To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
—Bertrand Russell, philosopher and mathematician
Public speaking is listed as American's number-one fear, before death at number five, and loneliness, weighing in at number seven. Guess that means that most of us are less afraid of dying alone than of making fools of ourselves in front of others. Fear is a powerful motivator for leadership, which means that you stand above the crowd. There is the fear of being seen as exceptional and different; the fear of the unknown; the fear of being a fraud; the fear of forgetting everything you were going to say; the fear of being at risk publicly; and the fear of being up there, alone. They all come together, for most of us, in public speaking.
Some people believe that fear of standing up in public is about setting yourself up to be shot down. Much as John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon were. Analogous to being a leader, standing up in front of crowds to enlighten, incite, entertain, inspire, and lead is what public speaking is all about. You are in good company.
Motivational psychologists theorize that the fear of public speaking comes from how the "show off" aspect of your personality was treated when you were a youngster. To what degree were you discouraged from performing in front of others? Plus, bad experiences, such as freezing up in 4th grade when reciting the Gettysburg Address, seems to compound the fear and self-doubt.
But there's no going back to grade school to erase an experience. A good solution to the regret and bad memories comes from former Los Angeles Times publisher Jim Bellows, "Begin at once and do the best you can."
Francis Bacon penned, "Nil terribile nisi ipse timor" ("Nothing is terrible except fear itself."). Henry David Thoreau weighed in with, "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear." Shakespeare wrote both that "extreme fear can neither fight nor fly," and "cowards die many times before their deaths." Mark Twain said, "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear."
Note that these learned people were familiar enough with fear to say something profound about it. So if misery loves company, take comfort. Accomplished people are clearly not strangers to fear. Obviously, they have met fear and if not mastered it, at least managed it enough to have achieved great things.
People who do speak up, and most of us do in one way or another, seem to prefer courage to the cowardly alternative. A Nobel laureate, physicist, and chemist, Madame Curie said, "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood." And the solution reached by science fiction writer Doug Horton was "Action cures fear, inaction creates terror." "The death of fear is in doing what you fear to do," concluded the Cherokee philosopher, Sequichie Comingdeer. While "No guts, no glory" became the battle cry of World War II.
Battle cries, quotations, advertising slogans ("Just do it"), headlines, song titles and good sound bites have an economy of words that say volumes to drive us in battle, propel us to buy, and give meaning in a world that doesn't walk its talk. When you are afraid, take this kind of less-is-more approach. First, make sure that your main points are cogent and concise. Second, create an outline and stick with it to keep yourself from rambling. Third, breathe. Focused, rhythmic, and slow breathing is usually helpful in calming those feelings of terror. Fourth, don't squelch the butterflies (or try to drown them in wine or sedatives, either).
Remember that fear is energy. Marshall your fear as energy to rise to the occasion. By organizing your thoughts logically and taking time to practice putting words to them, you will help get those butterflies flying in formation. And finally, enjoy the moment. This is one of the rare opportunities you have in life to speak to a captive audience, to tell people what you think and what you've learned to empower, motivate, inspire, soothe, or fascinate them.
Now, practice, practice, practice. There's an interesting paradox in public speaking. If you haven't practiced, you will appear nervous. But if you have practiced until it is second nature to say these words with expression, gestures, emphasis, and passion, you will appear spontaneous, as if you are speaking "off the cuff."
Dr. Sue Colin, a holistic therapist, once told me that one way to keep from getting sucked in by fear and mired in the muck of self-doubt is to keep your perspective as an observer. Keep noticing and noting what you observe. To allay your fears, keep a journal of the speakers you hear, which is almost everyone. How did someone answer the phone? Was she smiling when she recorded her voice-mail message? How could you tell? How did someone introduce himself? Did he make eye contact and seem happy to meet you? Did a conversation interest or bore you? Turn you off? Turn you on? Why? Did someone give a good TV interview? Become a critic - a constructive one. Offer a constructive critique, at least in your journal. What would you tell these communicators to do more, better, or differently? Be sure to tell yourself, too!
Television is a great source for impromptu conversation. Watch it constructively, to learn. A press conference or multi-city satellite tour is held to get the story to everyone at once. A speech happens for the same reason. The bigger the audience, the more people there are who want to hear you.
What do you admire and respect about the network news anchors who give a 30-minute speech every evening and throughout every national disaster? What is their take? Are they real? Do they get the irony or the impact? Do they like themselves? The viewing audience? The job? How do you know? Do you like them? Why or why not?
What can you take from the communications skills of these professionals? What can you learn from their ability to communicate? What can you do to improve your communication?
What about the late-night television comedians or the morning talk-show hosts? Who can you listen to year after year like Regis Philbin, Katie Couric, Johnny Carson, Leno, or Letterman? Why are they fun to watch?
Not that you're going to become a TV anchor or a comedian, but you are going to have to command a captive audience and you don't want them wishing they could change channels. In an age of channel surfing, you have to hold an audience's attention and interest.
So, you must know your audience. What do they want from you? What do they have a right to expect? What role do they play in this situation: conference attendees, a prospective employer, wedding guests, or a board of directors? What are their demographics in terms of age, region of the country, positions in the company, and expertise on your subject? The better you know them, the more you will have conquered the fear of the unknown. Television companies spend billions on audience research—common sense and deductive reasoning will go along way in helping you figure out your audience.
