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How to overcome ‘stage fright’ in business

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Shaky hands? Sweaty brow? Charlie Walker-Wise gives the community some public speaking assurance.


'Stage fright' is a major issue for many people in business. There are countless studies available online which rank public speaking at the top of people’s list of fears. Breathlessness, sweating and increased heart rate are all symptoms of stage fright – any of them sound familiar? Many people don’t realise the importance of communicating effectively and live their lives assuming that the image they think they project is the one received by the people they are addressing. This is often far from the case.

Public speaking is part of the corporate environment – it can’t be avoided. If you hate it you obviously won’t be nominating yourself to address the shareholders at the AGM but for many people it’s a necessary business tool. Delivering a presentation or chairing a meeting are examples of the public speaking most of us have to do at work week-in, week-out. Those who avoid public speaking risk lowering their profile and becoming less visible in the workplace. The impact on career prospects hardly needs to be stated. By gaining confidence and realising that we all have the ability to be compelling, powerful communicators, anyone can make speaking in the corporate world work for them. Here are a few simple tips on how to get started:

Breathe
It’s as simple as that. As soon as you feel yourself beginning to panic, slow down and breathe. The panic we feel often results in short breaths that are held in our upper chest. By concentrating on breathing lower down into our abdomen we can relieve tension, regulate our heart rate and focus on what is important. Another common factor affecting breathing is that we often feel the need to be talking constantly. We don’t. A pause can be very powerful – it allows the audience to absorb what you are saying and allows you the time to breathe and gather your thoughts for your next point.

Practise out loud
You wouldn’t expect a play where the actors have had no rehearsal to be much good, so why, if a pitch or presentation is important to your business, should it be any different in the corporate world? Many people will practise but do it in their head while they’re at their desk, in the shower or on the tube. Speaking is a physical act and has an effect on the body. Getting a physical sense of the speech is vital and that can only be done by speaking out loud, if possible in situ.

One quick technique that can really help is placing a cork between your front teeth (taking care not to put it into your mouth) and speaking your speech out loud. You’ll sound very strange but after you’ve finished a few sentences, take the cork out and say it again normally. You’ll find more space in your mouth and more energy in your words.
Rehearsing out loud is perhaps the most underrated tool for preparing presentations. It doesn’t matter if your audience is three or 300 - the experience of speaking your material out loud means that you have felt (not thought) what it’s like to vocalise these ideas, opinions or figures.

Remember the audience is your friend
When you feel your throat tightening, voice squeaking and palms sweating, remember that these physiological responses are preparing us for a physical threat that doesn’t exist in the corporate world. Contrary to what it might feel like, the audience is not about to eat you. You are the expert of your own material and they are there to listen and learn from you. They want you to succeed so make eye contact, engage with your audience and you will immediately be more interesting and compelling.

I can’t guarantee that these tips are going to turn you in to an orator like Martin Luther King but they will help develop self-awareness and confidence. The only thing that will really help your public speaking improve, however, is doing more of it. In the meantime, by putting into practise these tips, you can make subtle shifts in your communication style and overcome the worst of stage fright.

Charlie Walker-Wise is senior business development manager at RADA in Business. RADA in Business offer theatre-based communications skills training, which draws on over a century of experience and expertise from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Through work on the body, breath and voice, they enable business people to become effective and engaging communicators and develop greater personal impact. For more information on stage fright click here

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