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Chapter 2: Break Through the Fear Barrier


The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The mind is a wonderful thing - it starts working the minute you're born and never stops until you get up to speak in public.

- Roscoe Drummond

At a personal and professional growth clinic I once ran, I worked closely with the meeting planners to determine the interests and needs of my audience. My group was concerned about increasing their power within their organizations, but they also indicated that they did not want me to spend a lot of time on public speaking. I held a discussion on it anyway and had the participants deliver presentations. At the end of the clinic, the evaluations indicated that public speaking was the most valuable segment of all. Some participants confessed the reason they didn't want to see it covered was fear - of public speaking.

According to The Book of Lists, public speaking - not bugs, heights, deep water, or even death - is the foremost fear in the world.

What are we so afraid of? What can a room full of people sitting quietly in their chairs - presumably unarmed - do to a speaker? Understanding why facing an audience inspires such fear is the first step toward controlling it.

The Origins of Public-Speaking Panic

It's Lonely in the Spotlight

As a speaker, you're a person apart from the crowd. People are more comfortable in groups than leading them; that way, no one is on the spot, and others can carry the conversation if you run out of ideas. Speaking isolates you; it removes you from your peers and designates you as different from everyone else - you're the one who has something worthwhile to say. Some people relish this attention; others, understandably, find the sudden spotlight daunting. The trick is to accept being singled out; it's temporary, and it's probably an honor, too. So try to see it as an honor, because your perception of the event will be crucial to your success.

It also helps if you don't let the spotlight become a barrier. Many novice speakers blow up their isolation in their own mind, until it takes on exaggerated importance. Think less about yourself and more about your audience. As you perceive yourself not as isolated but as part of the group you're addressing - a group that wants to hear what you have to say - some of the fear will leave

How Am I Doing? (It's Hard to Tell)

Except for optional question-and-answer sessions, speaking is a one-way street. You don't get the direct feedback conversation provides. You're not sure if people are really following you. You can see their eyes - though not very well - but you don't know what they're thinking. A person may leave the room, and you feel personally rejected, even though he is only stepping outside to make a phone call. A joke you've told many times with great success may not get a laugh.

What's missing is swift feedback and knowledge of where you stand, and the absence of this throws you off. Everyone, not just speakers, needs feedback. To prove this point, a man in a pub took bets from people in the pub and challenged one of England's champion dart throwers that he could make the expert falter in less than four throws, without interfering with the throw itself. The challenger held up a piece of paper in front of the champion just after he released the dart - so the champion could not see how he did - and then removed the dart before the next throw. Sure enough, the champion's game went to pieces in three throws. Without seeing - instantly - the results of each throw, he missed the next shot.

People do get reactions to their speeches - afterward. Knowing that during the speech you will plunge ahead like the dart thrower, without feedback, accounts for much of the nervousness speakers feel. But forewarned is indeed forearmed. Expect the pauses, the small silences, and they won't seem strange. Different audiences will also react differently; don't expect the same noises from both a general audience and one with a very technical bent. Ask any actor in a long-running show why they don't get bored doing the same show night after night and you always get the same answer: "The show may be the same, but the audience is different every night." And don't misread reactions out of sheer nervousness. Silence can indicate deep thought and agreement as much as it can alert you to boredom.

I once saw a speaker address a small group in a classroom seating arrangement. At the back of the room, a man seemed to be paying no attention; he spent the entire speech scribbling and gazing into space. During the break, other people in the audience asked the speaker how he could tolerate the noticeably rude man. The speaker was relaxed; he said he just focused on the rest of the seemingly more interested audience. But after the session was over, the scribbler came up to the speaker, identified himself as a reporter, said he was particularly fascinated by the presentation and would be writing an article on it, and thanked the speaker. Moral: Don't guess at what your audience's reactions mean. It detracts from your effectiveness to worry about those who don't seem to be listening, because they may be listening the hardest.