If beliefs inspire behavior, behavior creates habits, habits influence character, and character dictates destiny, then beware your beliefs. You're only as good as your beliefs will let you be.
As a speechwriter and communications coach, I've always preferred clients who are afraid to those who are indifferent or just don't care. The energy of fear can be redirected to work for instead of against you. Indifference lacks the passion needed to get the message across. And it's all about putting the message, or the news, or the song, or the scene across.
An energy quotient is that energy equals excitement plus enthusiasm. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. Not that you necessarily have to be a cheerleader, but get in touch with your passion for the topic and for this particular audience. What makes your point of view exciting for you and for them? What makes it worth talking about? Let it be invigorating. Look deep into your fears, and that is where you will find your excitement. It is where you'll find the energy to be great!
As soon as you are asked to speak, even to say a few words, you are being acknowledged as someone who has something to say. You appear as someone to whom people should listen, someone who has been chosen to stand, in front of everyone, and deliver!
So, live it up. Have something important to say. And don't let your fear stop you. If not now, then when?
The best antidote for fear is not to be self-conscious or conscious of self. Don't think about what you hope to get (a job, money, sales, popularity, admiration, or acclaim). Instead, be conscious of what you have to give. By concerning yourself with what you can contribute to your audience member's opinions, their knowledge, their valuable time, their lives, you give yourself a mission. Simply offer it in the best way you can.
Peggy Noonan, a contributor for Good Housekeeping and one-time speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan (who became known as the Great Communicator), explains that she conquered her own fear of public speaking by wanting to be understood. In short, she wanted to connect with her audience and get her anecdotes across.
Conquer your self-consciousness by getting outside of yourself and seeing how the audience is doing, one person at a time. A good speech should merely be one-on-one conversations with a hundred or a thousand people at a time. Don't scan the audience but make solid eye contact with six or so in different parts of the room.
Connect with those in the audience who make you feel most comfortable. Audiences usually fall into two categories, the "Smilers" and the "Stoics."
I prefer to talk with the Smilers, the ones who are responding and eager to learn, or at least listen to, what I have to say. They give me reassurance that what I am saying is important to them. A colleague prefers the Stoics to the Smilers. "Smilers can be misleading," he will tell you. "They will smile and nod at everything. It's their social mode. Involve the Stoics, those who are looking at their shoes or the ceiling," he advises, "and you will really have accomplished something."
You can only please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. But, of course, you can't please all of the people all of the time, ever.
Most of us learned from our parents that lectures don't work. Give your audience stories, examples, and quotes, organized around a main point with three supporting points that everyone can take home. One of the best sound bites I ever heard was, "The three most important things to remember are . . ."
Another good sound bite was delivered by Dr. Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard, authors of The One Minute Manager. They premiered their national media tour on Labor Day 1982 on The Today Show with the answer: "One Minute Management is three things, One-minute goal setting, one-minute praises and one-minute reprimands. One-minute goals are goals you can review in a minute." That was the beginning of a year-and-a-half run as the number one book on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
It may be a relief to know that even though you bring a certain expertise or perspective to the subject or occasion, it isn't really about you after all. As the speaker, you are only the messenger. But they shoot messengers, don't they? So how do you manage to keep your confidence?
Replace your fears with logical reasons to be confident and take every opportunity you can to speak and reinforce the fact that you speak well. There is a Hasidic saying, "The man who has confidence in himself, gains the confidence of others." What you put out there is going to reflect back to you.
So, create for yourself a sense of well-deserved confidence in your perspective, your expertise, your determination, your research, your experience, whatever you bring to the party. When I interviewed for my first job in television, I offered my experience with the TV show as a viewer and I got the job!
Sophia Loren said, "Getting ahead in a difficult profession requires avid faith in yourself. That is why some people with mediocre talent, but with great inner drive, go much further than people with vastly superior talent." Use your drive, your energy, your humor, and your thoughts to capture the crowd.
Plan carefully, practice well, and be confident that you have something to say and know how to say it. In other words, give yourself reason to be confident; then fake it, until you make it. Otherwise, your fear will first frighten an audience, then anger, then bore them. And nobody likes to be frightened, angry, or bored.
Fear is contagious. In days of old, the entire herd would "get it" in a fight-or-flight situation. When audiences perceive that you are very afraid, they are often ready to flee. The obvious next reaction is anger at your putting them in peril. And then boredom sets in because it's all about you and there's nothing in it for them. Every audience, in fact all of us, continually listen to WII-FM (What's In It For Me?).
You have both the absolute right and the perpetual responsibility not to bore an audience or waste its time. To paraphrase my mother's wisdom, "If you can't say something interesting, don't say anything at all!"
Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to make sure that you don't trip yourself up. Don't you hinder the message or cloud the communication and thus deserve being shot. Remember that this really isn't about you.
One Sunday after church, a pastor was praised on his sermon, with the suggestion that his eloquence must be the reason so many people attend his church. With humility and wisdom, he said that the reason both he and the congregation attend church is to praise God. "We just have different roles in the process."
Avoid taking yourself or the audience or the event too seriously. Turn your self-consciousness into self-confidence. Be prepared and then just use your butterflies for excitement and energy. Remember that you've been talking for years!