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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Conquer your fear of public speaking

By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to the Toronto Sun

In a well-known study on phobias by U.S. polling firm Bruskin-Goldring, 45% of people surveyed said they feared public speaking; 30% said they feared death.
Author and business speaker

People who would rather die than speak to a group of people find themselves in a tough spot when their employers expect them to present business policies to coworkers, deliver project reports to superiors or address associations about industry trends.

But it's not a dead-end situation, says business speaker Curt Skene. A former executive in Microsoft's training department, Skene presents to industry groups, government, professional associations and college and university students on achieving business success ( He says getting a grip on your phobia starts with changing the dialogue in your head.

"When it comes to public speaking, the questions that go through our heads are 'What will people think of me?' 'What if I screw up?' 'What if I'm not as smart as I think I am?'" Skene says. "We have to change the self-talk to, 'What can I do to be really inspiring?' 'What can I do to provide great value?'"

Answering these questions will help you create a strong presentation that meets your audience's needs, Skene says. Know your material inside out, and if possible, use humour and personal examples to put the material into context.

Visual aids

Skene adds that visuals aids also go a long way in maintaining people's attention and helping them absorb the information.

"Our brains need to create pictures to understand concepts," he says. "It also adds extra flavour and keeps them engaged if they can stop listening for a while and see pictures that demonstrate your words."

While you may know everything there is to know on your presentation subject, it's best to focus on a few main concepts that you can explain really well.

Once you've finalized your presentation, start visualizing your success, he says. Knowing your audience and the layout of the presentation room will help you envision delivering an effective and well-received presentation.

"You need to see yourself in a room where everyone is impressed by you, is smiling and laughing at your favourite jokes."

That's all well and good, but how do you get rid of the nervous energy in the pit of your stomach? You don't, Skene says, you just change your perception of that gut feeling. Instead of stage fright, he says, think of it as stage excitement or stage enthusiasm.
What better way to learn about presenting to crowds than from entertainers?

Second City Communications offers a one-day experiential corporate workshop that uses improv-based methodology to help people become strong presenters who can respond in the moment.

Structured around the fact that 90% of corporate presenting is done in small group settings, participants learn to:
  • Identify and gain confidence in their personal communications style.
  • Manage nervousness.
  • Read a room and build trust with their audience.
  • Think on their feet.
  • Understand the importance of physical presence and body language.

    "We view presenting as a dialogue versus a monologue," says Steve Johnston, director of client services.

    "We focus on bringing out people's natural presentation styles, and helping them think better on their feet and deal with unexpected questions."

    The workshop can be tailored to groups of 20 to 200. To find out about running the Second City Communications' Presentation Skills workshop at your company, call 416-345-3930 or visit and follow the links.

    -- Sharon Aschaiek

  • Reshape your thinking

    "This feeling has been labelled as a bad thing, but no one has ever died from it," Skene says. "What happens if you view it not as a bad thing, but a good thing, something you want to feel? You reshape your thinking and identify it as energy formulating to help you do a great job, and if you don't have it, you will do a bad job."

    One thing to keep in mind is to not underestimate your audience. Many people think they'll have a hard time engaging people and keeping their interest. They also think their anxieties or mistakes will be obvious to everyone in the room.

    Skene says that's usually not the case -- most of the time audience members want you to do well, and will do what they can to help things along.

    "About 90% of the audience wants you to succeed, they want to help you, and if you do struggle, they will help you even more," he says.

    Skene says to monitor your success, get audience members to fill out feedback forms, and videotape your performances to determine what you do well and what you need to work on.

    Finally, he says, as with everything in life, practice makes perfect. "You can never be too great. If you want to be brilliant, you have to keep at it. Evaluate and re-evaluate yourself without beating yourself up."

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