How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

If you want to get ahead in the accounting and finance profession today, you need to master an array of communication skills, such as public speaking. But what if you loathe — or even fear — giving speeches or presentations? How do you build your confidence? These tips from two experienced public speakers can help. By Robert Half Management Resources

There’s a lot being said these days about the need for accounting and finance professionals to have a solid blend of technical and nontechnical skills. And one thing is increasingly certain: If you want to get ahead in your profession — and in business, generally — you need to master an array of communication skills, such as public speaking.

“The difference between being comfortable or not comfortable with public speaking is the difference between being a leader versus a contributor,” says Ryan Sutton, a Boston-based Robert Half district president who regularly speaks to groups and appears on television news programs.

Internal auditors are one group feeling the pressure to refine their public speaking abilities since they are collaborating more closely with the business than ever before. In Protiviti’s latest Internal Audit Capabilities and Needs Survey, respondents ranked public speaking second among the top five personal skills and capabilities that internal auditors need to improve.

However, interestingly, according to the findings of the latest Global Internal Audit Common Body of Knowledge (CBOK) study, administered through The IIA Research Foundation (IIARF), many internal auditors are confident that they are competent in soft skills like communication.

But competency aside, what if you loathe — or even fear — public speaking? How do you build your confidence?

Don’t make your job more difficult

Sutton says the key to feeling comfortable when speaking in public is preparation. Keeping things as simple as possible can help tremendously, as well.

For example, if you’re presenting a deck of slides, don’t try to walk your audience through each slide point by point, Sutton recommends. Trying to retain and then deliver all of the information in a slideshow is just too overwhelming — for you, and the audience. “It gets very dry and becomes a data dump,” he explains.

Instead, create a bullet-point outline of the main things you want to cover on the subject and that you would like your audience to take away from the discussion. “That way, you’re presenting the topic,” Sutton says. “The deck is a reference to your presentation versus being your presentation.”

The outline you develop also should serve as a guide for the stories, analogies and metaphors you’re going to share with the audience. “It’s important to make sure you tie technical data and stories to how it impacts people,” Sutton says.

KYM (know your material)

Of course, it’s normal to be nervous when you’re giving a presentation or speech. But knowing the material really well can go a long way toward building your confidence, and improving your odds of delivering a compelling performance.

Dan DeNisco, a senior vice president with Robert Half Management Resources in Florida, says that when he was a CPA, public speaking was not his forte. He learned that the hard way when he gave a talk about a technical issue that he wasn’t familiar enough with. The end result: He felt embarrassed — and even more fearful about speaking in public.

According to DeNisco, a Dale Carnegie leadership course is what set him on a new path to public speaking success. The class emphasized knowing the material and practicing the delivery of it. Not only did this process help DeNisco improve his skills, he says he is now a “ham” who loves being on stage.

“My advice would be if you do have anxiety or you are not very good at public speaking, invest in yourself and take a public speaking course,” he says.

DeNisco offers a final tip to nervous speakers who want to boost their confidence: “If you have friends in the audience, focus on them and make eye contact.” And if you don’t have the advantage of “knowing the room,” he recommends that you arrive early to your speaking engagement so you can mingle and make connections with audience members.

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