According to the National Social Anxiety Center, the “fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders, or heights.” Surprisingly, lawyers are not immune from this fear. In fact, even seasoned litigators are sometimes battling this debilitating condition.
Of course, as legal professionals, we’re often called on to speak publicly. Whether it’s giving a presentation to our co-workers, speaking at a chamber of commerce meeting, or giving a toast at the firm holiday party, the fear presents itself just the same. First, your mind starts to race. You can’t think about anything around you because you’re so focused on your speech. Next, you may start to sweat or your hands may shake. Your mouth becomes dry. Then, right before it’s your turn to talk, “shaky-voice syndrome” kicks in.
You don’t have to go through all this, you know. Here are our top 10 tips for improving your public speaking skills so you can relax through the process.
#1: Prepare, prepare, prepare
Sometimes, our fear of public speaking is rooted more in our insecurities about being unprepared than it is about being judged by others. The good news is, there’s an easy fix for this — preparation! In fact, when the Mayo Clinic published a list of tips for overcoming the fear of public speaking, three of them were aimed at preparation — knowing your topic, getting organized, and practicing.
Speaking of practicing, some experts believe that you have to practice a presentation at least 10 times before you’re ready to go live. I would suggest 20, but that’s just me. Regardless, those practice runs won’t hurt you.
#2: Be your own worst critic
This tip is, by far, the most useful thing you can do if you want to become comfortable speaking in front of others. Record yourself and then watch the video with a critical eye. Yes, I know that watching and listening to yourself is a horrific experience. That said, it is the only way for you to understand how the audience will perceive you. Have you ever listened to a speaker and found yourself counting the number of times they said “um,” or some other quirky phrase? I guarantee that person never watched themselves give the presentation on video before.
#3: Stop thinking about yourself
Did you know there are evolutionary reasons why we are so terrified of public speaking? I’ll leave the hard science to the scientists but suffice it to say that we’re often too focused on ourselves and our feelings when we give a speech. Instead, we should focus on the audience and what their needs are. If we can do that, the parts of our brain that regulate fear will relax a little bit.
#4: Study your fear
If you’re in a position where you’re going to have to start giving public speeches on a regular basis, it’s time for you to really study the topic. Two of the best books out there are Eloquence in Public Speaking by Kenneth McFarland and Mastering Fear by Brandon Webb. While these two authors come at the topic from very different viewpoints, each understands that by using your fears to your advantage, you’re sure to succeed.
#5: Breathe right
Anytime we’re forced to do something that makes us uneasy, it’s a good idea to slow down, take a few deep breaths, and get your nerves under control. Did you know, however, that there are a whole host of things you can do with your breath to improve your speaking skills? While these tips may be more on the advanced side, I like to think that we can always improve, no matter how proficient we become at something.
#6: Get help
If you’ve ever talked about your fear of public speaking with a group of friends, undoubtedly someone has suggested that you join Toastmasters. While that organization has helped thousands of people become effective public speakers, it is not the only game in town. Here’s a list of nine places where you can improve your public speaking skills for free.
Maybe you’ve taken all the classes, read all the books, practiced all the breathing techniques, and you’re still scared of public speaking. What now? Well, you might consider hypnosis. These days, hypnotic therapy is used for everything from stopping smoking to dealing with past trauma. It also shows great promise for helping someone overcome a fear of public speaking.
#8: Mind your body
I hate to tell you this if you’re already scared of public speaking but the speaking part is only half the battle. In order to truly exude confidence while speaking, your body language also needs to portray confidence. Luckily, that is just another skill that you can and will improve with practice.
#9: Take an improv class
This tip may seem like a nightmare for those who fear public speaking but there’s some logic to it. For one thing, improv classes help you see that screw-ups are normal and that they can be overcome. Moreover, it will help you get comfortable speaking in front of others in an atmosphere that is fun, casual, and light-hearted.
#10: Remember how good it feels when it’s over
I’ll leave you with a tip that comes from my very own repertoire. The more scared you are of public speaking, the better you’ll feel when the speech is over and you’ve nailed it. If you think you can’t “nail it,” you ignored all the tips we gave you above. Take your time, prepare, practice, utilize the resources that are there for you, and then go out and give the best speech of your life. Honestly, no matter how it goes, having it behind you will feel tremendous.