PUBLIC SPEAKING

7 Feb

   It is the No. 1 fear of Americans. Death is second. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, “…that means, if you are at a funeral, you’d rather be the person in the box than giving the speech.”

   Lord knows it can certainly feel that way. And I’m not talking to the people who “sometimes get butterflies.” I’m talking to the people who dread giving a speech months in advance, who will do anything to get out of speaking or reading in class or who forget to breathe and have to catch their breath mid-speech.
 Yes, I know all about it. It can be even worse when you are normally an outgoing and articulate person as people are astounded by your fear and anxiety of public speaking. It’s almost like the higher expectation makes your fear that much worse. Think about it, if you weren’t fluent in English or say you were a 3rd grader and giving a speech, people would expect and judge much less.
   At the root of public speaking, like a lot of anxieties one may have, is the fear of  judgement. The feeling that you might mess up, forget something, or otherwise appear inadequate is what drives the nervous reaction. Think about it. You aren’t afraid to stand in a room alone and give a speech are you???
   Honestly, I think this is one of the toughest fears to overcome due solely to its particular nature: That is, the only way to face it is publicly. People with fears of heights or spiders etc. can tackle their phobias in private without exposing their problems to the world. Public speaking is different, because it is after all, PUBLIC.
   That being said, hopefully I have established myself as a person intimately familiar with the phobia thus giving my advice some credibility. Coming from someone who would root around in my backpack as the teacher would call on people to read Sarah Plain and Tall in grade school, I can tell you that this problem CAN be fixed. No, it isn’t easy. And yes, you have to practice. That’s the bad news.
   The good news, is there are several ways to not only make it easier, but become more proficient as well.
1. Put Yourself in a Situation Where You Will Have to do Public Speaking.
   First, you need to enroll yourself in some sort of class, program, group or whatever where you will be giving speeches and or presentations. (*Read about PERSEVERANCE and baby steps when you find yourself wanting to quit or skip out on the program you have chosen.) Sign up for something where you will be forced to do public speaking; that way you deprive yourself of the chance to opt out. I suggest a program like Toastmasters, or enrolling in a class at a community college. Also, think about doing it somewhere out of your normal social circles. Knowing you probably won’t have to see these people again always helps.
2. Show up.
   Go to every class/meeting and take it seriously. “Showing up” as they say, is half the battle right? Further avoiding or skipping out on things that you really don’t like can become a nasty little habit. Face your fears because the alternative is that they will always have power over you.
3. Change Your Thinking.
   When you are in your class or group, focus on what you are doing and learning. Try to think of public speaking as a craft or skill to be practiced and perfected, not a panic attack situation. Sure, this switch in thinking comes with time, but if you try to approach public speaking as a skill that is learned and practiced. This may actually alleviate some self-imposed pressure to be good at it right away. I mean, Michael Jordon didn’t just wake up one day able to shoot 3-pointers. (Ok, maybe he did, but you get my point). Likely, MJ had to put in time, effort and hard work to perfect his game. Hence, think of public speaking less as a natural ability, and more as something that can be worked on and refined like any other skill.
4. Dealing with the Audience.
   This is the main problem, right? That there is a whole group of people watching, judging, maybe NOT listening, bored, noticing that spinach in your teeth, etc.. So, how do you stand in front of 10, 30, 200 people and feel comfortable? As you may have noticed by now, I am a huge fan of bullet points. So here is another one. A few of these are kind of lame but DO work for some people, so here you go:
  • Pretend that you are speaking to a group of kindergartners who are in awe of everything you say. (This is actually a pretty good one).
  • Pretend like YOU are someone else. Sort of like an acting job, and you aren’t you, but are portraying a character. And your character of course, is oozing with confidence and completely at ease speaking in front of a group.
  • Try to get your audience enthusiastic about your topic. Think of it as trying to convince your audience that what you are saying is interesting. Again, switching the focus of what you are doing up there. You aren’t just rattling off information, and trying to survive the experience. Try to get excited about what you’re talking about and get your audience to feel the same.
  • Look over the heads of your audience. That way you can de-personalize it. You can look at something in the back of the room or literally just the top of their heads. Either way- but don’t make it too obvious or you will just look silly.
  • Pick out a few supportive and friendly looking faces in the crowd and talk to them. Pretend that the rest of the audience isn’t there and just focus on your chosen few.
  • Imagine that you just finished your ESL program and thus the audience’s expectations are quire low. They’re just impressed your finally “speaka the English.”
