THE BLOG

10 Ways Leaders Use Fear in Public Speaking

03/24/2015 06:17 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

You've read about the survey that reports people fear speaking in public more than death, along with all the advice about how to overcome nervousness. But if you're a leader, a healthy dose of fear can be a good thing. In fact, if fear doesn't propel you to a top performance, you may hit rock bottom in your career.

Speaking before clients, peers, or the public is a high-stakes proposition in the age of MTV, Instagram, and live Twitter feeds from your audience members out to the world. Audience members do not expect an unprepared rambler to waste their time postulating on topics that don't interest them.

The secret to delivering a top performance in such an environment is understanding that fear can either motivate you or paralyze you. So let's assume you want to use fear as a motivator to perform at your best. Here's what today's audiences are expecting, and what you'll need to do to rise to the occasion as a leader:

  • Fact-check before they do. Assume that every member of your audience has a cell phone in hand or at least nearby as you speak. When you toss out controversial or shocking data, assume that will motivate them to fact-check you while you're speaking. Depending on whether they find you right or wrong, they'll either tune out the rest of what you say, send your error out on the Twitter feed, or ask for your source in the Q&A period. Better to correct before you open your mouth.
  • Substitute specifics for platitudes. Today's audiences know how to search the internet, and they'll find general information on just about every subject imaginable. They're expecting leaders in the field--real experts--to provide specifics relevant to their needs and objectives. (See the next point.)
  • Dig for audience information. The more you know about your audience and how they'll likely use your information, the greater chance you'll have to make what you know relevant and specific to them.
  • Avoid the "all-nighter" cram session. Remember the old college days when the weekend trip, the sports tournament, or the lovers' spat necessitated your putting off studying until the last minute? Then you were forced to stay up all night to prepare for the big exam the following day. Not your best effort. A healthy dose of fear about the expectations of your audience and your discomfort in standing before them unprepared can nudge you to start solid preparation early.
  • Know your content cold. This doesn't mean running through your slideshow multiple times in your head. Not just writing out an outline. Nor just writing out a script. Knowing your content means that you thoroughly understand your topic--where the stats came from, what they mean, what action they suggest for your audience or organization. Knowing your content cold also means understanding the cause-and-effect relationships among all the various details in your talk.
  • Understand the "why" behind the structure. In your calm moments of preparation, you (or someone on your team) have structured your presentation or talk in a particular way. Why? Identify the specific reason the "C" section follows the "B" section. Then if the time for your talk gets cut short at the last moment, you'll understand what can be cut, what has to stay, and what order has to remain intact.
  • Practice your delivery. Pay as much attention to how you'll deliver your presentation as to what you'll say. Do a walk-through. Yes, talk the entire presentation through. Aloud. From beginning to end. That's the absolute best way to discover the rough spots: missing or awkward transitions, odd phrasing, wordy overview statements, wimpy wrap-ups on key points, and a lackluster close.
  • Polish your phrasing. Words matter. You can introduce your point with this statement: "Our costs have been contained this quarter across the board." Or you could introduce the point this way: "You've tweaked your budgets from T-bone steaks down to gourmet burgers this quarter. Nice job in controlling costs!" The most noticeable spots for humor, metaphors, analogies, or punchy phrases will be your lead-ins or wrap-ups to key points.
  • Anticipate questions. Today's audiences consider time to ask questions as their God-given right. So whether you take questions throughout your talk, stop at various spots throughout your talk for questions, or allow time at the end, be prepared to showcase your expertise by upfront preparation. Make a list of likely questions you'll receive, and prepare your answers before you ever take the stage. Plan your opening overview statement, your elaboration to support that overview, and any stats, illustrations, or examples to clarify your answer.
  • Remember why you're a leader. You like challenges. You set the standard. People look to you for the model of "how things should be done."

Many of the greatest movie stars confess that they fear standing before the public--but they do it anyway and earn Oscars for their performance. As others have said before, courage means acting in the face of fear.

So go ahead, feel the fear, and take the stage. You are prepared to succeed.