success for you and your business.

Andy Saks knows the importance that public speaking can have on you to help you stand out in the crowd as well as help you generate leads for your business. His expertise on the topic – found both in his programs as well as his book, Presentation Playbook Series – has helped many people learn to utilize presentation opportunities to generate connections, leads, sales and more.

Rich: Andy Saks is owner of Spark Presentations, a company that works with people to perfect their business presentation like sales pitches, networking intros , conference seminars and trade booth presentations. Since 1998, Andy has worked with dozens of clients from AT&T to Volvo, and last year he published Volume 1 of the Presentation Playbook Series, a 3-book set that teaches you to build great presentations and actually have fun giving them, which I know a lot of you will not believe.

Andy lives west of Boston with his wife, Deb and his daughter, Cara, and spends his free time following the Red Sox and searching tirelessly for the perfect sushi roll. So there’s no point in discussing “deflategate”, it’s just going to get us both really angry. Andy, welcome to the show.

Andrew: Thank you, Rich, it’s my pleasure to be here.

Rich: So how did you find yourself helping people improve their business presentations?

Andrew: It goes back to my days both in theater and in sales. I grew up doing theater and plays and musicals. I held some sales positions in my 20’s – specifically one of them for America Online – and this is right at the dawn of the internet age about 20 years ago.

Those days in order to get companies to adopt marketing programs online, you had to have a meeting or give a presentation where you first explain what the internet was. And then once they got that you’d have to explain what America Online was. And then once they got that, you’d have to explain the dynamics of how an online marketing plan might work and how it was different from a print ad or a radio ad. And I found that I was the only one on my sales team that really enjoyed and looked forward to giving these presentations.

So when those opportunities popped up, I was the one who stepped forward and said, “Hey, I’d love to do that, that sounds like fun!” Right at the moment that my coworkers kind of stepped back into the shadows. I discovered through doing that that presentations, first of all, have such a strong utility and such a strong value for organizations. If you can be that person, who when a presentation opportunity comes along in any aspect of your business, if you’re the one who steps forward and says, “I’ll do it, I’ll make the most of that presentation opportunity”, you have value.

I decided to found a business that was focused specifically on providing that single piece of value to any company who wanted to take advantage.

Rich: Alright, that makes a lot of sense. Now today we’re going to be talking about overcoming one’s fear of public speaking. For some people I know, it just seems like that is an insurmountable mountain to climb. I’m sure they’re thinking, “I can do a lot of other things, but why should I throw myself to the lions when it comes to public speaking?” What would you say to that person?

Andrew: That’s a great question and a very common question, as well. Fear of speaking on some level to some degree is pretty much universal across the planet. Everybody has that built into them for some reason, and there are specific reasons for that.

To answer why it’s valuable I’m always put in mind of a quote by Marlon Riggs, and he said. “When nobody speaks your name or even knows it, you, knowing it, must be the first to speak it.” And my translation for that is that company representatives – especially SNB’s – need to be their own advocates. They need to push themselves into the market, they need to get noticed and stand out from all the static. They need to get known and respected for what they do and appreciated for their specialty. They need people to know what makes them special. And presentations are a really powerful and somewhat unique way to do this.

They’re an immense opportunity to get in front of a group and in usually just a few minutes, engage a whole audience, enlighten them on what you do, throw in some entertainment, create some energy, maybe some inspiration, and along the way present yourself as an advocate for your cause.

There’s no other form of communication that on the one hand allows you to talk to so many people simultaneously and be efficient with your time. And on the other hand, create an experience that is intensely personal where you’re generating energy in the room and creating a shared experience that everybody remembers.

I’m a big advocate – as you can tell – for presentations and I think they’re really underutilized opportunities. So the company that sees them and says, “Hey, I’m going to grab every moment i can for presentation, I’m going to grab every opportunity I see.”, has a very distinct advantage over those companies around them who are too scared to go ahead and do that.

Rich: And I can speak to that. I never went purposely out of my way to become a presenter, although I certainly enjoy it now. But I have seen time and time again when I’m out in the community giving presentations on how to improve your search engine optimization or on how to build your email list to everything from a chamber group to a professional business group or sometimes to an industry group, that almost invariably I get business from those.

And very often, even if it doesn’t happen right after the show, weeks or months later when somebody reaches out to my company they say, “I saw Rich speak and…”, and that begins the relationship.

Andrew: That’s very common. And I give no fee seminars as well and that’s one of the best uses of the presentation is to just get out there in front of an audience and show off your expertise and be the person that all of those people in the room think of first the next time they need something you provide. It’s a very efficient way to market yourself.

