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Fear of Public Speaking? The Biggest Mistake to Avoid—and 5 Things to Focus on, According to a Speech Expert

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Some of us live in terror of other people's opinions, especially when it comes to giving speeches or presentations in professional settings. We obsess over the possibility that we might look dumb or unprepared in front of our bosses and colleagues, or those we don't know well.

As a speech trainer, I see how this fear leads far too often to the same mistake: People think public speaking is about sounding smart, so they overemphasize their knowledge, use big, fancy words and forget to be themselves. The result? Anxiety — and a bored, disengaged audience.

Public speaking is all about making a connection with your audience. Sure, you have something you want to say, and it's undoubtedly brilliant. But if you pay more attention to your content than to the people you're sharing it with, you miss the connection part.

What does 'connection' even mean?

Connecting with your audience doesn't mean displaying false empathy or getting overly vulnerable. It's about showing that you're not just talking for the sake of talking — you're having a human conversation with other humans.

You can easily do this by tailoring and syncing your words to personalize them and make them relevant in every way possible for the people you're talking to.

Here are five key strategies:

1. Say hi to your audience.

If it sounds crazy to have to mention this, what's crazier is how many people forget to do it.

When you lurch into a presentation, whether on stage or on a video call, without pausing to acknowledge your listeners, you're not really treating them like people.

Start with a "Hi!" or "Hey, how's everyone doing?" Thank them for inviting you. Acknowledge the occasion and the reason for your presence. Discuss what you're going to talk about while explaining why you think it's important to them.

2. Organize your talk around their interests, not yours.

Imagine you're an entrepreneur pitching a new product to a group of investors. Should you begin by establishing your credentials? By narrating the long, hard road that led to your idea? No.

The investors are there to make money, so get to the point and talk about the huge, urgent problem you're solving and the enormous market that awaits. Tell them where they fit in and why you want to work with them in particular, rather than just anyone.

It's essentially the same pitch you'd give to a different group, but now it's addressed to the people in the room.

3. Tell stories that resonate with your audience.

Using real life stories can make your speech much more memorable, compelling and engaging. But be selective about which stories you choose.

If you're traveling around the world raising money to cure childhood cancers, for example, don't keep using the same heart-rendering story about your family friend's daughter who died too young.

Instead, go with stories that are as close to home as possible. Speaking in Cape Town or Kyoto? Find stories of local kids to drive home the meaning of your subject in relatable terms.

4. Avoid things that highlight your differences from the audience.

The words, ideas and information you share can cause people to lose interest — in a matter of seconds.

If your audience uses the metric system, convert your data to centimeters and liters so they don't have to translate on their own. If you're speaking to a class of fourth-graders, avoid scientific terms. If you're pointing out a piece of information to a Brazilian audience, cite a study they trust, preferably one in that's in Brazil and easy for them to find.

To be clear, solid, well-sourced data is essential. But when your facts are framed in your audience's language, and in a context they understand, your words will resonate much more powerfully.

5. Don't just think about the information.

In an era where mere facts are available instantly online, people still bother with meetings and presentations for one reason: They need social context — someone they trust — before they can absorb information.

Your quarterly sales report updates over Zoom aren't just about you rattling off data points. People are also noticing your looks, bearing, manner and how competently you relay your information. So speak clearly, dress appropriately, keep your hands visible, relax your shoulders, straighten your back, smile (especially when you spot someone you recognize) and make eye contact.

Even Aristotle, a leading figure on public speaking, believed that listeners pay more attention to who we are and how we present information than we do to the information itself.

John Bowe is a speech trainer, award-winning journalist, and author of "I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection." He has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney's, This American Life, and many others. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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