Don’t Go AWOL When You’re Speaking
For years, I thought I knew why people are afraid to speak in public. I was sure that it was because of one of two reasons, either:
1) a bad experience , or,
2) simply because society consistently tells you that you should be afraid of it.
My opinion changed when I read the book ‘Confessions of a Public Speaker’, by Scott Berkun. Scott offers a compelling view that human beings are actually hard-wired to avoid speaking in front of groups. [I highly recommend this book. You can purchase it by clicking on the title of the book above.]
He suggests four reasons that you are conditioned to fear public speaking. His evidence can be summed up with the acronym AWOL. This is an appropriate acronym because in the military world, AWOL means Absence Without Official Leave – running away from service without permission. Many speakers would love to run away from talking to an audience.
The A in AWOL stands for Alone: Because early humans were vulnerable to attack from predators, they were safest when they stayed in groups. The person who strayed off by him or herself was vulnerable to attack. They learned to avoid being alone as much as possible.
The W in AWOL stands for Weapon: To protect themselves from predators, early humans carried some type of weapon to ward off attacks. This most likely gave them a sense of security.
The O in AWOL stands for Open: Whether alone or in a group, being exposed in open areas made people more vulnerable to attack. Staying hidden in caves or amongst trees provided additional safety.
The L in AWOL stands for Large Group: Predators typically traveled in large numbers. This increased their odds of making “the kill”. Seeing large groups of these potential attackers probably created a great deal of anxiety.
How do these concepts relate to public speaking? The speaker stands alone, on stage [open space], unarmed [no, a microphone is not a weapon], with nowhere to hide [unless you consider a wooden lectern a reliable piece of protection], and s/he stands before a large number of people [potential predators??].
Subconsciously, this isn’t much different than our ancestors, is it? Looking through the perspective of their emotions, can you see how fear gets triggered? Until you enjoy a positive experiencing in front of a group, it’s easy to understand why you feel vulnerable.
This is where perspective and repetition become your most valuable tools. Perspective will help you understand that you are not alone in front of a group of predators. With few exceptions, every audience is on your side. If for no other reason, they want you to do well because their time is valuable. They don’t want you wasting theirs.
Unlike your ancestors, you don’t have to feed that large group with your body – feed them mentally, emotionally, and spiritually with your words and concepts. Giving them this type of nourishment will make you feel that you are part of their large group.
Also, you don’t need a weapon. Your words and your experiences can diffuse even the most difficult crowds. You can “kill them” alright…with kindness, respect and a meaningful message.
As you prepare your next talk, remember that your nerves and tension are natural. You’re not going to get rid of those feelings, but you can manage them. Keep in mind that you are not alone in the open plains, with a pack of predators waiting to tear you apart. You don’t need weapons; you only need to focus on what you can bring to the audience, prepare your material and deliver it from the heart. Do this, and you will never have to go AWOL.