Nervous Time—Addressing Peers

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By Virgil Scudder

In the 1990’s a poll cited “speaking before a group” as Americans’ number one fear.  The fact that it outpolled such options as death, illness, snakes, spiders, and taxes surprised some business speakers but hardly all.    No subsequent poll, to my knowledge, has provided a contradictory or superseding conclusion.

For many executives, speaking before peers—people that you think may know your subject as well or better than you do—is the scariest of the scary.  Insecurities abound: Will they think I’m a fool?  Will I make some horrendous error?  Will they consider me a bore and a waste of time?

This fear exists in both in-house and external presentations.  Several auto equipment manufacturing executives that I recently trained in Illinois told me that they particularly dreaded addressing industry groups.  People in other industries have told me the same thing in the past.

How can you conquer these fears and have a successful outing?  The key is mindset.  Here are some tips.

  • Since nobody knows everything about any subject, there’s a good chance that you’ll add to the knowledge base of everyone in the room. 
  • You will also very likely provide some perspective to what they already know.
  • You may help them reinforce their own positions when they speak to others.
  • The fact that you are speaking to this group will help build your recognition and reputation.

But, how do you conquer the nervousness that naturally accompanies such a talk?  Here are some suggestions.

  • Most important is to have a presentation that is carefully prepared and fully rehearsed.  You will be less nervous if you are confident in what you are about to say.
  • Rehearse in front of a camcorder and then analyze your strengths and weaknesses on playback.
  • Watch your pace.  Speaking too fast is a sure sign of nervousness and it makes an audience nervous.
  • Work in some questions that you will clearly answer yourself, such as, “Why do I recommend this?”  This technique keeps an audience engaged and can make the speaker more comfortable.
  • And, if you’re comfortable with using humor, work some in.  Just be sure you’re good at it and that you fully rehearse and confidently deliver your funny lines.  Successful humor relaxes both the audience and the speaker.

Most important of all, don’t let yourself be intimidated.  I once did a talk to a gathering of public relations professionals on crisis response only to find out later that three people in the audience had written books on the subject.  I’m glad I didn’t know that before I spoke.

But, if it happens again and I do know beforehand, I’ll be checking these notes and remembering these tips.