Linda Trignano once had a fear of public speaking. And if the magazine Psychology Today is to be believed, polls consistently put the fear of addressing a group of people higher even than the fear of death. Today, Trignano is a poised and confident public speaker, and she has made a business of teaching others to be the same.

Trignano will host a free webinar on Thursday, April 9, from 6 to 9 p.m. The presentation is being held in conjunction with the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship in NJ Seed grant contest for women business owners. The competition will award $21,000 worth of seed grants, including $7,500 to the winning business. To qualify, participants must complete a series of educational courses, then make a speech to a panel of judges. For more information on the program, visit www.wcecnj.org/seed.aspx. To view the public speaking webinar, visit www.wcecnj.org.

Trignano is the owner of Trignano Consulting, a Montville firm that helps clients improve their business communications skills. Often that means some degree of public speaking, whether it is giving a presentation to a board or making a sales pitch. The April 9 seminar is aimed at business owners, who often find themselves telling prospective clients or investors about their companies.

The key is the art of what Trignano calls business storytelling.

“Business storytelling is incorporating either life experience that you have had that relates to the topic you are speaking about, or some other lesson or idea that is in tandem with what you are trying to leave the audience with,” she says. As a business owner, you might talk about a client with whom you worked, or something that happened to you in your past that changed you and led you down the path that you are on today. For example, Trignano says, she remembers one businesswoman who talked about taking care of her terminally ill mother, and ended up founding an elder care business.

“You might put together a story that incorporates the emotions that you felt, and how you want to help others who are going through those same emotions,” she says.

Other times you might tell a story that is not a personal one, but which illustrates a concept that is a key part of your business. Trignano recalls one business owner who was trying to make a point about change. To drive the point home he told the story of the Stephens Island wren, which was a kind of flightless bird that lived on an isolated island near New Zealand. The story went that in 1882 a lighthouse was built on the island. Two years later a lighthouse keeper brought a single cat — named Tibbles — to the island as a pet. Over a few years Tibbles single-handedly wiped out the entire population of the small, flightless bird.

Historians now think it was a large population of feral cats, not just one, that hunted the birds to extinction, but it is a good anecdote nonetheless. “Public speaking is more than just getting up and speaking about your business,” Trignano says. “You should have two or three points to drive home during your speech.”

But even having good points to make and good stories to tell won’t help if you are visibly nervous. Trignano says there are reliable ways to overcome public speaking anxiety.

“The best way to overcome that is to map out a plan, know what you’re going to say, and practice,” she says. “Part of that practice is improving, each time you practice, not only your posture, your body language, and how you use words, but also honing down the message so it is clear and succinct. Most people in business know the topic they are speaking about very well, so it’s a matter of practice. The more practice they have, they more comfortable they can be.”

Trignano grew up in Passaic, where her mother worked in the payroll department of a now-defunct company called Popular Club Plan. Trignano went to Ramapo College and after working in sales for many years earned a master’s degree from Montclair.

She worked at AT&T from 1989 through 2003, starting as an account executive in network sales and later becoming a corporate human resources manager. Working in sales forced her to confront her fear of public speaking.

“What really influenced me to improve my public speaking was knowing that when I attended meetings, I had to stand up and speak,” she says. “I decided to join the Toastmasters club in the company, and from there gradually built my speaking skills until I was extremely comfortable.” Trignano says she recommends Toastmasters to anyone who wants to build their public speaking skills, since the club offers regular practice and good feedback on public speaking.

And for almost anyone in business, she says, it’s a big advantage to be a confident public speaker.

“The confidence factor separates the good from the not-so-good,” she says. “You have to work on it, but it’s definitely achievable. It’s a highly valued skill in the marketplace. For AT&T I did recruiting for many years, and I know that those who came off as confident about their skills really stood out from the crowd.”

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