by Steve Adubato, PhD

Jane is an attorney in her early 30s, who is hoping to become a partner in her firm some day. She is smart, hard working, and a great team player…but she is scared to death of speaking in public. Jane is not alone. Millions of professionals face the same problem, or better yet, don’t face it and suffer through countless meetings, sales presentations and, what become for them, pressure-filled situations where they may be asked to “stand and deliver.”

In a recent coaching session with Jane, I asked her where this fear of speaking in public came from. At first, she insisted she didn’t know. She kept saying things like, “It’s just not my thing.” Then she told me she didn’t think it was “such a big deal,” or that it would get in the way of her making partner. Unfortunately, Jane is wrong. Her inability to communicate under pressure in public situations is a real problem. Her performance evaluations consistently refer to it. And her bosses at the law firm make reference to Jane’s “problem” on a regular basis.

When I pressed her harder about when she thought this fear of speaking actually started, I could see she was getting emotional; “It happened in 5th grade, when I was 10 years old. The school had a requirement that you had to tell a story from a book that you had read and memorized. I got up on the stage and froze. I couldn’t remember anything about the story. I just stood there with all the eyes on me. Finally, a student partner who was assigned to me, read the first line of the book. I was OK for a few seconds after that, but then my mind went blank again. It was terrible. I felt like it would never end. Then one of the teachers came out and took me off the stage. I was crying hysterically.”

When Jane went home, she told her parents, both of whom were very supportive. Then her father said, “Janey, you’re just like me, I couldn’t speak in public either...but don’t worry it’s not a big deal.”

Here’s the thing… Jane has convinced herself that she can’t speak effectively in public. But she is wrong. She can. The real issue is that her approach to public speaking is off. She tries to memorize what she wants to say, and when it doesn’t come to her, she panics. And, even though it’s been twenty-plus years since she stood on that stage in 5th grade, she freezes. She goes right back to that moment and all the bad memories associated with it.

Here was my coaching advice to Jane that could be helpful to you if you face the same communication challenge: Stop memorizing and start tapping into your passion. In preparing to speak, ask yourself, “What is the main point I want to get across?” And then write it in bold print on a piece of paper in front of you. That is your message. That is what you believe in. It is your anchor.

Then, add three additional bullet points on the same piece of paper. The second bullet should contain a few words that trigger a story or example that drives home the main point. The third bullet could be a number or statistic that reinforces your main message. And finally, the fourth bullet should have a simple, abbreviated statement that is the “call to action” for your audience. It is what you would want them to do to take on the issue or challenge at hand. Then, practice speaking off these bullet points several times until you are comfortable, not just with the bullets, but the white space in-between. Jane is now using this approach, and her public speaking has improved significantly. Try it. You’ve got nothing to lose but a lot of unnecessary anxiety and nervousness around your next presentation.