For most of us just hearing the words “Public Speaking” sends us into panic mode. The chance of dying of stage fright is slim, I know. But the feeling that we are going to die is very real. For many people, public speaking is an unavoidable job requirement. I do not believe anyone is a natural born presenter. Even the best speakers were once terrified novices, feeling the same symptoms of anxiety as the rest of us.

My career requires me to do a lot of public speaking, and I’ve had to adjust. Experience and training has allowed me to gather time-tested tips on ways to manage my fear of public speaking. I believe what separates great speakers from mediocre ones is preparation and practice. Whether it is a speech, a presentation, a staff meeting, or a lecture, being mindful of the following concepts will allow you to not only survive the speech, but thrive as a confident speaker.

Know Your Audience-Your speech or presentation must speak directly to the crowd you are addressing. After all, they have given you their time-you owe it to them to use it well. Do research on your audience beforehand. What are their problems, issues or concerns? What do they want to know? Contact the event planner, visit the organizations website, or, if possible, call one or two individuals familiar with the group you will be addressing. Doing your homework allows you to prepare an audience focused speech or presentation.

The Message-A good speech or presentation has a clear message-one big idea. Once you have established what this message will be, build your speech or presentation around this big idea. Strengthen your idea by introducing two or three supporting points. Use relevant stories to drive home your message. A powerful speech is one where the audience can walk away with a clear picture of your main point. If they walk away confused, you’ve just delivered an ineffective presentation. Delivering a speech that does not have a clear, defined, supported idea is a waste of not only your time, but also your audiences.

Spice it Up-Come up with presentation materials that capture your audience’s attention. Startling facts, stories, visuals, and humor make a presentation memorable. Audiences are easily bored, so you need to give them something entertaining. If you must use Power Point, display pictures, comics, and interesting facts supporting your presentation theme. Most people cannot read and listen at the same time; therefore, displaying wordy slides will force them to read the Power Point instead of listening to you. And remember-all supporting materials must be relevant to your big idea!

Prepare– Once you’ve researched your audience and gathered your materials, it is time to prepare. Your presentation outline should include your big idea, two or three main points, and stories surrounding your big idea. You should also anticipate questions and answers from the audience ahead of time so you are prepared to field any situation. Presenting materials in an organized fashion will not only ensure you cover key points, it will also guarantee not to confuse your audience. This preparation will reduce your speaking anxiety, and assure you deliver a thought provoking presentation.

Be Yourself-I recently attended a presentation boot camp, facilitated by Suzanne Bates, top CEO consultant, award-winning television anchor, and author of Speak Like a CEO. The powerful message I took away from this boot camp was to be a truly great public speaker, you must speak using your own true authentic voice. This requires a degree of openness, a willingness to give a little of your personal self to your audience. When preparing and delivering your presentation, be authentic-the audience will recognize, and appreciate this openness.

Practice-The best way to reduce the fear of public speaking is practice. Even the most experienced speakers practice many times before taking the stage. Rehearse out loud; with all the equipment you plan on using. Record your speech and play it back. Time yourself. Practice in front of a mirror so you can evaluate your body language. Practice might not make your speech perfect, but it will certainly help.

What you Say Isn’t Everything-Eye contact, smile, facial expressions, body gestures-these are all things to be mindful of when delivering a speech. Acting a story out through gestures will deliver a more interesting-and memorable story. Be mindful of your appearance as well. It takes just seconds for others to formulate an impression about you, so make it a favorable one.

Get Experience-Experience builds confidence. If your job requires you to speak in front of an audience, invest in yourself. The more you speak, the better you will become. Accept every speaking engagement offered to you. If the opportunities to practice aren’t prevalent, organizations like Toastmasters are a great way to gain experience. Toastmasters, a non-profit organization established to help people gain public speaking experience, currently have 152 locations in MA alone. For more information, visit www.toastmasters.org.

Unfortunately, we aren’t natural born speakers; however, this doesn’t mean we can’t be great. Take control of your abilities by following some of the tips above, and then get out there and speak! Investing in your speaking career will certainly be time well spent.