Public Speaking Rule #1: Have No Fear; Workplace Presentations Are as Common as Computers. Here's How to Master Your Nerves So You Can Be at Your Best

Article excerpt

Workplace presentations are as common as computers. Here's how to master your nerves so you can be at your best.

ONE-ON-ONE OR BEFORE AN AUDITORIUM 80 ROWS DEEP, Otis Williams jr. seems the embodiment of self-confidence. Whether the entrepreneur is called on to speak off the cuff or fully prepped before bright lights and flashing cameras, he is clear, composed and captivating. Those qualities earned him the title, 1993 World Champion of Public Speaking, from Toastmasters International, a Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based group devoted to developing successful speakers.

Williams has mastered a skill that poses the ultimate challenge for many professionals today--from the most introverted tech wizard to the most dynamic CEO. That challenge has less to do with writing a speech or dressing the part than it does with conquering a paralyzing, boldfaced fear.

Marie T. Smith knows that fear all too well. Now a service director for United Airlines at New York's JFK International Airport, she was drawn to the airline's ad for customer service representatives 15 years ago. Her attraction was rooted in free travel perks, flexible hours and the promise of upward mobility. But, since the latter required boardroom presentations to management, promotions her first unsuccessful attempt in 1981, Smith says, "I was so terrified of making that presentation, I made myself into a nervous wreck." Although she prepared rigorously for it, she says, "Once I got in that room, everything I'd rehearsed went out the window." She stammered, blanked out and responded pitifully to questions. In short, Smith says, "I blew it."

That was 13 years ago. Through training, Smith got over her fears and has since been promoted--several times. Still, she laments, "It took too many years and countless missed opportunities to get me here."

Today, professionals can ill afford such lag time. More than ever, public speaking--from presenting a status report to a small team to making a sales pitch before a packed room of potential investors--is necessary skill. Across industries and in companies large and small, being able to convey crucial information credibly and convincingly before groups of all sizes has become as fundamental a job requirement as computer literacy. And being truly adept at it can propel you forward because public speaking gives you a visibility seldom achieved by sterling work alone.

"The people who are getting promoted are not necessarily those who are smarter or know more, it's those who are perceived as knowing more," says Ivory Dorsey, whose Atlanta-based firm, Golden Eagle Business Services Inc., has trained employees of BellSouth Corp., Georgia Power Corp. and others in the art of powerful presentation. In getting ahead, says Dorsey, "It's not what you know or who you know. It's who knows you." Thus, being a shrinking violet not only can hold you back but even sabotage your career. And that goes for everyone, from the most introverted "tekkie" to the chairman of the board. Unfortunately, both are equally susceptible to one sure-fire confidence killer: Fear.

In a survey of common phobias, published in The Book of Lists, the fear of public speaking sits squarely at the top, a notch above the fear of death. Combined with the growing corporate value placed on good speakers, the prevalence of this fear has spawned a great business opportunity. "The demand for training in this area has just been incredible," attests Rick Gilbert, president of Frederick Gilbert Associates Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. Gilbert's firm has coached some 10,000 executives during its nine-year existence.

The fearfuls' anguish runs the gamut from mild nervousness--the old "butterflies in the stomach" syndrome--to fullblown panic. As with most fears, no matter, how common, people feel as if no one can empathize. They couldn't be more wrong, says Dorsey, a powerful professional speaker who admits she still says a prayer before each of her presentations. …