Public speaking is like any activity -- better preparation equals a better performance. Below are a number of tips for preparing to speak well in public. For those in recovery from social anxiety disorder (SAD), these tips should be used to complement traditional treatment methods such as systematic desensitization or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Choose a Topic That Interests You
If you are able to, make sure to choose a topic that you are excited about. If the topic is not up for grabs, try using an approach that you find interesting. This will ensure that you are interested in your topic and motivated to do your research and prepare. When you present, others will feel your enthusiasm and be interested in what you have to say.
Become Familiar with the Venue
Ideally, you should try to scope out beforehand the conference room, classroom, auditorium, or banquet hall where you will be presenting. If at all possible, try practicing at least once in the environment that you will eventually be speaking in. Being familiar with the venue and knowing where needed audio-visual components are ahead of time will mean one less thing to worry about at the time of your speech.
Ask for Accommodations
No, we’re not talking about a room at the Hilton here. Accommodations are changes to your work environment that help to manage your anxiety -- if you have been diagnosed with SAD, you may be eligible for these through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you think that there is something that would make you more comfortable during your speech or presentation, see if it’s a change that can be made. Ask for a podium, have a pitcher of ice water handy, bring in audiovisual equipment, or even choose to stay seated if appropriate -- whatever might make it easier for you to manage your anxiety.
Don’t Script It
Have you ever sat through a speech where someone read from a prepared script word for word? If you’re like the rest of us, you probably don’t recall much of what was said. Ideally, you should prepare a list of key points on 8.5” X 11” paper that you can refer to. Although using cue cards might be tempting, flipping through a stack of cards can also be a distraction for your audience.
Prepare for Hecklers
Although it’s not likely that you’ll have hecklers at your wedding or 50th anniversary party, the possibility of criticism or difficult questions is entirely probable in a business setting. The best way to deal with a difficult audience member is to pay him a compliment or find something that you can agree on. Say something to the tune of “Thanks for that great question” or “I really appreciate your comment”. This will help to make you appear open-minded to your audience. If you really don’t know how to answer his question, admit it and tell him that you will look into it. Before your presentation, try to anticipate the hard questions and critical comments that might arise and prepare responses ahead of time.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Even people who are comfortable speaking in public tend to rehearse their speeches many times to get them just right. Practicing your speech 10, 20 or even 30 times will give you confidence in your ability to deliver. If your talk has a time limit, make sure to time yourself during practice runs and adjust your content as needed to fit within the time that you have. Lots of practice will go a long way toward boosting your self-confidence.
Get Some Perspective
This might be particularly difficult for people with SAD, as it involves observing yourself while you are speaking. During one practice run, speak while in front of a mirror or have a friend run a videotape. Make note of how you appear. This is a good way to identify nervous habits. If, however, you feel that doing this exercise would just make you more nervous -- skip it for now. People with SAD need to learn how to focus outward rather than on themselves. This step is probably best done once you have a few successful performances under your belt.
Imagine Yourself Succeeding
Our brains are funny organs -- they can’t tell the difference between an imagined activity and a real one. Elite athletes use this form of visualization to improve athletic performance. As you practice your speech (remember 10, 20 or even 30 times!) imagine yourself wowing the audience with your amazing oratorical skills. Over time, what you imagine will be translated into what you are capable of. Not sure whether this would really work? Well, let’s consider the opposite. If you imagine giving a horrible speech and having terrible anxiety -- what do you think is going to happen? The cycle of anxiety in SAD is as much a self-fulfilling prophecy as it is a reaction to an event. Learn to visualize success and your body will follow suit.
In the end, preparing well for a speech or presentation gives you confidence that you have done everything possible to succeed. Give yourself the tools and the ability to succeed, add in some strategies for managing anxiety on the big day, and see how well you do.
Read more about public speaking:
University of Tennessee at Martin Counseling and Career Services. Public Speaking Anxiety. Accessed January 4, 2007.