Fear of public speaking is considered the most common fear a person can have, even more than the fear of death! But, it’s also a powerful tool to help you market your business and network with other business owners or potential clients.

Gene Marks, a successful author and small business expert, is proof that public speaking can boost your business. He’s a small business owner and in-demand keynote speaker who firmly believes in the potential for public speaking to generate business. We spoke with him about how small business owners–yes, even you–can  become better at public speaking and learn to benefit from it.

Why You Should Pursue Public Speaking to Grow Your Business

In small business, any advantage you have over your competition should not be ignored. The ability to speak in public is definitely one of those advantages, says Marks, because it presents a hard-to-ignore opportunity for you to generate business leads where your competition can’t.

“The fact that you’re not afraid to get up in front of a group sets you aside from a lot of other people,” says Marks.

But public speaking isn’t just about gaining a competitive advantage.  “Groups are always looking for people to speak to them – whether it’s rotary groups, or chambers of commerce, or business groups, or networking groups.” There are eager audiences out there—in your community, no less—just waiting for someone like you to come along and talk to them. It is a demand you can, and should, supply, because it’s a significant way you can make an impression that can reward you with new speaking engagements, leads, and even business.

Now, the reasons to pursue public speaking aren’t all business. Believe it or not, giving talks can also lift your spirit. The life of a small business owner can be exhausting. What speaking opportunities can provide, Marks says, is a break from those day-to-day pressures with a change of pace and an ego boost. “The opportunity to leave the office and go and speak in front of a group, and have people applaud me when I’m done speaking? It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. Everybody’s been yelling at me all day and now all these people seem to love me. This is great.'”

He adds, “It’s refreshing. It clears your mind.”

How to Prepare for Public Speaking Success

According to Marks, one of the keys to being successful at public speaking is to avoid a common mistake: “It’s not about promoting your business.” Promotion is certainly one of the benefits of giving talks, but it should never be the goal. The goal should be educating and helping your audience. “I talk about the industry, and give advice, so my audience can try to do their business better. It’s about educating your prospective customers.”

Why does that matter?

It’s not just that nobody wants to listen to you brag about your business for an hour, or that people don’t want to be overly advertised to anymore. It’s that when you help people be better at what they do, you’ll earn their trust with your expertise. And trust is an invaluable commodity for any business.

Remembering that you’re there to help the audience is also a good way to combat any anxiety you might have in the moments before giving a talk. Marks has found that to be a very effective way of calming himself before a talk. He thinks about what he can do for the audience, instead of what they can do for him. “I always think to myself before I get up to speak, ‘Listen, I’m here to help these people,'” he says. “My number one goal is, when I walk off of the stage, I want to feel comfortable that I’ve given them information that will help them in their businesses.” That gives him the confidence and the courage to give a talk he can be proud of, that will benefit his audience, and that will boost his business.

How to Grow Your Public Speaking Success

A lot has been written about how to prepare before giving a talk or presentation, but what you do after you walk off a stage is just as important. You should never think, “That’s it! My work is done!” Instead, you should have a post-talk plan to extend and capitalize on the experience. Now, some public speakers do that by hanging around and networking with audience members who want to chat with them. Others set up tables with business cards, brochures, or books. Do what feels comfortable to you, but be sure you do something.

In Marks’ case, because he confesses to being bad at networking and small talk, his approach is aimed at those who organized his talk. “After every presentation I give, I send a $25 Godiva gift basket to the person that hired me with a ‘Thank You’ note,” says Marks. Then he arranges a follow-up chat to ensure a public talk is never a one-time opportunity. “Every customer should be a long term customer,” says Marks. “Whenever I’m done speaking, my goal is to make sure that I’m staying in touch with those people because I want to speak to them again in the future.”

Generating future public speaking success isn’t just about reaching outwards to others, but inwards too. The more you give talks, the better you’ll get at public speaking, but you can also speed up the process with a little introspection and self-evaluation. “I always do a postmortem whenever I speak – what I did well, what I didn’t do well,” says Marks. “I try to make notes about myself and try to improve it each time.”

That doesn’t mean you should let your inner critic tear you apart. It will want to do that sometimes, especially when an audience seemed less than enthusiastic. Ignore the audience, Marks says. “You try not to read too much into the audiences’ responses because sometimes the room just isn’t right. I can give the same 60 minute presentation –same content, same jokes, same stupid lines, same information –on a Tuesday to a group of a hundred people from this industry and they love it, and then go out on Wednesday to another group, in another industry, and it’s like crickets.” He adds, “Come away from each presentation with only yourself as your own judge.”

In the end, Marks most important advice is something that applies whether you’re thinking of using public speaking to boost your business for the first time, preparing for a presentation, or looking back on one: “Focus on delivering really good material, and the rest will take care of itself. Don’t worry about whether people love or hate you. Just focus on the content of your presentation,” Marks says. “If you’re a good speaker, you’ll rise.”

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