THE BLOG
09/02/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Seven Steps to Manage Your Fear of Public Speaking

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Have you ever avoided a career or business opportunity because it required you to speak in public? Did you ever have a great idea you wanted to share in a group setting but didn't because of your fear of speaking in front of a group of people?

Most successful business professionals and entrepreneurs agree that good public speaking skills are among the core techniques they need to propel their business forward. A well-delivered presentation can help you gain new customers, impress your employers or clients, secure new employment opportunities, and make you look like a leader.

Here are seven powerful steps to help you overcome your fear of public speaking and achieve a new level of success in your career, your business, and your life:

1. Prepare Thoroughly...Then Prepare Some More!

There are two things that you absolutely must do when preparing for your presentation. First, you must understand your audience and what they expect. Who are they, why are they there, what are they expecting to hear, how much do they already know about the topic? Tailor the content of your presentation to the knowledge level of your audience. For example, if you are speaking to a group of engineers, your language and presentation will be different than they would be if you speak to a group of public relations executives.

Second, once you have your topic, become an expert on it. Identify the main point(s) you want to make, and then organize your presentation in a logical, clear and concise manner. Use stories and examples to back up any theories. Make your speech informative, interesting and valuable to your audience.

2. Practice - The Key to Speaker Greatness

Top athletes do not get to the Olympics by swimming one lap, nor do speakers excel by 'winging it.' There is no excuse for not rehearsing your presentation. The very act of rehearsing your speech gives you the opportunity to hear what you're saying out loud, which allow you to refine the language, enhance your stories or examples, go over transitions and key points in your presentation, and get a better sense of what content works and what doesn't. Stand up, move around, and give the speech as if you were standing before your audience. Run through your presentation as many times as required so that you are completely comfortable with the material. You should know the presentation so well that you could do it without slides, and minimal use of notes.

If you're brave enough to rehearse in front of others, ask them to give you very specific, honest feedback on your speaking style. Is the content clear, concise and organized? Is your speech opening engaging? Is your conclusion memorable? Is your delivery smooth? How you think you present and what the audience actually sees are often two very different things. Getting honest feedback or videotaping your speech and reviewing it critically are the two best ways to see yourself the way the audience sees you.

3. The Early Bird Gets the...Appreciation?

A speaker should be ready and waiting for his or her audience - never the other way around. When you arrive at your speaking venue early, you'll have a chance to set up all your equipment, get technical help if required, and get a feel for the area in which you'll be speaking. Once this is done, you can then take the extra time to review your presentation, or better yet, greet members of your audience as they arrive. Once you meet them, they're not strangers anymore. And it's always easier to present to a room full of friends than a room full of strangers.

4. The Best Plan is a Backup Plan

Murphy's Law states that "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong." And Murphy loves to sabotage unprepared speakers. Make a list of all the things that can go wrong, and make a backup plan in case any of them actually happen. You'll want to make sure that you arrive early; bring an extra copy of your presentation on a memory key; an extra printed copy of your speaker introduction to give to the person introducing you; bring an extra battery for your laptop and your wireless presenter; be ready to give your presentation without your slides in case the projector melts down five minutes before your presentation; make sure you've got some water nearby in case your mouth gets dry. A backup plan is your best defense.

5. Don't Forget to Breathe

Sometimes, speakers get so nervous that they lose their breath, to the point where they sound like they just ran a marathon. If you find yourself out of breath, simply take a moment to compose yourself. Pause for one extra second, take a small sip of water, and continue your speech. There's no need to apologize for it or call attention to it.

6. Look Confident, Feel Confident

Create a powerful and lasting first impression by dressing in your most professional clothes. If you make an effort to look professional, you'll feel more confident. And very importantly, be aware if you're frowning or looking nervous before you speak. Showing your anxiety on your face only shows your audience that you're not confident, and that, in turn, makes them less confident that you know what you're talking about. And never tell your audience that you're nervous - it adds no value to your speech, and it's certainly not the first impression that you want to give them.

7. You May Always Be Nervous - and that's OK!

Many people believe that they'll never be great public speakers until they can overcome their nerves and be truly confident. This is a total myth. Ease up on your expectations and give yourself permission to be nervous. Even professional speakers get nervous before they perform before an audience. The difference between a professional speaker and the rest of us mere mortals is that the professionals take steps to manage their nerves, they make preparation and practice a priority - and they know that whatever happens, they'll get through it.

There is a quote by George Jessel (also attributed to Steve Allen) that says, "The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public". Public speaking can be intimidating, terrifying, and complex - but it doesn't have to be. Apply these seven principles to manage your fear of public speaking and you'll be on your way to giving career-building, reputation-enhancing presentations every time you speak.