Rich: So Andy, then why do people freak out when they have to do public speaking?

Andrew: Oh that’s a great question. And as you probably know, speaking on many lists of america’s biggest fears ranks at or near the top. Which is pretty amazing because it ranks over a number of things that could actually kill you. People actually fear public speaking more.

And there are a bunch of reasons for that. Some of them should ring a bell. One is that pretty much any presentation you give has high stakes attached to it. In other words, you have a goal that you want to achieve in that presentation, even if it’s simply not embarrassing yourself. So you’re aware that there’s something at stake and if you don’t do it well you could fail in your desire to get those things.

Another thing is what I call contact anxiety, which is a fear of not being 100% solid with the content you’re delivering and you worry you can’t answer a question they ask or you mispronounce a word or you don’t explain something correctly and someone catches you and you’ll be revealed.

Another one is the environment itself. Sometimes you can be a very confident speaker and know your content well, but you’re thrown up on stage and you’re not used to hearing your voice through a microphone and suddenly it’s booming off the walls. Or you’re suddenly in a spotlight and your audience goes dark and you can’t see who you’re talking to. Or your presentation relies on internet connection to do a live demo and the internet isn’t working correctly. Any of those things relating to your environment can also throw you way off your game in just a split second.

And there’s one other I mentioned that’s a little bit more subtle called “grounding”. And grounding is the experience when you talk to somebody one on one of getting visual and verbal cues from them, and giving visual and verbal cues to them, during the conversation. And those cues – like eye contact and nodding your head and having a facial expression and gesturing – those are the cues that let each of the players in a one on one conversation know that you are completely tuned into each other, that you’re listening, that you’re following along. and it lets each person know how and when to respond.

But when you’re in a one to many situation like public speaking, that “grounding” either is minimized or disappears. You don’t really know what each person on your audience is thinking, you can’t read everybody’s face. Sometimes you can’t literally see those faces. So the moment to moment reassurance that you get in a one on one conversation that tells you that you’re on the right track is missing, and it’s usually replaced with this nagging feeling that you just don’t really know what your audience thinks of you and whether you’re making an impact on them or not. And again, that in itself can throw you off.

But there’s a big one that sort of trumps all of those and I bet you’re going to ask me about it.

Rich: Well I am now. Before we get to that one, I just want to recap the 4 that you already mentioned. That you have something at stake, something to lose here. That you have content anxiety, that you’re worried that you won’t know all the answers. Environment anxiety, basically you may not be comfortable in the exact setting that you’re in right then, maybe it’s a new setting, maybe it’s the sound isn’t what you expected. And the last one was grounding, which is basically where we talk one on one to somebody and we’re getting that immediate feedback on did I just screw up, am I making my point, where with a large group of people that may not be possible. Did I do a good job summarizing those?

Andrew: You did great, Rich, you’re right on it.

Rich: Alright, so now what’s the biggie umbrella one?

Andrew: The big one that topples almost everyone at some point is human evolution itself. So imagine that you are a caveman or cavewoman living in caveman days and you’re out one day away from your tribe and foraging for berries and looking around and you find yourself in a clearing. You look down to the other end of the clearing and let’s say 100 yards away at the other side of that clearing you see a bear that is standing in place and facing you. Now in that situation, your brain perceives 3 conditions that exist.

One is, you’re separated from your group. You’re very aware all of a sudden that the rest of the tribe is back at camp and you are alone.

The second condition is that you are the object of focus. The bear is staring directly at you. If the bear were doing something else and were still 100 yards away but maybe was foraging or running up a tree, you wouldn’t feel quite so scared, but the bear is staring directly at you.

And the third condition is there is a fear of harm. If you don’t play the situation well, you could very quickly end up being the bear’s lunch, and that makes for a bad day.

So when those three conditions exist, you’re separated from the group, you’re the object of focus, and there’s a fear of harm, your brain automatically and instantly kicks a series of physiological changes into gear that prepare you to do one of two things. You’re either going to try to evade the threat by running away as fast as you can, or you’re going to try to conquer the threat by fighting your way out.

Rich, I’m sure you already guessed from your high school biology there’s a name for this that many of us are familiar with.

Rich: Right, fight or flight.

Andrew: That’s right, your fight or flight response is engaged. So let’s say that because it’s engaged you decide to run away, you outrun the bear, you live to fight another day and you go back to camp, you procreate and you pass the fight or flight response on to your kids. They’re more likely to survive because they have it and they pass it on to their kids. Generations go by, centuries, millennia, eons and suddenly we go all the way up to modern day.

