It's been said there are two times in life when you are truly alone: just before you die and just before you deliver a five-minute speech. Stage fright can be terrifying, but it needn't be paralyzing.
Delivering over a thousand speeches teaches a person a thing or two about getting through to the audience. Because I am often asked for advice from nervous speakers, I have developed my ABCs of public speaking:
A is for audience. Learn all you can about those who will be in attendance so that you can tailor your remarks to hold their interest.
B is for body language. Move around, gesture and use facial expressions to demonstrate your enthusiasm for your topic.
C is for creativity. Don't be afraid to use props, PowerPoint or audience participation to add sparkle and surprise. Even the most serious topics can benefit from a creative approach to make them memorable.
D is for delivery. Your presentation needs to have a focused message that leaves the audience with significant take-home value.
E is for eye contact, a critical feature of an effective speaker. Connecting with your audience can't happen without it.
G is for grammar. Pay attention to the language you use. Make certain it is correct and concise.
H is for homework. Study the organization you are addressing: What are the problems, issues, concerns and opportunities? Mispronouncing names is unforgivable.
I is for introduction. Make sure that the person introducing you is a real pro. Provide a prepared introduction with your pertinent information.
J is for jokes. Try them out on several people to make sure they are appropriate and amusing. Humor, anecdotes and stories add much to a speech as long as they are not offensive.
K is for knowledge. Speakers have to demonstrate a real grasp of the subject at hand in order to be taken seriously.
L is for lighting. People laugh more and retain more in brightly lit rooms. Dim the lights only if you are using PowerPoint presentations, and only as long as necessary.
M is for masking tape. Seal noisy door latches to avoid distractions. Block off the back rows of chairs to keep the audience up front.
N is for noise, which is a real attention killer. After-dinner speakers especially have to compete with clearing tables and clinking glasses. Consult with the host organization about minimizing noise interruptions.
O is for opening. In order to grab the audience's attention immediately, you need a spectacular opener.
P is for practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for preparation.
Q is for Q & A. Take questions five minutes before you are ready to close, so that you have the last word and control the ending.
R is for room size. If you have any control over the venue, insist that the room seat only the planned number of audience members. A room that is too big destroys rapport.
S is for smile. Let the audience see that you are pleased/happy/honored to be asked to speak. A smile adds instant warmth.
T is for Toastmasters International, the organization that I recommend for anyone wanting to hone their speaking skills. It's tremendous training for speakers at all levels of ability.
U is for unforgettable. Make your speech memorable with a well-organized message peppered with clever stories and examples, sprinkled with humor and wrapped up with a great summary.
V is for voice. Listen to yourself on tape so that you can adjust tempo, tone, timing and inflection.
W is for wisdom. You want your message to teach and inform. I'm particularly fond of starting the lessons in my speeches with a "Mackay's Moral," words of wisdom that drive home my point.
X is for experience. (Yes, I know it starts with an "e.") The best way to become a better speaker is to speak as often as you can.
Y is for you. Take pains to look your best.
Z is for zip it up. A smashing closing is as important as a gripping opening.
Mackay's Moral: The best way to sound like you know what you're talking about is to know what you're talking about.
(Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." He can be reached through his website, www.harveymackay.com, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.)