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How to overcome fear and present to anyone

There are few things in life that make me want to crawl into a hole and never come out. The list is short but serious. So serious, that the top spot is the thing that many people fear more than death. Yup—fear of public speaking.

Speaking in front of a crowd can be a lot of things—it can be exhilarating, or a career catalyst that propels you forward. If it’s a really good speech, it could even be the next viral TED talk. But for me, it always felt overwhelmingly scary and incredibly draining. Every time I had to talk in front of a group, I expected it would go horribly awry; it would be the career-limiting move that kept future opportunities from me. Needless to say, I got pretty good at ‘delegating speaking opportunities’ to my staff rather than ‘selfishly’ keeping them. Pretty smooth move, right?

That was the old me. The new me crawled out of my hole and became president of our company’s ToastMasters club. How?

Getting over yourself

  • Step one: Decide to no longer be afraid. Did I want to talk at large conferences? Heck no. I just wanted to stop avoiding things at work. Point was, I was ready to change myself.
  • Step two: Join your company’s speech group. If your company doesn’t have a speech club or a ToastMasters club, don’t despair as there are chapters everywhere. Toastmasters provided me with a safe space to practice with respectful feedback and no judgment. Consider joining a local improv group instead.
  • Step three: Stand up and do it. Often.

I found that it’s possible to move past the paralyzing fear of public speaking and present to anyone. It takes work, but it’s completely possible. But before you can practice, you have to do a little planning.

No matter how you happen to feel about giving a speech, a focus on planning and practice will set you up for success.

Let’s start with planning

Know what you want to communicate to your audience.

  • Make a draft and let it marinate for a bit to make sure you have all the key points included.

  • Know what you want your audience to get out of the presentation. You don’t have to list it out, but the story should be clear to both them and you.

  • Highlight the call-to-action, if there is one.

Pick a format.

  • Know ahead of time if you will be sitting or standing. This will affect your practice style.

  • Do a prep call or meeting with your co-presenters if the format is an interview or panel discussion.

  • Be prepared for possible Q&A, even if one isn’t scheduled.

Be yourself and be authentic.

  • If you’re funny, throw in a joke. If you're a serious speaker, don’t try to joke around as it’ll feel unnatural and you will likely come across as disingenuous—

  • Add real life experiences and stories if it fits your speech format.

Keep your visual aids simple.

  • These are queues for the audience, not something you should be reading word-for-word from.

Be thoughtful of the attendees time.

  • Assume people are invested and want the content you have to share.

  • Know your content timing so that you can start and end on time. This also shows respect for your audience.

Deliver what you promised.

  • Remember, content is the unifying element, so give the people something to work with. Don’t spend 45 minutes of your one-hour speech talking about your background and never actually getting to the thing that drew everyone to your speech in the first place. Just don’t be that guy.

Now for the hard stuff

Practice, practice, practice! And yes— I actually mean say the words out loud.

  • Start with a few run-throughs alone, then loop in a few trusted colleagues or family members.

  • The words you say in practice may not be exactly what you say the day of, but knowing your key points and pace will help ensure you are engaging with the crowd and not just reading off the slides.

Get in the room.

  • If it’s a big speech, try and have a final run-through in the actual space you will be presenting in.

  • Make sure to click through your slides and run any videos you may be showing to validate they look correct on the big screen.

Last little tip: If you find yourself getting lost in the moment and forgetting your words, try to engage the crowd. “Who here has had experience in X? Everyone here who has done Y, please stand up.” Give yourself a little break to gather your thoughts, while including the audience in your process.

So while I may never love giving speeches, I know I can, and you can too! Just give it a go and keep practicing.

Ayala Levine is the Director of Customer Advocacy, Global Product Support at Zendesk. She is an avid traveler/adventurer who lives in Berkeley, CA with her rescue dog Jesse. Her life's motto is she'll try anything at least twice. Find her on LinkedIn.