Whether in high school, college, or where ever life takes you next, you will be asked to speak publicly at some point. As a person who went from significant fear of public speaking to teaching at a university, I understand the racing heart, sweaty palms, and intense dread that can arise when thinking about sharing your ideas. Whether the audience is five people or five hundred, the emotions can be surprisingly strong. It’s common, and it’s called glossophobia.
Presentations are a significant requirement of the business classes I teach. I know many students dislike them as much as I did most of my life. In my teens, if a crystal ball had revealed I would someday stand in front of a classroom as an instructor, I would not have believed it. If you told me I would provide a business update to a conference room full of professionals give a television interview, I would have said, “No way, never, absolutely not”! Today, all of those things are completely normal to me, even enjoyable.
Assigning public speaking opportunities and presentations are good for my students, whether they like them or not. Requiring presentations challenges students to do better work, substantiate opinions with facts, and gain communication skills. Ultimately, I want them to be successful personally and professionally. My family’s business has benefitted tremendously from my willingness and ability to talk to business leaders, run training sessions, and give media interviews without stumbling over words. I wish I had those skills earlier in my career. I could not have transitioned into higher education, a job I love, had I not gained the confidence to enter a classroom full of hopeful students. My life would be much less rewarding if I never conquered the fear of public speaking.
How does the girl who managed to evade the speech class requirement to graduate high school learn to overcome the fear of speaking and weave it into everyday life? In the simplest sense, first, I had to, then I wanted to. Managing to avoid speech class in high school didn’t stop speaking obligations from coming my way. While in college, beginning my career, and pursuing graduate school, speaking situations cropped up more and more frequently. I let fear and avoidance hold me back for years. It didn’t have to be that way.
The frequency of speaking in graduate school began to shift my thinking. It became obvious that practice made speaking easier. Public speaking is a skill that can be learned, refined, and polished, just like learning to play the piano or ride a bike. The first attempts will seem awful, but your instructor and anyone else watching and listening can see that you are trying. People are quite willing to forgive your mistakes and awkward efforts when if they believe you tried hard to convey a clear message. Ask for feedback and use it to get better next time. You may not realize that you speak in a flat voice or say “um” too many times. Maybe you need more examples and fewer slides. You won’t know until you ask.
With time I realized that knowing your content and being prepared was half the battle. To this day, I spend more time than I should be preparing to teach a class. I am not comfortable presenting until I have a solid grasp of the material and confidence to answer questions about it. Spend as much time reviewing the information and ideas you will present as you need to. I mentally rehearse for everyday speaking situations, but if you are less experienced or have a big presentation, by all means, practice out loud. Find a friend who will listen or record yourself and play it back. And don’t worry if the sound of your voice makes you cringe. That is completely normal. It’s your content, enthusiasm, and confidence that is important.
Collaborating with peers to produce work made me realize I was contributing value. I started challenging the belief everyone else knew more than I did. Once I embraced the notion that my life experience and point of view is valid and could help others, I became open to sharing ideas. You don’t need to be an expert on everything you speak about, but you have to be educated to a degree (do your homework!). Many people know more than you, but some people know less or have a different take on the subject. You can make a difference by offering your perspective. Present your thoughts, research, and ideas, then be ready to discuss them with the audience in a way that allows everyone to learn more.
Once you have prepared and understand that your contributions have value, you still have to face the crowd and your fear of speaking. In those first few minutes, especially right before you begin, your body will have a physiological response. It surprised me to discover that the fear response is actually pretty close to the feeling of excitement. This is a scientific fact. As described by Alex Korb, Ph.D. in Psychology Today, the anticipation of fear induces a response that is somewhat enjoyable, as long as it is predictable and no actual harm results. When nothing bad happens, you can shift that fear into excitement. Lean into that feeling and use it to your advantage. Excitement will give your presentation some life. Your listeners will be more engaged when you enjoy your moment of sharing.
If something bad happens, which is very unlikely, it will probably not be a big deal. You might nervously shuffle your notes. Your mind might go blank from time to time. Technology glitches happen. Maybe the mic doesn’t work well, or your slides aren’t showing up. Your audience will understand that sometimes, mistakes happen. If you can handle it with humor and remain calm, you can recover. To anticipate common presentation issues, read what Peter Khoury of Magnetic Speaking wrote about handling glitches.
Will you ever jump with joy at the prospect of public speaking? Maybe not. I still get nervous when I start the first session with a new class or step in front of a large group of people. But the feeling passes quickly because I realize the reward of creating a relationship with those I teach. Now I channel that energy into excitement about what is to come. When speaking on behalf of my family business, the passion I feel about it drives my willingness to share.
Improving your ability to speak publicly will pay dividends for you throughout your life in ways you may not imagine today. Professors aren’t trying to torture you; they help you become a better you by assigning presentations. They have been where you are now and can see the future you rocking it if you give public speaking a chance.
For more tips on public speaking, check out How to Conquer the Fear of Public Speaking by Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D. at Psychology Today.
Michelle Judd is an instructor in the Scott Carmona College of Business at Saginaw Valley State University. She enjoys sharing her experience of stumbling, learning, growing and leading in the real world with students in the classroom and readers like you.