Do You Fear Public Speaking?

I’ve posted on the thorny issue of fears a few times in the past, but never specifically about the fear of public speaking. That’s a bit remiss of me considering it’s permanently ensconced at the number one position when surveys regarding peoples fears are undertaken.

It’s more than a little weird when you think people are less scared of death than they are public speaking. Maybe if all the surveys had been conducted with groups of Lemmings and/or Trappist Monks that would be logical, but I’m presuming they weren’t, so it isn’t.

To the best of my knowledge nobody ever died from public speaking. I once witnessed a best man deliver a joke about the sexual prowess of the groom at a wedding that didn’t even allow alcohol, never mind jokes about fornication with badgers.

I think he wished he’d died, and metaphorically I think he probably did, but alas he lived to make a fool of himself another day.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. Nobody actually has a fear of public speaking; they have a fear of making a fool of themselves and any repercussions that may stem from that.

It’s similar to people telling me they have a fear of flying. That’s bizarre because I have no problem with the flying bit as long as you don’t put the fat sweaty guy with the bladder problem in the window seat next to me.

It’s the crashing that I’m not that keen on. Yet people insist on saying they’re scared of flying and sending completely the wrong message to their unconscious.

There is a lot of advice ‘out there’ designed to help you become a more confident speaker without the need for large quantities of alcohol and anti-anxiety meds, although they will probably do the trick too.

Unfortunately some of it is not just ill advised, but can actually have the reverse effect depending upon the individual.

I’m going to try and cover as many of the bases as possible, but this post would be about 10,000+ words long if I went through every permutation and procedure I use with clients so bear with me and follow the links for more info.

Let’s take a look at the no-brainer stuff first because we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Some of the more traditional advice is useful if your fear is manageable and you’re not one of the 20 million Americans suffering from social anxiety disorder.

This advice is only intended to help you reduce anxiety; it won’t necessarily make you a better speaker. Having said that, top speakers seldom throw up on the front row, soil their underwear or pass out behind the lectern to the best of my knowledge.

The Obvious Stuff Stuff To Help With Public Speaking

Know Your Material

About 2 years ago I agreed to be interviewed on a TV news program being filmed here in Orlando. I had been supplied the questions up front and had scripted my answers.

The first run went poorly to say the least and I can assure you none of the film crew were nodding their heads admiringly at the loquacious, erudite British guy sweating like the dude in Midnight Express in front of them.

Fortunately for me the interviewer fluffed her lines and we had to do a re-take.

It was at that stage I literally threw my cue cards on the floor and decided to ad lib the answers. I knew my material well enough not to need a script and trying to remember my answers was throwing me.

Unless there is a specific reason why you need to do so i.e. you’re reciting somebody else’s material, do not try and learn the entire speech verbatim.

Know your start and end and know the structure and then cut yourself some slack. If you’re trying to recite something word for word and you lose your flow you’re in trouble. It will be very difficult to recover your composure at that stage.

Watch The Great And The Good

It’s easy enough by visiting sites like YouTube or the excellent TED to see great speakers in action. If you want to join their ranks watch what they’re already doing and copy them. I don’t mean mimic accents or styles of delivery, just look for common themes and if they resonate with you, adopt them.

Get Experience

I have been a member of Toastmasters for two years and it’s doubtful there is a better, safer environment to learn to speak in public. Everybody is there to improve their speaking skills and to help each other. It is a very unintimidating atmosphere and newbie’s are given plenty of encouragement and valuable feedback.

The Not So Obvious Stuff When Public Speaking

Think of any fear you have. It doesn’t have to be a fear of public speaking, it could be fear of snakes, flying or even a fear of being trapped in an elevator with Christian Bale and his lighting director.

How do you currently handle that fear? Do you avoid putting yourself in situations that may bring it to the fore? Do you rationalize and tell yourself you’re being silly because the chances your worst nightmares will come to fruition are miniscule?

If you’re like most people that is exactly what you do, but that is exactly what you shouldn’t do.

Most fears arise from the unconscious level and it’s almost impossible to rationalize away at a conscious level something that is buried much deeper. It’s a little like trying to get rid of yard full of weeds using a machete. Sure they may disappear temporarily but don’t turn your back for too long because they’ll be back with a vengeance.

If you are going to be successful with this it’s absolutely critical you go easy on yourself and don’t beat yourself up. There is a reason you’re nervous, and even if you don’t know what it is it’s still a good one. You will not beat your unconscious into submission by telling it how ridiculous it’s behaving. In fact you’ll just make it believe its fears are justified. “The lady doth protest too much” and all that.

In fact I want you to do the opposite. I want you to thank your unconscious mind for helping you and ask it kindly if it can think of any other ways to get the result it’s looking for. Weird? You betcha, but no more  weird than having such an irrational fear.

