Jeff has a hard time looking directly at the faces staring intently at him. His hands start to perspire, his mouth feels as if it's filled with cotton, his heart pounds wildly against his chest, and his mind is consumed with a single thought: "Oh, God, I'm going to die!"

Is he about to face a firing squad? No. Jeff is just getting ready to give a presentation.

Many people experience extreme stress when they have to speak in public. The fear of speaking in public is often ranked as the number one fear, surpassing even the fear of death. As Jerry Seinfeld once put it, "Most people at a funeral would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy."

Sufferers have tried everything from picturing the audience in their underwear, to hypnosis, to various forms of psychotherapy. These approaches may take many months and cost many hundreds of dollars, and most fail to permanently eliminate the fear.

What is it that causes two out of every three adults to recoil in terror when told they will have to address a group of people? More importantly, what—if anything—can be done to get rid of this terror? Is it possible to be one of those select few who seem to be at ease in front of a large crowd, who seem to be at their peak when giving a presentation?

Here are four steps to help you become one of those people and get rid of your fear of speaking in front of crowds:

1. Identify the beliefs that cause the fear.

Standing up to speak in front of a group of people is not inherently scary. If it were, everyone would have a fear of public speaking, which they don't. What really causes the fear is a series of beliefs that many people hold. You need to identify which of these beliefs causes your fear of public speaking. Only then can you really go to work on the next step. Some of these beliefs include:

2. Find out when the beliefs were formed.

Most people find out that the beliefs that cause their fear of speaking in public stem from childhood experiences with their parents. Here are a couple of examples to make this clear:

3. Find alternative interpretations for your beliefs.

To get rid these beliefs, you need to take a different look at what actually happened. See it from other perspectives. Realize that the events of your childhood could have several different meanings.

For example, if Mom and Dad were frequently critical and rarely acknowledged you for things you were proud of, you would likely conclude, "I'm not good enough." That is one possible interpretation—but it is not the only one.

Alternate explanations could be, "My parents just wanted me to reach my full potential." "My parents had unreasonable expectations of me." "Maybe I wasn't good at a few specific things, but that doesn't mean that as a person I'm not good enough."

In other words, what we as children see as a fact is really just one interpretation among many possibilities.

4. Recognize that you never really verified your belief in the world.

What happened to us has no meaning until we gave it a meaning. When you were a child and your parents got upset when you didn't do what they wanted you to do, you may have concluded that "mistakes are bad." It seemed like "mistakes are bad" was a fact that you saw in the world. But you didn't really see this belief, you only saw that your parents were upset at you when you didn't do what they wanted. Your belief—the meaning you gave to their upset—exists only in your mind.

When you were a child and Mom and Dad didn't spend much time with you, you may have concluded, "I'm not important." But, of course, you didn't see this belief either. You only saw that mom and dad weren't around very much. The meaning of their behavior exists only in your mind.

Your parent's behavior had no inherent meaning until you give it a meaning.

When you realize that your belief—the meaning you assign to the events—exists only in your mind, it will no longer be the "truth" for you. And when all the beliefs that cause the fear of public speaking—or any other fear or negative emotion, for that matter—are gone, the negative emotions are gone, too. Permanently.

Many people have resigned themselves to believing that they just weren't meant to be speakers. Instead of shying away from opportunities to contribute and tell your story, learn how to overcome your fears. Don't let a fear of public speaking hold you back from achieving your goals.

MORTY LEFKOE is president of the Lefkoe Institute.
During the past 22 years he and his colleagues have
helped over 12,000 people around the world quickly and
permanently eliminate their fear of public speaking
and other performance anxieties, along with many other
emotional and behavioral problems, using a
scientifically proven method called The Lefkoe Method.