Now imagine that you are standing in front of an audience. It could be a pitch you’re giving for a networking group, it could be a seminar at an industry conference, it could be a webinar that you’re delivering or maybe you’re making a YouTube video or some sort of marketing. What three conditions exist?

Well again, you’re separated from the group, you are the one on stage or camera. Second, you’re the object of focus, you may have a camera looking at you or maybe 10 people or maybe 100 or 1,000 or more. And third, there’s a fear of harm. You may not literally fear for losing your life but there are plenty of other very painful fears you can imagine. Embarrassment, humiliation, loss of business which affects your income and you ability to support yourself and your family.

And so again when those three conditions exists your brain automatically perceives them and initiates the fight or flight response. So all the symptoms that you experience when you even think about speaking – because your brain can’t distinguish between doing something and thinking about doing it – as soon as you even consider a speaking engagement, your brain automatically starts to trigger the fight or flight response. And all the symptons that you experience in your body – the sweaty palms, the pounding heart, the inability to remember your own name – all of those are designed specifically to help you get out of a life or death situation but unfortunately are totally inappropriate for a presentation situation.

Rich: Alright, so that makes sense on an evolutionary scale. More importantly, perhaps, is how do we overcome these fears and what kind of techniques can we use so that we are able to give good presentations to our peers?

Andrew: That’s a great question. First thing I always like to say at this point is that it is impossible and not recommended that you would be able to completely remove the fight or flight response. It’s built into pretty much every human being on the planet and it really may save your life one day. So it’s something that you want to have handy. 

So the question is, if I can’t get rid of it how can I knock it down to a point where it’s no longer freezing me in place and preventing me from taking advantage of these presentation situations? How can knock it down to a level where it’s working for me, where it pushes me to do better and prepare me to make that presentation a priority without overwhelming me?

What I’d like to do is give you a series of tips that are sort of grouped together in three different categories. Is that ok?

Rich: Sounds good.

Andrew: Alright. All of these are based on time. So the first category is some tips that you can put into practice anywhere from one hour before the presentation all the way back to one month or one year before the presentation – depending on how far out you know about it and you start preparing for it.

The first thing I recommend at this stage – and this is usually in the early stages when you’re just sort of feeling through what this presentation is going to be – is to remember who it’s about. A lot of the fears that you may experience and stem from your brain telling you, “Oh my god, this is going to be awful, I’ll forget what I want to say and my my heart will be pounding and my pants will fall down.” One of the ways you can fix that is simply to be aware that you’re doing it and stop it and remember who your presentation is about.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the presenter is the least important person in the room, because the presenter already has the message, they already know the information. The most important people in the room are the members of the audience, they’re the ones who came to learn, they’re the ones who had promise given to them about the information you deliver and came to collect on that promise.

So if you can think of yourself not as the object of focus but as the messenger and remember that the audience is really there for the message. It’s a subtle shift in perspective that will help you take the focus off yourself. You stop thinking about how to wear your hair and how to pronounce a word correctly and you start thinking about the audience and saying, “What do they need from me? How can I make this program more entertaining, more valuable, more fun, more engaging, more interactive? Is this the best use of that slice? Is there a joke I can put in here that would provide a little comic relief?” If you spent your time thinking of how you could serve the audience, that’s the best use of that preparation time. And believe me, if you serve them well, they’re not going to care that your shirt isn’t tucked in or that you mispronounced a word, they’ll feel like they got value. So that’s one thing.

The second thing is to try to visualize success in the days and weeks leading up to the program. As I mentioned, it’s very easy for the human brain to run away with the worst possible case scenario of what might happen to you. So when you find yourself doing that, try to catch yourself – and you can even do this proactively for a few minutes a day – spend some time visualizing what a really successful presentation would look like. So imagine yourself on the stage you’ll be on in front of the audience you’ll be facing with the slides you’ll be giving right next to you on the screen in as much detail as possible and imagine everything going really well. Imagine yourself saying just the right things in just the right way. Imagine the expressions of wonder and joy on the faces of your audience members. Imagine people coming up to you afterwards and shaking your hand and thanking you for teaching them something great. Imagine them putting business cards in your hand and saying they’d love to talk to you more.

Any scenario along those lines that helps you imagine really great success will help orient your mind toward creating that kind of reality and away from the worst case scenario. So chances are you’ll do a better job and you’ll have a much better time in the weeks leading up to the presentation as well.