Anchoring

I’m not going to go into any detail on this because you can read what anchoring is here or see a video demo here.

I will say though that if you do this properly it is one of the most successful ways of tapping into instant confidence and it’s used by many public speakers.

The fact is you already have an anchor that links public speaking with fear. So you may as well set one that links it to confidence instead, right?

Say Ahh

I’m not talking about the Ahh noise you make when your doctor asks you to stick your tongue out because you have a nasty rash in your throat.

This is the Ahh we make when we let out a huge sigh on contentment. Do it five or six few times either out loud if you don’t mind getting strange looks from work colleges, or internally if you’d prefer to retain a modicum of dignity.

This action sends a signal to the unconscious that all is well in your world and you’ll immediately feel better. It may sound ridiculous, but it works, so what are you waiting for.

Visualization

The unusual thing about the unconscious mind is that it has a really hard job determining reality from fantasy. It is that ability that allows us to relive events in our mind as though they are happening again.

This can be a good thing when recalling pleasurable events, but it can also be a bad thing when recalling traumatic events

Whenever we visualize an event such as giving a presentation or speech, (and by visualize I mean involving all our senses) we’re creating an internal reality that allows our brain to believe it is doing something, even if it isn’t.

As we continually do this over and over again in our minds eye it eventually becomes routine and then when we need to do it in the real world, the brain says “ok I know how to do this successfully because I’ve done it before, so let’s do it” and you perform as you had imagined and desired

Some people think visualization is woo-woo and they tend to be the same people that think success and hitting goals is woo-woo too. It’s free, it’s easy and it works, what more do you need to know?

Control Your Breathing

Did you know it’s impossible to be anxious or panic and stay in control of your breath? Who’d have thunk it, eh?

The majority of people breathe too shallowly, too quickly and from the upper chest rather than from the diaphragm. So without even being aware of what they’re doing they’re practicing how to become anxious.

If you wanted to learn to ski, would you wait for a blizzard before hopping on the nearest icy black run to test out your nerve and prowess? It’s doubtful unless you possess a strong death wish or you’re totally insane.

You’re far more likely to try out the gentle nursery slopes on a clear day with plenty of lovely soft snow to fall on should the occasion arise first.

The same goes for working with your breathing. There is zero value knowing the importance of this if you wait until 250 people are pointing at you and rolling around laughing as you explain for the third time you’re really nervous and have never used PowerPoint before.

At that stage the last thing on your mind will be controlling your breath because you’re too far into the fight or flight response to even know what your own name is.

You need to practice when things are going well so you can get used to the feeling. If you have had years of breathing high up in your chest it will feel weird, but stick with it and it will soon become normal. The added bonus is it’s healthier for you too.

The Waste Of Time Stuff

Imagine The Audience Is Naked

I’m informed this method has worked for some people although I have no idea why. Other than maybe because they believed it would because the mind is a powerful thing.

If you’re giving a speech on the Economy Stimulus Package the last thing you need going on is your own stimulus package as you gaze on the gorgeous naked person on the front row.

It can be equally disconcerting focusing on the 350lb guy sans clothes just as he decides to scratch his sweaty crotch. Leave the audience with their clothes on, at least while you’re speaking to them.

Tell The Audience You’re Nervous

There is a natural inclination for many people to tell others when they’re struggling in an attempt to garner some sympathy and/or help.

This can be a good thing and not something I would normally discourage. Unless that is you’re the President, a neurosurgeon or in this case, giving a speech.

There is something in speaking called the power of ten and it’s this: The audience sees about 10% of what you’re feeling.

Therefore, most of the time they don’t even notice (or quite frankly care) you’re nervous. By bringing their attention to it you’ll make some people feel uncomfortable and the rest will be distracted from your speech because they’re wondering when you’re likely to pass out.

Do A Fire Walk

I could have put do a bungee jump, a sky dive or hurl yourself into the crocodile enclosure at your nearest zoo, it’s all much the same.

The rush of adrenaline and self-assurance you’d get from surviving such an event would probably allow you to breeze through a speech with the confidence of a delusional American Idol contestant.

However, the rush is short-lived and no conference organizer worth his salt is going to allow you to set fire to his carpet, jump off the balcony on to the stage or drag a live croc on a leash into a room full of corporate bigwigs.

Most accomplished public speakers get nervous before walking on stage. The point is not to eradicate nerves because they can be helpful, the point it to harness them. By following the above advice you can move yourself into that position.

If you know anybody that has issues with public speaking and/or presenting I’d be really grateful if you could forward them this post and hopefully they can come to realize that there are other options.

Image: ‘Employees Listening to Presentation’ Courtesy of Kerry Jardine