Dananjaya Hettiarachchi is the 2014 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking — that means that the world’s largest public speaking organisation has judged him to be one of their most talented members. But even he gets nervous before big presentations.
When Business Insider spoke with Hettiarachchi in May, he was preparing for his largest event yet, the 2016 Rotary convention held in Seoul, South Korea, where he’d speak in front of around 40,000 people. He’d remind himself of the same advice he shared with us.
“Anxiety is an essential part of becoming a great speaker, because that energy is something that great speakers use to project themselves better,” he said. It’s about capturing the same adrenaline rush an inexperienced presenter would feel and using it as an ally rather than enemy. “That nervous energy can be used to take your game to the next level.”
Since its founding in 1924, a fundamental tenet of Toastmasters’ approach to public speaking is that anyone, regardless of their personality or background, can become a great speaker with sufficient practice. And by “anyone,” that includes people who shake and sweat at the thought of standing on a stage.
The riding a bike cliché actually works perfectly here. “When you first start riding a bike, you were nervous, it was something that was difficult to do, but the more we did it the more we got the confidence on how to go about doing it,” Hettiarachchi said.
The best way to overcome crippling fear is through practicing being in front of an audience, even if that audience starts as a couple of your close friends. This will lead to confidence, which will then allow you to refine your delivery. Once you’re comfortable with your delivery, you’ll still get that rush of energy before your presentation that you did before, but you’ll be able to re-purpose it.
As Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal explained in her popular TED Talk from 2013, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” stress (or nervous energy) is not inherently bad; your increased heart rate is meant to prepare your body for action, and it only becomes negative when our conscious mind associates it with preparing for danger leading to failure.
Hettiarachchi uses his mind to focus this energy into positive thoughts by remembering one simple truth before getting on stage, whether it’s in front of a company’s board or 40,000 people in a convention center.
“When you see a speaker struggling, you want him to do better,” he said. “And that’s something that I’ve held very close to my heart. When you get on stage, the audience is on your side. They don’t want you to fail. The mirror neurons in their brain know what it’s like to be in front of a massive audience. And they want you to succeed.”
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