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Manage Your Fear of Public Speaking

Don't try to eliminate your anxiety about your next presentation. Instead, consider three tips from communications coach Carmine Gallo

Most people who fear speaking in front of groups simply avoid it or spend sleepless nights ahead of the dreaded event. But there are effective ways to prepare yourself. The key is not to try to completely eliminate fear but to accept it, reframe it, and control it.

Accept your fear. If you experience anxiety at the thought of presenting in front of a group, you are not alone. I have met many top executives who would rather do anything else than give a presentation. To start to manage your fear, you need to acknowledge and accept the fear as something that is hard-wired in all of us. In fact, new research into cognitive development finds that you would be abnormal if you experienced no anxiety at all.

I recently spoke with Emory University psychology professor and neuroscientist Dr. Gregory Berns, who details the traits of creative, successful individuals in his new book, Iconoclast. He says fear of public speaking is an extremely common trait in human beings that can be traced back to our early evolution to help track what others think of us. "The fear of being excommunicated from the community is literally hard-wired in us," Berns says. The goal, then, should not be the complete elimination of something that is engrained in our psyche. "Instead of trying to eradicate the fear response, a more reasonable approach," says Berns, "is to examine the situations that set it off and try to inhibit it."

Reframe your fear. One of the situations that sets off public speaking fear is negative self talk. Several years ago I worked with a woman with extremely low self-esteem whose new job required her to present her company's product to large groups. She did not like to be photographed and panicked even when leaving voice messages. Needless to say, she was horrified. Although her company had sent her to me for speech coaching, we just talked for two hours about the fact that she knew more about the product and industry than most of her peers and had something very valuable to teach her customers. Over the course of a few weeks, she slowly built her confidence, reframing every negative thought about her abilities and turning them into positives. A few weeks later, she successfully completed a 20-minute presentation to a group of 100 people.

What we had done was reframe her perception of the event. According to Berns, the fear may never go away, but the expression of the fear can be inhibited through cognitive reappraisal. This simply means replacing negative emotions with positive ones. "If someone consistently perceives public speaking as an unpleasant event, the brain will default to this interpretation," says Berns.

Control your fear. I know the CEO of a large public company who dreads giving presentations at large conferences and gets nervous before every one of them. Yet this man is considered a brilliant speaker. His secret is practice. Lots of it. He practices more than anyone I've ever met, spending many hours over many weeks. He knows every word on every slide. By the time of the event, he has built his confidence and typically rocks the house. Says Berns: "Fear of public speaking can be effectively attenuated with practice. Programs like Toastmasters have proved time and again that any fear, even public speaking, can be managed through practice."

Your fear of public speaking must be addressed. It has implications on your ability to sell your ideas as an aspiring entrepreneur, small business owner, or business leader. Once you acknowledge, reframe, and control your fear, you may still experience the anxiety but you will have the tools to manage it and make your presentations easier on yourself—and your audience.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for the world's leading brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book "Fire Them Up"

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