Fighting stage fright

Features - Interview

Don't be afraid of public speaking; it's easier than you think.

September 17, 2010
Mike Zawacki

Photo: Pavel LosevskyFor many small business owners, the phrase public speaking conjures up images of addressing an auditorium full of people – and they’re not happy to be there.

However, this is the exception rather than the rule, says communications coach Richard Zeoli. More often than not, the public speaking scenarios small business owners, such as landscape contractors and LCOs, find themselves in involve a handful of people rather than a roomful of people.

“Public speaking is not limited to important presentations before audiences of thousands,” he says. “Rather, it encompasses the art and practice of communicating ideas effectively, and this is a skill that can benefit people every day in their dealings with co-workers, friends, clients and even their own children.”

Lawn & Landscape caught up with Zeoli and asked him to pass on his tips and insight on how you can improve your speaking skills and become more effective in communications both inside and outside the office.

How can people beef up their public speaking skills to be more effective communicators? I want to demystify public speaking. First of all, it’s communication and there’s no difference in speaking to a crowd of 200 people or two people. It’s the same format that needs to be followed. The goal here is to have a conversation with your audience and not to be somebody that you’re not when you get in front of a crowd.

I tell people to think about what goes into effective communication – the ability to stay on message, to stay on point, to visualize their situation to make sure your mind is at ease and you’re familiar with the situation, and to be able to become a storyteller, as well as a communicator. All of these things apply in a business meeting or if you’re addressing your local chamber of commerce.

I always tell my clients to get up there and begin with telling a story of what you do – explain something you’ve accomplished, like a client you’ve helped. Tell them a story, not just what you do. For small business owners, this is a real paradigm shift. They’re always of the mindset that they’ve got five minutes and that they need to use all five minutes to explain the mechanics of their business.

They also think they need to speak for the whole five minutes. Just like we don’t like listening to speakers who drone on and on, we don’t like conversations that drone on and on, either. You need to make your point succinctly in two minutes, whether it’s to a crowd or just a couple of people.

You said you need to make your point in two minutes. Is this a variation on the concept of an elevator pitch? One of the chapters in my book focuses on staying on message. If you look at an upside-down triangle that points to the body of your speech, you want to very succinctly in the opening say what your your message is. So right away you need to state your case. Your speech is used to backup your main point, whatever that main point may be.

The best communicators are able to stay on message and really persuade people – we have the best equipment dealership in the market, or we provide the best customer service. Then you end the speech by summarizing your message again.

That is really the purpose of a presentation – to build your case. And if something doesn’t help build your case, then cut it from your speech.

People have short attention spans and they want to get on with their lives. A mistake a lot of people make is to get up there and think everyone loves the sound of their voice and that they can keep the crowd the entire time. The reality is you have a narrow window for people’s attention spans because people’s attention spans are constantly wandering. The message needs to be made succinctly in the first couple of minutes and then proven logically and concluded at the end to back up the point they made in the beginning.

A lot of people don’t think they have the confidence or charisma for public speaking. What advice can you offer to overcome this? There are a couple of things. Public speaking is really a psychological game. We get nervous because we make public speaking bigger than it is. We forget the fact that it’s just a conversation with the audience. We don’t do it on a regular basis, so it’s not something we’re used to doing.

I’ve worked with clients who have real bad anxiety. One client was taking anti-anxiety pills because she’d get so nervous. I was able to help her through visualization to imagine herself in front of that audience and giving that speech. We’d practice it with such detail that when it came time to give that speech she was familiar with the scenario. It’s a very powerful technique.

Another thing I tell people is if they know they have to give a talk, go to the event a day early and stand in that room and practice. It’ll make your mind comfortable the day of the presentation.

I also tell people to be as prepared as possible. You can spend a few days practicing in the mirror or out loud, which is going to make you feel a whole lot better.

And lastly, get over the fact that you need to be this funny, gregarious, charming speaker and that this is what people expect. It’s not. Some people have seen speakers like that and walked away thinking they were out of touch with them. People want speakers who feel they are just like them. The more you can relax, be yourself and just have a conversation is what people want. I tell people not to be Tony Robbins or Jerry Seinfeld – just be yourself.

Often presentations end with a question-and-answer segment. How do you best handle this and not get flustered, especially if you’re presented with a question you don’t have the answer to? The best way to handle it is to be honest with the audience and say “I don’t have the answer, but I will get back to you on it.”

In our day and age people have great BS detectors. They will know within two seconds if you’re BS-ing your way through an answer you don’t know. I tell people, whether you’re running for Congress or selling equipment, if someone asks you a question you don’t know, you have to be honest with them and say you’ll look up the answer and get back to them.

You mentioned using humor. Is humor something you have to come to terms with, that you either have it or you don’t? First of all, if you’re not comfortable being funny, then don’t try to be funny in your speech. What happens is that people have this weird notion that they need to open with a joke to relax the crowd, and that’s actually a technique meant to relax the speaker.

I think this is absolutely wrong. Many times, the joke falls flat, the audience doesn’t laugh and the speaker spends the next five minutes feeling more awkward and nervous than when they started.

If you are going to tell a joke, it needs to be G-rated. No. 2, it should be a humorous story and not a traditional joke. No. 3, make sure you practice it in front of people and find out if they think it’s a good, decent and humorous story and appropriate. You’re not Jerry Seinfeld trying out a new joke at a comedy club. And if it doesn’t make sense and has nothing to do with the content of the speech or help your message, then drop it.

What’s the best way to stay on message? Should you write out your speech verbatim? Maybe use a set of note cards or a single note card? There is no preferred method than what you’re comfortable doing.

I had clients write a speech out from beginning to end, but they’ve practiced it enough times that they’re comfortable with the material and only glance down at it from time to time. Other clients are better if they have free rein and jot down a few referenced points on a few cards. 

My advice is to find what works and is comfortable for you and use it. If you try to wing or ad lib public speaking you’ll only make it harder on yourself.

Some badly written public speaking books advise picking a point on the back wall and focusing on that because connecting with the audience is a nerve-wracking experience. I always tell people, the minute you start looking at the audience in the eye and connecting with them, on a psychological level you begin to feel more at ease. Again, your mind is used to connecting with people by looking at them in the eye. If you do that, then it’ll feel like more of a real conversation.

How about plants in the audience? Can this method backfire?
Absolutely. The audience has a pretty sensitive BS meter. People can tell if something inauthentic is going on. 

Any final thoughts for our readers?
Excellent public speakers speak from the heart and have simple conversations. They don’t try to be anything different. That’s the kind of model that you want to follow.

The speech should not be about you. Even if you’re talking about your company, it should never be about you. It should be how what you do affects other people or how you can learn from it. You’re giving them advice that they can walk away with and use.

Try to remind people to focus on what other people do right. And even if you make a mistake, it’s OK. Unless you’re on the national stage, you don’t have to worry about making a lot of bad mistakes. The little stumbles here and there are things the audience doesn’t notice anyways.

I’ve worked with senior managers who were terrified of public speaking because they were afraid of making a mistake and the audience would think they were idiots. I always tell people to watch people who speak for a living and pay attention to the number of times they make mistakes. You don’t notice these unless you’re really paying attention.

Everyone has the potential to be a more effective communicator. While some people are born with the gift, I truly believe that everyone has it within them to become a more effective communicator.

The author is editor of Lawn & Landscape’s sister publications Golf Course Industry and Snow Magazine. Send him an e-mail at