  • If all else fails, you can use the classic imagine your audience in their underwear/nude/in clown outfits method. I always found it to be a bit ridiculous, but whatever tickles your fancy.
   Last but not least, realize that no matter how fabulous your speech is, a quarter of your audience probably isn’t even listening. How many times have you been off in la-la land or going over your to-do list when someone was speaking. Realize that most people are busy thinking about their performance, and dealing with their nerves. Only about 1% of people truly feel comfortable doing public speaking. Most are just like you- nervous, and worried about how they are going to look. Some simply hide it better than others.
5. Breathe!
   You don’t have to do it all in one breath you know. You can pause anytime you like. Often when we get nervous we get that flight or fight feeling and all we want to do is just get it over with and get the hell out of there. Wrong! Yes, you are nervous, you feel your heart beating out of your chest, your voice is shaky etc., but don’t turn public speaking into the Indi 500. Points are usually not awarded for the expediency of your performance.
   Really, one of the most important realizations about public speaking is that you CAN pause, breathe, stop, take it at whatever pace you are most comfortable. Each second feels like hours when you are up there, but you MUST realize this is not how it appears to everyone else. Most people’s biggest mistake when giving a speech is that they talk too fast. So take your time. Take pauses, catch your breath if you need to—people really wont notice that you even WERE out of breath most times. Plus, pausing from time to time actually appears confident. Being ok with dead air for a second or two in front of an audience can simulate comfortablilty. Not only that, but slowing down also helps convey your message and ideas to the audience in a clearer manner. I mean you want them to be able to understand what you are saying right?
   So, don’t just mumble or speed through your speech, think about breathing, taking pauses, and articulating. Again, change your focus to the art and skill, not your nerves.
6. Speak Loudly.
   When we are nervous and or unsure, we tend to talk lower and more softly.  I don’t really feel like I need to explain this one, just be aware of it and try to enunciate. Louder is always better than softer. Plus, again, makes you seem like you’re confident and know what the hell you’re talking about.
7. Visual Aids.
   These can be good for the unsure speaker. Visual aids help explain/illustrate your point.  Plus they can serve as a distraction factor as the audience’s attention shifts from you to your picture, diagram or PowerPoint. 
   You can also give yourself a moment to gather yourself by having the audience participate.  That is, you may ask a question, or have something for them to read or reflect on.
8. Random Tricks.
  • A good hard workout a few hours before you have to speak will relax you, and frankly, you will often be to physically tired to stir up all of the anxiety you normally encounter. This is a physical panic reaction remember. In other words, take the edge off. (A shot of tequila or some stiff scotch will also do the trick).
  • Have a Diet Coke with you. Yes, a chemical in Diet Coke and most diet sodas will cause you to salivate if you tend to encounter dry-mouth.
  • Pause a few seconds before starting your speech. Look at the audience and see what they’re all about.  Get used to being where you are. This will help acclimate you to your position, and hopefully make you a little more comfortable before you head into speaking. This is also a good time to acknowledge your anxiety and focus on your breathing.
  • When appropriate, you may want to acknowledge your nervousness with the audience. Perhaps with a joke. “Does anyone know CPR just in case I have a heart attack up here??” This relieves a LOT of pressure as they are now aware you feel a little unsure and are much more likely to then be understanding and supportive.
  • Humor is a great way to both win over an audience and placate your inner tension. A laughing audience always boosts confidence. First, it indicates to you that they are listening and enjoy what they are hearing.  Second, it helps you feel accepted and at ease with the people to whom you are speaking.  Lastly, laughter is always a good moment to pause and catch your breath if need be.
  • Be aware of your reaction to this type of anxiety and be ready for it.
  • Realize that no matter how nervous and panicked you feel, the “fight or flight” adrenaline/fear based reaction you might initially experience only lasts about three minutes MAX. It’s physiological science. So contrary to popular belief, you won’t actually die, have a heart attack, or be a panicky wreck the entire time you’re at the podium. Take solace in the fact that it will subside.
9. Practice, Practice, Practice.

   Nuff said.

10. Acceptance.
   Accept that no matter how bad you feel, it wont kill you and a bad speech isn’t the end of the world. Accept that there will be good days and bad days for your public speaking career. Accept that no one cares as much about how you look or perform as much as you do. Accept that there is probably someone in the room who is more nervous as you are (number one fear remember?). Finally, accept that this is a skill that needs to be practiced just like any other.
So hey, go all out. You have to be up there anyway, so have fun with it!
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