Most people would rather die - almost literally - than speak in public. Hester Lacey on beating our commonest phobia
"I feeL hot and frightened. There's a huge hole in my stomach and my arms and legs are shaking." "I've got a terrific adrenaline rush." "I feel sick, my mouth is all dry." Commandos going over the top? Actors making a big entrance? In fact, this is a bunch of outwardly confident young professionals, who have been asked to perform a simple task: stand up and say a few words to introduce themselves to a small group of strangers.

Speaking in public is often a terrifying ordeal; even the apparently bubbly and articulate can go to pieces when faced with an unknown audience. In one survey, where people were asked to list their top ten fears, speaking in public came out top - ahead of death, financial ruin, spiders and snakes. So, how can you get over such a phobia?

One possibility is forking out pounds 695 plus VAT for an intensive course where you are corralled in a smart London hotel for two days and videoed incessantly, hair-twiddling, shifting from foot to foot, blushing, whimpering, stammering, warts and all.

The first lesson, said Cristina Stuart, leader of the Training Solutions course on making successful presentations, is that the nerves will never go away. This may be construed as a horrifying notion, but Cristina, naturally enough, wished us to see it as a Positive Thing. "There is nobody freakish in this room; even senior people feel nerves," she said cheerfully. "I even heard Dame Judi Dench on the radio recently saying that she still feels nervous before a performance."

In which case, surely there is no hope and we should all give up and go home? No, said Cristina, who is polished, neat and calm, who has her own company, Speakeasy Training, is author of Effective Speaking (Pan pounds 5.99), and looks as though she has never been nervous in her life. Nerves can be controlled; the important thing is simply to learn to accept them. "We can't get rid of the butterflies, but let's train them to fly in formation." And part of the battle is simply concealing the fact that you are in a state of abject terror. "People are very bad listeners. If they see a calm, competent person, then that is what they get. If they see a poor, frightened mouse, then that is also what they get. So, let's see what we can do about the manifestations of tension that show in your body language."

Hence all the videoing. Training Solutions courses are strictly limited in size, a maximum of ten in the group, so we all had several chances to be on camera. Once we were caught on tape, we could see how fixing our eyes on the ceiling/resolutely not allowing the flicker of a smile/twitching as if with St Vitus's dance/mumbling at the carpet looked extraordinarily unfortunate in front of an audience. A speaker's impact depends 58 per cent on how they look, 35 per cent on the sound of their voice, and only seven per cent on what they say, explained Cristina's sidekick, Isobel Jensen; several of us (me included) expressed an urgent desire to go immediately to the hairdressers on hearing this. Isobel is a Miranda Richardson lookalike, with a nice line in sharply humorous demonstrations of what not to do (common gaffes: standing with hands clasped like a fig-leaf, touching all your jewellery in turn to make sure it's still there, grinning inanely, etc etc).

Once our bodies were speaking the right language, Cristina and Isobel ran through the nuts and bolts of planning a presentation and by the end of the two days we were all speaking confidently and smoothly to camera and each other. But the ultimate test came on the final afternoon. One after the other, we had to speak in front of the group for two minutes (longer than it sounds) on a topic that we had no time to prepare. Only one person in the group was suddenly like a horse skidding to a halt in front of a difficult jump; she simply couldn't do it. The rest of us burbled through happily enough; the previous morning we would all have balked. But now we were riding high.

"I'm raring to go," said Ruth Tennant of the audit commission, gathering her notes. "The real test will be trying it out for real, but I'd stand up right now and speak in front of an audience; masochistic, I know, but I'm feeling really confident. The course was intense and you were really on the spot; but you need to be forced to do this kind of thing - in the nicest possible way."

Call Training Solutions on 0181 446 6005. The next course will be held on 29-30 July.

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