Public Speaking…few phrases in the English language strike more fear into the hearts of adults than those two words. This isn’t just your run-of-the-mill fear, either. This fear can cause your stomach to turn major somersaults for weeks, or months; create cold-sweats in the middle of the night; and completely paralyze you by simply thinking about standing before other people and giving a presentation.
Why is public speaking such a terrifying experience for so many? You’ve been talking to other people nearly your entire life. It’s how you are able to develop relationships, get a job, and create horrible You Tube videos.
In workshops, I’ve asked people to speak for two minutes, to introduce themselves to a group of strangers. Sitting around a conference table, they have no problem sharing their background. Ask them to stand up and share the exact same information, and you see some people get nervous. Take it one step further, and ask them to step to the front of the room, and share the exact same information, many people get visibly shaken, stumble over their words, and act very different.
Telling the exact same information, people experience physiological changes that impact their ability to communicate. Why?
If you look at the word fear, you get your first clue of the root of this problem. Most people don’t know that the word FEAR actually stands for…. Forget Everything About Rationality.
There are two main reasons why people have irrational reactions to public speaking – 1) bad experiences, and, 2) society tells us we should be afraid of it.
With regard to bad experiences, nearly every person has experienced embarrassment, or even humiliation, in front of a group. For me, it was Mrs. North’s first grade class. One rainy afternoon, our class stayed inside for recess. While Mrs. North had stepped out of the room, I jumped atop my desk and held my arms out like a jet fighter, making loud machine gun noises. It was a great flight for me, until…
Gina, the class tattle tale, decided to shoot down my dreams. I can still see her red hair in pigtails, her freckled cheeks and wire-rim glasses, as she told Mrs. North of my aviation exploits. None too pleased, Mrs. North meted out my punishment: “Michael, you will stand on top of your desk during afternoon nap time”.
That was fun. Imagine 25 of your six-year old peers laughing and pointing at you for sixty minutes. After that exhilarating experience, I completely lost interest in being in front of any group, whether it was reciting a poem, dressing up as a tree in the Christmas play, or singing in the children’s choir. The experience scarred me for many years.
It was only when I was an adult, forced to speak before a group of prospective clients, that I confronted my past and put it into perspective. I realized that my humiliation as a child was an anchor, and had no bearing on my adult life. Those laughing six-year olds were part of a distant past and couldn’t affect me today.
Children don’t have a corner on these experiences. As recounted in the recording ‘Panic to Power: Swift & Simple Strategies Anyone Can Use’, some of the best speakers in the world have stood before audiences and suffered embarrassment. Craig Valentine, Toastmasters International World Champion of Public Speaking in 1999, frequently shares stories of failures early in his speaking career. Regarding nervousness, Craig points out that “nerves are there to help you focus”. He further suggests that to “minimize the effect of your anxiety, focus on your message rather than your nerves, and you will increase your connection to your audience”. Craig also believes that the ability to control his nerves was a factor in winning the 1999 World Championship of Public Speaking.
The important point of these experiences is Craig learned from them, and used it to become a better communicator and speaker. If you’d like to learn more ideas about how World Champion speakers learned to control their nerves, and use them to energize their speeches, listen to the recording ‘Panic to Power: Swift & Simple Strategies Anyone Can Use’
It’s easy to say “I don’t need to deal with my fear of speaking, I just won’t do it. I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing”. This is an easy excuse, but consider this, what is this fear costing you? How is it affecting your career? Your position within your company? Your influence in your community?
If a child in your life is struggling with a problem, what advice do you give that child? “You know, little Billy, I think you’re right. Don’t try to learn this skill, just forget it. Give in to your fear. You should never try anything new because you might fail a few times before you learn how to do it. You know that walking thing you’ve been trying, forget it. Just keep crawling through life… no one will notice. It’s much safer to avoid the pain of failing.”
Would you ever give this kind of advice to a child? No? If you’ve been avoiding overcoming your fear of public speaking, then why are you giving this kind of advice to yourself?
Negative experiences are tough enough to deal with, never mind the messages society gives us about speaking in public. The most common message is ‘On the lists of common fears, public speaking is cited as the number one fear, even greater than death itself.’ Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear how the questions were phrased when these lists were compiled?
As Dr. Roko Paskov has noted, “I’m not sure they asked the questions the right way”. As he further notes, “Consider this question: Given a choice of stepping into an airplane, strapping a pack on your back, flying 10,000 feet into the air, and then jumping out of that plane, or giving a speech for 5 minutes, most people will pick the speech”.
Dr Paskov is correct. However, we have been told so many times that “Public speaking is the number one fear of Americans”. Too often, we sit back and accept these ‘facts’ without thinking them through. To quote the great philosopher [and Hall of Fame baseball player] Yogi Berra, “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true”. Many of the ideas you may have about public speaking aren’t true, but you’ve heard them for so long, you accept them as fact.
The fact is, very few people are born with the gift of public speaking. In fact, some of the best speakers in the world, including World Champion and Hall of Fame speakers, were at one time incredibly shy. Some were even burdened with stuttering. They learned to overcome these handicaps, and become eloquent communicators who influence.
Like any other skill, public speaking can be learned and mastered. The key is simply this – you have to want to. When you were a teenager, you reached an age when you were tired of asking other people for rides, or being dependent on your parents to get you around, so you did whatever you could to get your driver’s license.
Learning to become a better public speaker is no different. Take the time to learn the craft. Resources are all around. When I coach clients, I refer them to books, CDs, and many other sources to supplement their coaching. If you are willing to devote time and attention, you can overcome the fear, the uncertainty and Stand Out from the crowd every time you Stand Up to speak before an audience.