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Rate Your Public Speaking Comfort Level

When it comes to nervousness in front of a group, I have noticed people generally fall into one of four categories, which I describe as the following four levels. These levels are an indicator of what I call a speaker’s “capacity for comfort” in front of a group. Which one best describes you?

  • Level 1: Pressured and Petrified: People in this category display the greatest signs of nervousness—visible blushing, perspiration, quivering voice, or shaking hands. They are extremely uncomfortable and can barely get their words out. These individuals generally have little experience speaking to groups, but because of a recent promotion or increased job responsibilities, they are now expected to speak. They have little desire to speak in public, but are now required to do so. Their capacity for comfort is generally quite low. As such, they have a great opportunity for personal and professional growth!
  • Level 2: Hurried and Harried: These people deal with their fear and discomfort by racing through their material for one specific purpose—to get through it! They are usually familiar with their subject matter but rarely practice. They like to wing it. Many even believe that their “practice” happens while they are giving their presentation. As a result of their lack of preparation, they “hurry” through their presentation, talking too fast, shifting their weight, avoiding eye contact, and showing other physical signs of discomfort.  The good news for this group is that with a few simple changes they can quickly improve and become more comfortable and competent.
  • Level 3: Surprised and Startled: These people have situational nervousness. They are fine in their regular day-to-day presentations, but if asked to perform out of their routine, they experience anxiety and discomfort. However, they typically don’t show their nervousness. In fact, their audience barely picks up on it, but the speaker still carries the burden of anxiety. These speakers take the time to practice and are generally more prepared than most, but unusual situations cause them to revisit earlier bouts of nerves and agitation. They are often the managers who comfortably lead staff or division meetings, but when asked to speak at an all-hands meeting or at a conference, they become anxious. The good news for these speakers is that they already know how to be comfortable in front of one type of audience, so it’s just a matter of learning how to apply their skills to a new venue to be comfortable in every new situation they encounter.
  • Level 4: Eager and Enthusiastic: These are the people who love to speak and do so with ease, taking every opportunity and stepping up at a moment’s notice. They enjoy the adrenalin rush that speaking provides and ride it to peak performance. They may be executives, product evangelists, salespeople, senior leaders, marketing directors, and corporate trainers. They have already built a substantial capacity for comfort—and there is still room to grow.

What sets these four groups apart? It usually boils down to one thing: experience. Level 4 speakers know that preparation and practice are the keys to high performance. They are disciplined. They develop powerful content. They prepare, rehearse, and gain insight from every speaking engagement.

The good news is that while public speaking is an art and a science, it’s not rocket science. In other words, you can become a level 4 speaker too. Whether you need to give a presentation at a low-key staff meeting for just a few or at a high-profile conference for thousands, you too can build your capacity for comfort and learn to adapt to the demands of any speaking situation. Every speaker in every category has the potential to become a relaxed and confident speaker—even you!

The Secret to Being a Great Presenter: Continuous Learning

Continuous learning is a key indicator of success. That’s because learning, at any stage of your career, means growth. New skills, new behaviors, and new knowledge translate into new opportunities. Achievement oriented people love and embrace this type of challenge. I’ve found that people seek continuous learning for various reasons. Sometimes it’s simply for the joy of learning. Other times there’s an outside force, such as a promotional opportunity or feedback from a boss or colleague that something needs to be fixed. And in some cases, the desire for learning stems from an internal force—the realization of a limitation or the feeling of being “fed up” with a certain behavior or attitude.

Whatever the driver, continuous learning is a process that requires a deep personal desire, a commitment of time, and the willingness to exert effort. What kind of effort? Well, that depends on what you’re trying to learn. In terms of learning related to improving presentation skills, the top things to work at are:

  • Become a consumer of speaking: One of the most important ongoing best practices for sustaining your skills as a public speaker is to become a “consumer of speaking.” This means that you observe and analyze every speaker you see in every situation, from the principal giving the welcome address, to your boss at staff meetings, to the pastor in your church. Notice specific skills and behaviors. What are these speakers doing that engage or distract you? What skills or attitude do you want to emulate or avoid?
  • Set your long-term goals: Skill improvement takes a long time. The first step is to identify your strengths and development areas and pinpoint goals you can commit to achieving within the next three months. Select one key strength (a skill you already do well and want to refine even more, such as using gestures or enunciating clearly) and one area you want to develop (such as adding stories to your presentation or working on your inflection). It’s also important to identify why you want to take action in these areas, as well as the result you are looking for.
  • Commit to daily practice: One easy way to quickly expand your speaking skills is by using your everyday meetings and social events as opportunities for skill practice. First, identify all the meetings, events and social commitments in a typical week, and then assign a specific skill to practice at each of these meetings. For example, you can practice raising your volume at a staff meeting, your gestures at the dinner table, and your posture when waiting in line at the dry cleaners. You can see how quickly your practice time will accumulate!
  • Leave no stone unturned: Yes, we are all busy and overloaded with our daily events, but there are dozens of opportunities every day to improve your public speaking skills. You can hire a coach, attend a class, or join a toastmasters group. Anything will help if your mind is clear that this is something you want to accomplish. Even your most modest effort will pay off.

Above all else, brag about your success! If you become a consumer of speaking, set long-term goals, practice daily, and leave no stone unturned, you deserve to celebrate. When it comes to continuous learning, every day will offer new opportunities for success, growth, and professional advancement.