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Public Speaking: Conquer the Fear

A little preparation can help you battle the butterflies.

The fear of public speaking is right up there next to the fear of dying. But "the worst critic in the audience is going to be themselves," said Suzanne Blake, PCC, president of Blake Coaching and Consulting in Medfield, MA.

While there is no substitute for getting up in front of your peers, but it can be sort of like being tossed out of the boat and told to swim. "The very best way to learn a topic is to prepare a class or presentation on it," said Janice Reynolds, RN, BSN, BC, OCN, and CHPN, Mid Coast Hospital, Brunswick, ME. A nurse for more than 15 years, Reynolds has spoken at national conferences as well as to local consumer groups and classes within her hospital. "The more often I present, the more self-confident I become, whether speaking to a small group or large."

According to the Advanced Public Speaking Institute (APSI), the following are areas of major importance:

  • Symptoms of fear
  • Prep exercises
  • Speed and volume
  • Know your material
  • Names and facts
  • Know your audience
  • Openings and closings
  • The lectern and equipment

Symptoms of Fear
"I had struggled with public speaking all my life and had made up my mind to conquer this fear," said Signe Todd, LMT, owner-operator of Signe Therapeutic Massage in Bath, ME, who often has to make presentations about her specialties to health-related groups and organizations. Dry mouth, breathlessness, cold hands, shaking knees -- you can work through them. If you think about it, you realize that most of this affects you before you actually get up to speak. Once you start talking, the symptoms abate to some degree.

Your first presentation will be the biggest challenge, but what you take away will help you from then on. "Because I give presentations on topics related to massage, it is very important for me to be able to speak in public with confidence," adds Todd, who took a class on public speaking in a small group setting. Many people never entirely get over the nervousness, but with experience symptoms become minimal.

Prep Exercises
Before you step up to the podium, try these relaxation exercises. Channeling your nervousness through physical movement will redirect energy into your talk.

  • STAND on one leg and shake the other; switch legs. Repeat.
  • SHAKE hands at sides, then overhead, bending at wrist and elbow. Repeat.
  • ROLL shoulders forward several times, then backward. Now roll your neck forward through a complete circle to side, back, other side. Repeat.
  • BREATHE deeply several times.

Speed & Volume
One of the first things you notice in a novice is often that she speaks too rapidly and words run together, or you can't hear the delivery. The presenter does not realize he cannot be heard beyond the first row of seats. Slow yourself by mastering the art of the pause, especially between important points. Enunciate clearly and don't let your volume drop off at the end of every sentence.

Know Your Material
While you don't have to memorize most presentations, you will come across better if you aren't reading from notes or buried in the laptop. "Know your topic well and practice, practice, practice," advised Todd, who is trained in Swedish massage, reflexology, reiki, polarity, structural bodywork and aromatherapy and needs to be prepared to speak about all of them. If you do not rehearse ahead of time, the passion you feel for your topic won't come though.

"The absolutely worst class I ever taught," said Reynolds "was also a good learning experience for me. I was doing the first module of the End of Life Nursing Education Consortium and I brought the wrong slides." Reynolds knew her material and muddled through, but she cringes to this day remembering.

Names & Facts
You want to thank the person who has introduced you and you forget her name! A note card with the person's name and title on it will mean this never happens to you. And while you may know your material well, nervousness can interrupt the normal flow of information through your brain and you draw a blank. Use note cards. Using a laptop? Set up your program in the order you will present, bolding facts for your own purposes as well as your audience.

Know Your Audience
Most likely, those faces in front of you are fellow nurses and health workers, a friendly group who want to hear what you have to say. At some point in your program, "give the group a short exercise to complete, perhaps with a partner. This breaks up the talk and engages them in an activity," suggested Blake. The exercise can involve their personal experience with the topic and create steps to help bring the information back to their patients.

If you face "hostiles," like when required to introduce a procedure or computer software, or address a room full of doctors, try bonding first with a current event or brief story they can relate to.

Openings & Closings
When your audience has settled in, tell a short story relating to your subject or relate an interesting statistic. Put up a visual and present your agenda first, as Blake often does, and ask the audience what they want to learn. The last thing you say may be the most remembered. You can close by briefly summing up talking points or reminding the group of a step each can take right away. You could even leave the audience with a question.

The Lectern & Equipment
Microphones and speakers, laser printers, PowerPoint presentations - these are all the things designed to make your speaking experience easier . or launch your worst nightmare. One of the best suggestions from APSI is to "visit" space and equipment. Are you speaking to your fellow RNs in a meeting room at the hospital, or presenting to a group of doctors or EMTs? Or have you been invited to speak at a regional or national symposium?

Think of the lectern as a friend and hold on if your knees are shaking; lay your notes on it. Before your presentation, walk up and stand behind it and look out at the room. Learn how to adjust the height and volume of the microphone. Then have someone sit in the back of the room while you speak a couple of sentences. Once you try this, it is never so hard again.

"I am PowerPoint-dependent," admitted Reynolds, who finds that preparing good slides with enough information helps her learn the material well and also allows her audience to forgo taking notes. Laptop presentations can be very effective, but not if you can't get the computer to power up. Reynolds uses a laser pointer for pictures of blood and other substances, then backing off so the audience can see. If you are talking from a lectern, make sure that it's lit well enough so you can see your notes.

Take the time to prepare yourself before your next presentation. The steps you take now can pay dividends down the line.


  1. Advanced Public Speaking Institute,
  2. Blake, Suzanne, PCC, president, Blake Coaching and Consulting, Medfield and Brookline, Massachusetts. Phone: 508-359-7919. Fax: 508-359-8338. E-mail:
  3. Reynolds, Janice, RN, BSN, BC, OCN, CHPN, Mid Coast Hospital, Brunswick, ME. E-mail:
  4. Todd, Signe, LMT, Signe Therapeutic Massage, Bath, Maine. Phone: 207-841-3703. E-mail:

Sherry Ballou Hanson is a freelance writer based in Brunswick, ME.

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