And the third one for this period is simply to practice. I wish there were a way around this, as far as I know there isn’t. One of the best ways to help your mind lower that anxiety is simply to train it by experience that this is not a life threatening situation. So take any opportunity you can in your professional life, in your personal life, to practice. Get on camera, stand up and give a toast in front of your family at dinnertime, run a staff meeting, talk to yourself in your car, any opportunity you can just practice, practice, practice. Turn everything into a presentation practice opportunity and you’ll find that the more you do it, the more comfortable you get. So all of those are in category one, anywhere from 1 hour to one month before your presentation.

Rich: Alright, that makes sense, So we’re going to focus on who the presentation is about, we’re going to visualize success and we’re going to practice. What’s next?

Andrew: So the next one is for the shorter grouping which is anywhere from 1 hour before your presentation all the way to, let’s say 1 minute before. And by the way, you can mix and match any of these tips and any of the categories, but I found that this is generally the path that they follow. The first one is during this 59 minute period right before you get up to speak – this is usually when your anxieties are going into overdrive – one thing you can do is simply breathe. If you know any meditations or you want to look up any online or do a formal meditation, that’s great. If you don’t want to or it doesn’t interest you, that’s fine, too. All you really have to do is close your eyes and spend a few minutes breathing in deep through your nose, and breathing out slowly through your mouth. It’s just a way to counteract the physical effects of the fight or flight response and all the symptoms you’re experiencing and to tell your body you’re in control, you’re centered, you can lower your heart rate and you’re not in danger of imminent death.

The second thing is an exercise called “expressive writing”. Studies have shown that this is very powerful when people are in stressful situations like students taking a standardized test. And the idea is you have all these anxieties which are yelling at you in your brain, all the things that you think could possibly go wrong. And they’re demanding your attention and distracting you from being calm and focusing on what you want to focus on.

So if you can, this is an exercise where you find a quiet place to yourself for about 10 minutes. It could be a staircase in a building, it could be your car, the stage if the room is clear. Take a piece of paper and spend about 10 minutes writing down by hand on that paper exactly what you’re scared of. You can be as personal as you want, you can be as honest as you want, nobody’s ever going to see it but you.

The idea is that you’re taking those anxieties that you’re experiencing and writing them out word for word on that paper. By doing so, you’re sort of giving them a moment of focus and attention and acknowledging them by giving them a moment on center stage. What they found when you do that is after it’s done and you’ve written out about half a page or so of these fears over several minutes, those fears tend to dissipate. They sort of feel like they’ve been heard and gotten their moment and students who have done this before a really important standardized test tend to experience dramatic increase in their scores versus the control group that stays the same. So I encourage you to try that.

The other thing you can do if it’s possible that I found very powerful is just to spend a few minutes chatting with audience members. So let’s say you’re giving a pitch in a networking group or giving a speech at an industry seminar, if you can, just spend some time mingling with your audience. Ask people their names, find out what drew them to your presentation and find out their concerns and challenges, spend a few minutes learning about them and who they are.

First of all, when you do that your audience no longer seems like strangers, which usually increases your anxiety. They seem like people you know that you’re friendly with and you know they’re rooting for you, so that lessens your anxiety.

Second, it shifts your focus again to worrying about yourself and what might go wrong to thinking about them and what they need, which is where it should be when you take the stage. It may even give you information to help you tailor your presentation more specifically to their needs. So as you approach particular topics that you know resonate with different people in the audience who you’ve met you can say. “I was talking to Jim about this 5 minutes before the presentation started.” Jim knows you’re thinking about him, everyone else knows you’re concerned about the audience, and you’ve managed to tie your content directly to the particular need of one audience member and chances are it’s helping other people as well. So that’s group two. Are you ready for group three?

Rich: I am!

Andrew: So these are 3 more tips that you can do anywhere from 1 minute before you start speaking to about 5 minutes into your presentation. I set 5 minutes as a rough limit because most people find that when they’ve been talking for just a few minutes the fight or flight response tends to dissipate on its own. They get more comfortable with the set up, they get some encouragement from the audience and it goes away. 

So the idea is how can you just get yourself through those first few minutes to that point. Here’s one thing that you can do that’s really, really super simple. If your situation allows it, try to stand up before you start speaking. And the idea is very simple, when you stand up in any circumstance there’s a second or so where the blood rushes from your head. If you’re already very nervous and anxious that experience tends to multiply and make you feel a little dizzy or sometimes even faint, so you just remove that possibility. Stand up a minute or two in advance, make sure you’re calm and then when you’re introduced all you have to do is walk over to the stage and get started.

