Friday, March 23, 2007

Fear of public speaking - why?

"According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy." (Jerry Seinfeld)

With that beautifully crafted comment, I reckon Jerry has got to the heart of why so many efforts at public speaking fall so far short of the mark.

Nervousness in front of audiences is a highly individual issue and people are rarely specifically conscious of the root cause of their nervousness. When I ask clients about this, I almost always get surface thinking, with no drill-down. The most common line is, "I hate talking to an audience and I'm afraid that I will make a fool of myself ..."

But wait just a moment, all speaking is public speaking – unless you are an inveterate talk-to-yourself type, or a little old lady with 27 cats. So why does your ability to talk to a friend with enthusiasm, warmth, confidence and humour not translate into the same traits when addressing an audience, small or large?

The usual response I get from clients is, “Because my friend doesn’t judge me the way an audience does.” Wro-ong! Your friend is far more likely to judge you – because your friend is just that - a friend. He or she is genuinely interested in you, your point of view and the way in which you are expressing it. By contrast, most audiences couldn’t care less about you. And yet you have no difficulty in arguing with or persuading your friend, despite the fact that (s)he is listening intently, watching you closely and mulling over everything you are saying.

If we were to go back 30,000 years to the caves, I suspect that the fear of addressing an audience comes down, as so many other things do, to a fear of being perceived as contributing little or nothing of value to the ‘tribe.’ Back then, if you made a fool of yourself, it meant not getting a share of the hunt that night. If you were a wise old medicine woman, you had to know which plants had the Aloe in them; if you were a hunter-male, you had to know where the valley with the wildebeest was. That's what made you useful to the tribe. [Modern equivalent - a tight-lipped, alpha-male steadfastly refusing to pull over and ask for directions despite the fact that he is (a) late and (b) well and truly lost.]

So how do you become a 'useful' public speaker? In order to improve at anything, you need to understand it, understand the ‘rules’ that govern it, and understand your strengths and weaknesses in relation to it. Most public speaking courses and books focus on those first two points, make a few light-hearted jokes about overcoming nervousness, but pretty much ignore the third, and to you, most important point. Some of the common weaknesses/protests I hear are:

"I'm not an expert on the topic." (a) Well someone thinks you are, why else would you have been asked to speak on it? (b) That’s what Google is for.

"I can't project my voice very well. I find it very hard to speak out." (a) So if your partner or children were in danger, you couldn’t shout loud enough to warn them? (b) There’s these amazing little devices – they’re called microphones.

"I'm useless with PowerPoint." (a) So don't use it - have an interactive conversation with your audience instead. (b) Hire a skilled PowerPoint designer for a few hours.

"The audience … So many eyes! … They’re judging me …" (a) Don’t flatter yourself, most audiences will forget your existence 10 minutes after you sit down. (b) Prepare properly and make them give you an A – and remember you and the points you made.
Get to the heart of your nervousness. Become conscious of it, de-construct it and understand it for what it is. Play Devil's Advocate on your excuses for being a bad public speaker. Because unless you have been diagnosed with glossophobia by a fully-fledged psychiatrist, all you have are excuses - not reasons.

Delivering anything more than an average public speaking performance is hard, hard work. If confidence is born of surety, then the only way you can approach an audience with genuine confidence is if you really know your topic, have made strenuous efforts to understand your audience’s viewpoint on that topic and have mastered the material you intend delivering. (My thoughts on rehearsal and preparedness are here.) Even then, I would hope that you will still have butterflies in your stomach as you begin to speak – but those should be the healthy butterflies that will galvanise your performance, not paralyse it.


Lisa Braithwaite said...

Yes - tough love is right! I recently made a brief post on this issue, after a couple of different people basically asked me if it was okay to give a so-so performance because it didn't feel comfortable doing it right (I'm paraphrasing, of course).

Anybody can be an effective speaker if they're willing to do the work, and make it about the audience. Period.

Rowan Manahan said...

So true Lisa. I find it extraordinary how many intelligent, educated people seem to think that public speaking is either (a) something simple that they can do well with almost no effort or (b) something unattainable that they will never master due to an innate capacity gap.

There's a great expression in rural Yorkshire: "There's nowt as odd as folk ..."

Public Speaking said...

Yes you really need to know your topic when public speaking but you also need to be honest and if you dont know the answer to something - tell the audience that. It makes you human and it makes you real.

Tim Ackerman said...

Great and informative post!

I agree that public speaking fears can definitely be overcome you just have to know how. Building some confidence will surely conquer the fears altogether so, friends and family are definitely a confident booster.