Americans fear public speaking more than earthquakes, flying, clowns, zombies, and even death. But if you own a small business, sooner or later, you’ll have to get up and speak in front of others.
It doesn’t have to be a major address in front of 4000 people to be intimidating. When I first started in business, I constantly attended networking events where each person had to give a one-minute introduction of themselves and their business. Even that absolutely petrified many.
Whether you’re introducing yourself to eight other small business owners at a networking event, describing your product to potential customers at a trade show, or pitching your idea to investors, learning how to become comfortable in front of others is a critical small business skill. When you’re comfortable, you gain a competitive edge. When you’re at ease, listeners pay more attention to your message.
The single biggest aid to increasing your comfort level when all eyes are on you is to accept yourself as you are. We all have traits we wish we could change. For one person it’s weight, for someone else it’s a receding hairline, for another it’s a slight stutter. Everyone worries about their “flaws.” But our imperfections make each of us distinct, unique, and real. If you can accept and even cherish what makes you different, you’ll go a long way toward being a more confident person, as well as speaker.
Realistically, however, learning to accept yourself as you are is probably a long-term project, and it’s not much help if you’re giving a sales presentation next Thursday.
Here’s how to knock-‘em-dead when you next have to get up in front of people:
* Prepare. Whatever you’ll speak about, do your homework first – both about your content and your audience. You probably already know the content – your product, your industry, your company, but the more you can learn about the people you’re speaking to, the more credible you’ll seem. This is particularly critical if you’re making an important sales call. Learn everything you can about the prospect’s company, needs, market. At a minimum, check their website and LinkedIn profiles.
* Create a script. No, you’re not going to read from your script or use a teleprompter like the President giving the State of the Union. But just the process of creating an outline ensures you cover the most important points and pare down the less important ones.
* Bring visuals. Even if you’re personally mesmerizing, people like to look at pictures, charts, graphs. And if you’re nervous when people look at you, visuals distract attention and help put you at ease. While the audience stares at your colorful charts, they won’t look at your face. For some presentations, prepare a PowerPoint to ensure you cover the most-important points.
* Cut. Whatever you’re planning to say, it’s almost certainly too long. Make it shorter.
* Practice. If it’s important or you’re particularly nervous, practice your presentation or pitch in front of friends or family. Have them ask questions, so you can practice answering on the fly. Also, rehearse relevant key phrases, explanations, examples, statistics, anecdotes, and so on, so they’ll roll off your tongue with ease.
* Wear something that gives you confidence. Whether it’s a new outfit or your favorite jeans, you’ll feel more relaxed if your clothes are appropriate and make you feel like you look good. Make sure your clothes are clean and neat; you can hardly relax if you think everyone’s staring at the spot on your shirt.
* Remember what you’re good at. Before you go “on,” remind yourself of your special talents or knowledge, so you’ll be more confident and appear more assured.
* Pay attention to your audience. The best way to relax and connect? Pay attention to your listeners. Interact, ask questions, make eye contact, smile. Think complimentary thoughts even if you don’t speak them out loud (“What a nice group,” “She seems friendly”). When you think well of others, you give off a welcoming glow.
You may never get completely comfortable standing up in front of others, but it doesn’t have to feel as bad as dental surgery or as scary as zombies. Just prepare, put on a nice outfit, smile. You’ll get rave reviews.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2015
This article originally ran in USA Today on November 20, 2015