The other thing – and people hate it when I say this but it really does help – is simply to smile. One of the best ways that you can change your physical condition is to change it from the outside with an act like smiling. Smiling actually has physiological responses that you generate in your body. They’ll send more blood to the prefrontal cortex which is where all your advanced thinking takes place, you’re reassuring your own body that you know what you’re doing and you’ll find that just by smiling you can calm yourself down.

It’s also really nice because it creates a positive feedback with the audience. You smile, they see you’re excited and calm so they smile back. You see them smiling at you so you smile and everybody ends up having a better time.

The last thing you can do if your situation allows it is to ask questions of the audience at the beginning of your presentation. The idea here is that most people when they go on stage, part of their anxiety is generated from the assumption that they have that they have to deliver 100% of the speech. The burden of speaking is entirely on them. They’re thinking everything that is going to be said in this presentation I have to say it. If I have don’t say it, it ain’t gettin said. And In fact, you have my permission to offload some of that burden to the audience, ask them questions and let them share information with you and other members of the audience.

These can be really simple questions, just logistical things like, “how many of you have been to the show before?”, “who traveled really far to be here?” These are really simple show of hands questions or maybe questions that generate a one word answer. Just ask 2 or 3 of them. First it’s going to let the audience know that you care about them and their experience and that will reassure them that you’re going to deliver something of value.

Second, each time you ask a questions, you’re creating a little window of 2-3 seconds where you get to stop speaking while you’re waiting for the answer. And during those little windows you can take a deep breath, you can relax yourself, you can think again about what you want to say next, you can reorient yourself to your situation, adjust your microphone if you need to. It just gives you a little moment to relax and not feel that burden on you. And that can help just by itself to create a more fluid, more enjoyable presentation. So those are the ideas.

Rich: Andy, I think that’s a great collection of ideas for sure. What I also liked about them – and I know we’ve been talking primarily about in person presentations – but a lot of these same tactics could be used for podcasts, webinars, creating online videos. So I think that there’s a lot of digital applications for our audience who may not always have the opportunity of being on front of a live audience. But certainly a lot of your tips and advice work on both fronts.

Andrew: Absolutely true. And these are really universal, you can use these when you’re anxious about anything and they work very well in the speaking realm. Just the simple things; smile, breathe, tell yourself it’s about the audience, think about what you can do for them, take some time to get to know them, get rid of your fears. These are all really universal tips so I hope you apply them whenever you can. 

Rich: Andy, this has been some great information. If people want to learn more about you or to take their speaking to the next level, how can they find you online?

Andrew: That’s a great question, my website is www.sparkpresentations.com. So you can find me there and all the services that my company offers are all listed. You’ll see plenty of videos as well. The other thing you can do by the way is you can call me, my phone number if 781-454-7600 and my email address is andy@sparkpresentations.com. I have some special offers for your listeners if you’re interested.

Rich: Yeah, tell me about them.

Andrew: Alright. So here are 3 reasons to contact me. First, I just wanted to make an open invitation to all of your listeners, I have gotten so much value from these podcasts and I’m so honored to be a part of it and I hope that your listeners are getting value from this. If you’d like to extend the experience, in other words if you have a presentation coming up and you need help with any aspect of it – maybe you need help relaxing, organizing your content, you want to run a slide by me and see if there’s a way to improve the design – anything at all, you’re welcome to call or email me anytime and I’d be happy to help you informally.

Another thing is this content that I gave out in this podcast is part of a larger program that I give called Fear To Fun, which is all about why you freak when you speak in public and how to minimize those fears. And I give those programs for no fee in the Boston area. I’ve done it for the CEO club of Boston, I’ve done it for Brown University in Rhode Island, I did it for a law firm in New Hampshire last week. So if you belong to an organization – either for profit or nonprofit – and you think your members would benefit, contant me and let’s talk about getting this program in front of them, I’d love to help them out.

And the last thing, Rich you mentioned at the beginning of the show that I published a book last year called The Presentation Playbook, if any of your listeners would like to contact me about any Spark service – this could be presentation skills training, it could be training trade show staff, it could be coaching it could be giving a presentation on camera – all you have to do is contact me and ask about one of the Spark services, and as a thank you for your interest in the business I would be happy to send you a complimentary, signed, print copy of The Presentation Playbook. I’ll send it by 2 day air so you get it nice and quick, and it’s just my way of saying thanks for your interest. 

Rich: Wow Andy, those are all generous gifts. I want to thank you and as everybody who listens to this show knows, I’m a big proponent of public speaking. I think it’s a great way of differentiating yourself from your competition, generating more leads and building your business.

Andy, thank you very much for coming on today and sharing your expertise with us.

Andrew: My pleasure, Rich. Thank you.

Show notes:

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