Warren Buffett was “terrified” of public speaking.
He was so nervous that he would choose and arrange his college classes to avoid having to get up in front of people. He even enrolled in a public speaking course, and dropped out even before it started. He was too nervous to take a course to help him overcome his nerves!
At age 21, Buffett started his career in the securities business in Omaha and decided that to reach his full potential, he had to overcome his crippling fear. So, Buffett tried again; this time he was determined to see it through. He enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course with another 30 people who, like him, were “terrified of getting up and saying our names.” The class worked, and Buffett conquered his fear.
Now, when asked, “What habits did you cultivate in your 20s and 30s that you see as the foundation of success?” the billionaire answered: “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life. It’s enormously important. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.”
If you have the jitters about speaking in public, you’re not alone. In my experience coaching executives on their communication and presentation skills, many, if not most, wealthy, famous, and successful business leaders still struggle or have struggled with speaking in public. I’ve also discovered that there are three proven ways to manage your nerves and to overcome the fear of public speaking:
Tip 1: Manage your fear.
Academic researchers in the field of communication tell me that it’s nearly impossible to rid ourselves completely of the fear. It’s natural and ingrained from thousands of years of evolution during which human beings needed to be accepted in social groups in order to survive.
Our primitive ancestors who didn’t care about the impression they made on others were cast out of the tribe or village. That’s not a good thing when a tiger is lurking around the corner. In other words, it’s perfectly natural and understandable that we want to be liked.
Leaders who are not nervous at all about speaking are often unsuccessful at delivering presentations precisely because they don’t care about how they come across. Successful public speakers learn to manage their fear, rather than eliminate it.
Tip 2: Reframe your thoughts.
The world famous minister Joel Osteen sells out places like Yankee Stadium and speaks live to 40,000 a week who visit Lakewood church every Sunday. Osteen says the week before his first sermon in 1999 marked the worst days of his life. “I was scared to death,” he said.
At the time he knew very little about speaking or preparing a message. He was perfectly content to sit behind the video camera during his father’s sermons. When his father dies, Osteen’s wife and family encouraged him to take the stage. It took a long time for Osteen to overcome his fear, because he didn’t believe he was a worthy successor.
Words, he says, are like seeds, especially the words you tell yourself. If you dwell on them long enough they take root and you will become what those words say you’ll become—if you let them. Osteen says negative labels—the ones people place on us and the labels we place on ourselves—prevent us from reaching our potential.
I find that leaders who are nervous about speaking in public say the most awful things to themselves-words that they would never say to anyone else. Perhaps you’ve said these things to yourself:
- I’m terrible at giving presentations.
- I got nervous once, and it ruined me. I’m a horrible public speaker.
- Nobody wants to listen to me. I’m boring.
If these are the types of phrases you repeat to yourself day after day, it’s no wonder you get nervous. You can’t control what other people say about you, but you can control the things you tell yourself. Too many of us play negative recordings about ourselves all day long: You’re not good enough. You don’t have what it takes. You’ll never be a good speaker.
Osteen’s confidence grew as he replaced those negative labels with words of encouragement, empowerment, and strength. “Wrong labels can keep you from your destiny,” he says.
Tip 3: Do what you fear—over and over.
Professional golfers get nervous standing over a 3-foot putt to win the tournament. They’ve managed to control their nerves, however, because they’ve practiced the shot thousands of times. They rely on muscle memory to help them manage their nerves (again, not to eliminate those nerves).
It’s the same with public speaking. The more you speak, the more comfortable you’ll become. If you only give one presentation every six months, of course you’ll be nervous. It feels unnatural because you don’t do it that often.
For Buffett, enrolling in a public speaking course was a good first step to building his confidence. The key, he said, was signing up to teach a night course at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Buffett taught investment principles to students twice his age. He did it to force himself to stand up and talk to people. Buffett improved his public speaking skills over time, because he practiced over and over again.
I recently gave the same presentation skills workshop four times in one day. It was part of a daylong sales meeting for a well-known Internet brand. Eighty salespeople rotated among several workshops that accommodated 20 people in each session, so I had to repeat the exact same material four times. I spoke for a total of six hours over the course of the day.
Even though I had internalized my material very well—I had practiced and rehearsed my presentations many times—my last session was my best by far, even though was I exhausted. It was smooth, effortless, crisp, and clear. I also felt more confident than I had at the beginning of the day because I had already done it three times.
You’re only as successful as your ideas. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns at Emory University said, “You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you can’t convince enough other people, it doesn’t matter.”
Think about it. Landing a dream job, persuading investors, inspiring employees, and attracting customers all require the effective transmission of those ideas.
Don’t let your nerves get in the way of achieving your full potential. More important, if you recognize that your nerves are a problem, take bold steps today to bring them under control so they enhance—and not harm—your career.
This article first appeared on Quick & Dirty Tips.