You’re standing behind the podium and look up to see the industry’s movers-and-shakers staring back at you. It’s your moment to “wow” your peers with your knowledge, but suddenly all the information you have amassed has left you speechless. Your palms are sweaty, your mind is blank and the thought of uttering a word seems impossible.

Sound familiar? The good news is that we are what we think we are, and, therefore, it’s possible to turn down these negative voices in our head and at least appear to be strong, comfortable and relaxed.

Prepare yourself in whatever time you have. Don’t start with an apology. Try a dash of humor to break the ice like, “Thank you very much for the warm reception—which I so richly deserve and so seldom get.” The best one-liners make fun of the deliverer, not the listeners.

Imagine in advance how you might look in front of people and practice so that your eyes are not continually cast down. You can’t practice too much. When you rehearse with your notes, practice breathing. Take in a comfortable breath, speak, pause and breathe again. Check your posture. Are your shoulders hunched forward into a protective position? Breathing is easier when the chest is lifted because it allows the diaphragm (the horizontal muscle above the stomach) to expand freely. If you have been given time to prepare and make notes, be sure your notes are in large print and a handy format. Poor lighting at the podium when you finally arrive up front with notes in hand is one of the least expected but most frequent situations encountered by speakers.

  • Take your time and speak clearly. Ask the audience if they can hear you before you launch into your speech. Don’t rush. It takes one or two sentences for people to get used to the sound of your voice and understand your diction.
  • Take a moment to scan the audience and thank them for the opportunity to speak. While you’re scanning, think about who they are and what might be interesting for them. Identify one important point you wish to make that will relate to this particular audience.
  • Start with a smile. Smiling disarms people and makes them think you know what you’re doing. As you take your place from which you will speak, make a sweeping gaze of the entire room. Look at the tops of people’s heads and people will actually feel that you are looking at them. You’ll avoid the distraction of eye-contact.
  • Inspire your listeners by understanding who they are and where their interests lie. Some speakers start with an observation about the group or ask a question, like: “How many people spent more than an hour on the freeway to get here tonight?” Quickly, people will begin to feel that you are interested in them more than yourself.

Even the greatest orators and speech makers all started in the same place, learning how to put one foot after the other as they made their way down the aisle, behind the curtain, and up to the stage to utter the first line. Turning such a formidable fear into something convincing and manageable that can help your career is a great accomplishment.

Source: Ruth W. Crocker, Ph.D is an author, writing consultant and expert on recovery from trauma and personal tragedy. Her book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War describes her experience following her husband’s death in Vietnam and how she found resources for healing. An excerpt has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. She is writer-in-residence at Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington, Connecticut, where she teaches the art of writing memoir and personal stories.