Emma Sangster once had a crippling fear of public speaking.
She was unable to stand up and talk at small networking events.
This week, she addressed 16,000 delegates in a packed Las Vegas arena.
“I was slightly nervous.
“My mouth was dry.
“But when I stepped out in front of 16,000, I just felt excited.”
So how did this 33-year-old woman overcome her fear of public speaking?
And go on to own the biggest stage of her life?
Emma was like most youngsters.
“I was terrified when asked to speak in class at school.”
Fear of being embarrassed.
Worry about looking stupid.
Expecting to open her mouth, only for her brain to freeze.
How do I know this?
Because I’m her Dad.
But then countless men and woman of all ages have told me the same story.
A real fear of public speaking.
I hear it on presentation skills courses we run across the world.
The misery of being terrified to speak to class.
The paralysis of recalling that fear in later years.
The inability to move beyond that fear.
So how do we overcome the fear of public speaking?
How do we learn to present?
How do you learn to own the stage?
And what did Emma do to change?
It took time and practice.
Ten years ago, while starting out in business, a networking event proved challenging.
Each person round the table was expected to give their name and describe their business.
The thought of speaking out loud terrified her.
So her business-partner Mum spoke for them both.
But by now Emma had started to speak to one or two people at a time.
The groups grew to five or ten.
Then a setback.
In a Glasgow hotel, the group had grown too big.
The boardroom table had to be removed.
Looking back, Emma says:
“That made me nervous all over again.”
She felt exposed having to stand up.
But she carried on in front of ever-growing numbers.
There were 20, 30, 40, 50 in the audience.
She broke through the 100 mark at an annual conference in Glasgow.
“I took a herbal remedy to make me feel calm.
“When I came off stage I just felt relieved!”
I remember when Emma first spoke to 500 delegates.
It was a sharp, well-written piece delivered strongly.
If a little fast.
After it, I asked the the American CEO how much of it she could follow.
The reply came:
“Most of it.”
So Emma got to work on one crucial aspect of the presentation.
For this week’s presentation, she spoke more slowly than a TV newsreader.
She timed her piece at 175 words a minute.
Just under TV’s three words a second.
“That gave me time to glance to the next sentence on the autocue.
“So I could see what was coming next.”
There was an unexpected side-effect.
“I was surprised at how much of a conversation was going on in my head while I was speaking.”
That’s because she had slowed down.
We think four times faster than we talk.
So slowing down gives our inner coach the chance to talk more.
And how much should you rehearse?
In the words of Emma:
“I rehearsed the 15-minute speech around 10 times.
“That way I was conversant with the material without over-thinking it.”
In the end, that familiarity with the speech allowed the content to flow.
Everybody uses different methods.
I write down a shopping list.
That tells me which subjects are important to the audience I’m facing.
Emma used a ‘spider chart’:
“It has the main theme word in the middle.
“With sub-themes coming out in different directions.
“I just then chose the five that were most important.”
Emma was introduced to the stage.
My pulse quickened.
And my eyes watered.
So how was she feeling?
“I was slightly nervous.
“My mouth was dry.
“But when I stepped out in front of 16,000 people, I just felt excited.”
Even the most seasoned public speakers can feel nervous before going on stage.
It’s OK to feel that way.
It’s just a reminder of the importance of the occasion.
And that we’re doing something different from before.
But Emma looked cool as a cucumber.
She was smiling, sending a message to the audience.
But also sending one back to her brain, saying:
“I’m happy to be here.”
Her voice was strong and clear.
And she spoke more slowly than I’ve ever heard her.
She had become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
On most of our presentation skills training courses, someone will say:
“I always speak too quickly.
“People have always told me that.”
As if it’s an incurable disease.
“My advice is to record your speeches on Voice Note on your mobile phone.”
That’s how she started to become much more confident in her delivery.
And much slower.
“Then it’s down to practice, practice, practice.”
But surely some will always be more natural presenters than others?
Emma sees it differently:
“With enough practice, anybody can present.”
Having just earned a standing ovation from 16,000 delegates.
On their feet in the MGM Arena in Las Vegas.
She should know.
She’s made the journey from fear of public speaking, to owning the stage.
So can you.
Come along to one of our public speaking training courses this summer and we’ll show you how.
Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can read his full profile here.
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