If the thought of making a speech sends shudders down your spine, you're in good company.
"Almost everyone who has ever stood up to speak in front of a group," says speaking consultant Sandy Linver, "knows what stage fright means:
"Queasy stomach, weak knees, dry mouth, shaky legs, light head, sweaty hands."
Clients have shown up before Linver trembling and moaning, "Oh god, I'm scared stiff," or "I don't sleep nights." Even super-smooth executives who have been talking to audiences for years complain, "But I never really enjoy it."
What are they afraid of?
"They have a crazy, unrealistic idea about what it takes to give a speech." They think it should be "polished and perfect."
You are "your own worst critic," Linver, a former television performer and producer, writes in her book "Speak-Easy" (Summit, 222 pages, $8.95), "and you're afraid you won't be as good as you think you should be. Common sense will tell you your goal is impossible to attain, so panic is a perfectly natural reaction."
Every day, she says, we speak "naturally without rehearsal and without notes. We rarely give our speaking abilities a second thought -- until we're asked to give a speech. Then it's a different story.
"Immediately we get tense and nervous about having to stand up and perform in front of an audience. We worry about forgetting what we have planned to say, about stumbling over our words, about our voice cracking, that our audience will think us inarticulate, bumbling or incompetent."
Another reason public speaking is so feared is that for many of us it is "an unfamiliar situation. We feel out of control, like marionettes with the audience pulling our strings." Even when she speaks, says Linver, "I never know for sure what the response is going to be." But she takes steps to make sure she's in charge of any speaking situation.
"I'll decide where I put my feet, where to pause, where to articulate with energy. I will pull my own strings. Feeling in control physically is an absolute necessity."
Linver travels about the country teaching primarily business executives. Many firms have learned, she says, that "their fortunes could be riding on a speaker's effectiveness. One of her major clients is Coca-Cola, headquartered in her own home base of Atlanta, where she formerly co-hosted "Good Morning Atlanta."
A company's top executive could come across to potential clients as "an uptight robot reading words from behind a lectern." (Linver urges you to roam about the stage, free of the lectern.) Or the audience could see the executive as someone "who has reached out and talked to them -- giving them a feeling that not only is he (or she) competent, but that he sees and understands them.
"The impact is so tremendous. It can be unbelievably good or unbelievably bad."
Former president Jimmy Carter, Linver believes, should have spent more time improving his speaking ability. "He was stiff and uncomfortable in front of a camera. His voice could have been more effective. uHe didn't articulate energetically. And he could have used his body more effectively."
It did look at times, she says, as if someone had told him his style could use a little oomph. "But he didn't have a chance to make it a part of him. Your style should be there so you shouldn't have to be constantly worrying about it."
In contrast, President Ronald Reagan had years, as a movie and TV actor, to work on his speaking style. He is "very comfortable in front of the camera. He knows how to use his voice, how to use eye contact, how to use pauses."
In her three-day Speakeasy seminars (cost $650), Linver says she helps clients develop a style suitable to them. One rotund man, who always spoke with his hands clasped around his belly, tried initially to use them more demonstratively. But in the end, both he and she concluded that, for him, the belly was the best place for his hands.
A businessman client tended to "puff up his chest, holding his breath a bit, because that's what he thought he had to do." When he gave a speech, his voice cracked because he wasn't breathing properly.
A woman executive felt her male audiences weren't taking her seriously. When she took a look at her speaking sytle, she saw that "she was standing in a [Fashion] model stance, her head coyly to the side. The look was non-assertive."
One speaker whose style comes across to Linver as "real" is "Today" show movie critic Gene Shalit. "He's congruent. His voice, his body language, his facial hair, his approach -- they all go together and say the same things. For what he is, it is appropriate."
If you find yourself on a podium, Linver strongly advises that you tear up your prepared manuscript and deliver your speech from notes or outline only. About "99 percent" of the time, speakers don't need texts, she says, the exceptions being major political or diplomatic addresses when precise language is crucial.
"The more the audience feels you are talking to them -- the more the words are coming from your gut -- the more effective you'll be." Unless the written speech is unusually well-delivered, it's "the biggest barrier to audience contact a speaker can have.
"Your credibility goes down when you pick up a manuscript. I'm appalled," she says, when she hears of a company executive reading a marketing speech "to his own people on his own product. How can a speaker expect to persuade an audience, or make them believe he knows what he is talking about if he has to read everything he says?"
Giving up the crutch of a manuscript for some, of course, is one more fearful aspect of public speaking. But to the brave, Linver suggests first making "a very careful outline." Then "talk your speech into a tape recorder."
Linver puts a high value on knowing what your own voice sounds like. Otherwise, your listeners know more about you then you do. She also thinks speakers should watch themselves on videotape, which she uses in her classes.
"Rehearse," she says, "as often as you have to, to be comfortable and effective." That could be twice or 50 times, depending on "how good you are and how important the situation is."
Generally, she says, speechmakers spend 90 percent of preparation time on content and "rarely devote any attention to themselves and what they bring to the party. You must have content, but the style in which you deliver it gives importance to your content. A speaker is never there only to present information . . . because an audience, no matter how highly trained in a specific area, can absorb a limited amount of detail by ear."
To improve your speaking style, Linver advises:
Take time at the beginning to get yourself properly set up. "People on the platform start talking too soon. They may have to clip on a microphone or put down their notes or ask someone to turn off the air conditioner. Then get into a balanced, comfortable stance, exhale slightly to relax and you're ready to go."
Pay attention to your voice. "Learn to open your mouth and exaggerate. Take ownership of your words. It puts power and interest into them." And make sure you articulate. Consider buying a book of voice exercises and practicing them.
Watch your breathing. "A good voice needs breath support -- pausing and inhaling through the mouth. As simple as it sounds, people tend to avoid this when under stress." Also, "What you do with your body is reflected in your voice. Men tend to puff up their chests. Women suck in their stomachs when tense. And the voice rises in pitch. You need to relax your body."
"Have a choreographed, well-reheased beginning and ending." It can help you overcome stage fright and give you "the confidence that you will make it through to the end."
Be energetic. That's a rule Linver has little trouble practicing. She fairly bounces in front of an audience of only one.
Pause occasionally. "The tense, insecure speaker dreads silence and will do anything he can to fill it up. He rushes from one sentence to the next, instead of finishing each one with a push."
Speaking, says Linver, "is an exercise in power." Though it takes time and practice to do it well, "it's heady stuff, and once you've experienced it, you'll keep coming back for more."
And on a purely pragmatic level, "speaking will hurry you along the road toward recognition, prominence and promotion."