Small Business

Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking


Practice makes perfect. Get in front of an audience by teaching a class or lecturing at conferences, libraries, or service clubs

New York real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran is a featured judge on Mark Burnett's new ABC business reality show, Shark Tank. You might be familiar with Corcoran's story—turning a boyfriend's $1,000 loan into the Corcoran Group, a $5 billion real estate empire. You might be less familiar with how she became an effective public speaker. It's simple, really. Corcoran recognized her weaknesses and sought every opportunity to overcome them.

After entering real estate, Corcoran was asked to give a speech to a banking group. During it, she froze up and couldn't finish. The next morning, she decided to teach herself how to be a better speaker and signed up to teach a course at New York University. "Losing my voice at that speech was wonderful. I was rewarded for not being a good communicator," Corcoran once told me when I interviewed her for one of my books. Great speakers are not born. They work at it. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be world-class at a particular skill. Well, you'll never practice speaking and presenting that much if you don't pursue every opportunity to refine your skill. Follow Corcoran's lead, and decide on a topic or two you can teach an audience about. Then consider colleges and universities in your area as well as other venues where you can put yourself in front of a live audience.

Conferences. Aaron Wheeler owns a luxury real estate firm serving the San Francisco and Las Vegas markets. He routinely gets himself invited to conferences around the country by pitching organizers directly or filling out "call for presenters" forms online. Although few conferences pay Wheeler to share his expertise about leveraging technology for real estate marketing, they sometimes reimburse him for his travel or offer free access to the conference. But Wheeler says he doesn't speak to get paid. Instead, his presentations help him sharpen his presentation skills. "I've learned how to engage the audience by being more concise and to give more frequent and more effective demonstrations of the technology I'm featuring," says Wheeler. He has learned that audiences don't want to hear him sell himself. Instead, they want to hear specific tips that they can use immediately. "Attendees can vote with their feet. If you're not providing meaningful content, they'll walk to the next room and you won't be invited back."

Libraries. There are more than 100,000 libraries in the U.S., and most host events by local authors and experts. While authors understand that libraries provide valuable exposure for their books, few business professionals take advantage of the fact that you don't need to have written a book to speak at your local library. Libraries are constantly looking for experts to share their knowledge. No, they won't pay you, but you can improve your speaking skills while giving something back to your local library. It's also exposure for you and your business; many libraries promote their events to thousands of patrons via e-mail, newsletters, and local newspapers. (You can learn about libraries' resources for entrepreneurs in this story.

Civic and business organizations. Chambers of Commerce and Rotary and Kiwanis clubs are always looking for guest speakers. These groups typically promote speakers in advance, so your audience is typically very receptive—the people want to be there to learn something. It's also great marketing for you. The key, however, is to pitch yourself as someone who offers valuable advice—not someone who has something to sell. Wendy Gutshall, special events manager for the Pleasanton (Calif.) Chamber of Commerce recommends that you get in touch with the events person at your local chamber and pitch a talk with a strong business hook. Explain clearly and concisely just how your subject matter applies to members of that particular organization and how those members will benefit from your talk. "Above all, never make a sales pitch," Gutshall reiterates. "We look for strong content and relevant advice." This is the most important distinction between an inspiring speaker and one who never gets invited back. The former share information; the latter sell themselves.

Houses of worship. Matt Montague is a PR pro in the Finger Lakes region of New York. About 10 years ago, Montague messed up when trying to describe his client's public relations plan. "I froze completely for a very long minute. It was embarrassing and unprofessional," he told me. Montague volunteered to be a lector at his local church. Speaking in front of hundreds of people for the Sunday readings "helped with voice control and gave me the confidence of facing a large audience without fear. Once you can speak to that many people, you can speak in front of anyone." (Montague has spoken at masses with 1,200 people). Montague is not alone. Several business owners have written me recently, each with a story of speaking at church helped them overcome their fear of public speaking or helped them improve their skills.

All of these venues are great places to practice public speaking regardless of your level of skill. The first steps are to determine what you can teach your audience then seek out regular opportunities. By doing so, you'll be on track to give a good business presentation when the next make-or-break moment arrives.

Carmine Gallo is the communication skills coach for the world's most admired brands. He is a popular speaker and the author of several books including Fire Them Up! His upcoming title, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience, will be published by McGraw-Hill in October. More of Gallo's columns are available in his ongoing series.

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