It's amazing how we get stuck on thinking about the negatives instead of the positives of a situation. If 99 out of the 100 people listening liked a speech, and one person was less than complimentary, we tend to focus on that one person's negative comment. If one person out of 100 isn't paying attention, that's where our attention naturally goes. But, as the above story demonstrates, you never know what's going on in the listener's head. And one person's opinion is just that - an opinion, not a fact. The more you speak, the more you learn to accept the compliments and laugh off the negativity.

I Don't Have the Gift

When I tell someone he or she can learn to be a commanding speaker, a common protest: "But you can't learn it; public speaking is a talent you are either born with or not." Not so. Public speaking is not an innate skill; good speakers are made - not born - through hard work and practice. As with any learned skill, some people are better than others, but everyone can work at it successfully. One of the most important kinds of power that speaking brings you is the power to change your perceptions of yourself - not to mention other people's perceptions of you.

Giving a speech is not a natural, ordinary event. Speakers who expect to feel at ease are kidding themselves. It may seem hard to believe that even the most polished, experienced speakers get nervous, but they do. So don't expect, or long for, relaxation; expect the nervous excitement and energy that come from the task at hand. In other words, use fear to your advantage; charisma and adrenaline are closely linked.

Make Fear Work for You

Fear is nature's way of helping you protect yourself. New or dangerous situations trigger the "fight or flight" response: Your pulse quickens, your muscles tense, and the resulting rush of adrenaline equips you for any extra effort you might need. Whether you face real or imaginary fear, physical danger, or emotional stress, the reaction is the same. And speakers benefit: The adrenaline becomes energy; their minds seem more alert; new thoughts, facts, and ideas arise. In fact, some of my best ad libs come to me in front of my toughest audiences; it's yet another gift from the adrenaline.

Nervousness can give your speech the edge - and the passion - all good speeches need. It has always been so; 2,000 years ago Cicero said that all public speaking of real merit was characterized by nervousness. But how can you draw the line between nervousness that boosts and fear that debilitates? By understanding and tackling the four fears shared by all speakers:

Tame the 4 Fears of Public Speaking

Fear of Performing Poorly

You are not alone. Worrying about your performance comes with the territory. It haunts novice and experienced performers alike: Even after 50 years of acting, Helen Hayes worried she would forget her opening lines. Red Skelton was always a nervous wreck before performances. Barbra Streisand's stage fright is notorious; it kept her from singing in concert for many years.

Even the most practiced public speakers do battle with nerves; it's a sign you're a true speaker. One night at a convention, a woman entered a room and saw the evening's keynote speaker pacing frantically. She asked him why he was so nervous. "What do you mean? Who's nervous?" he demanded. "If you're not nervous," she replied, "What are you doing in the ladies' room?"

Fear of the Audience

Audiences are not out to get you. In fact, your listeners are probably thrilled that it's you up there and not them. They want to put themselves in your hands, listen, and learn. And they listen best when you appear confident and in control. Great speakers convince the audience they are completely in control, no matter how nervous they may really be. It's difficult for an audience to relax if the speaker appears uncomfortable; appear confident and you're already winning the audience's appreciation.

At a conference on stage fright, musician Frederick Zlotkin, former first cellist for the New York City Ballet Orchestra, pointed out that how we perceive the audience affects our degree of fear and nervousness. He divides those perceptions into three kinds of anxiety: low range, medium range, and high range. Low-range speakers are slightly nervous but perceive the audience as basically neutral. Medium-range speakers assume negative thoughts on the part of the audience and consequently block out their listeners. They hide behind their lecterns and avoid eye contact. High-range speakers extend this mistake further and actually experience the audience as hostile and waiting for them to make a mistake.

Fear of Embarrassment

Many people are afraid to get up and speak because they think they'll do something foolish - they'll stumble over words, trip and fall, forget to include their most important point. The thing is, they're right! Embarrassing things do happen. It comes with the territory.

The good news is that audiences understand that we all make mistakes. What they want to know is how well you can handle them.

For instance, men have told me that their greatest fear was that they would standing up in front of an audience without realizing that their flies were open. "Well," I thought, "at least that's one thing I don't have to worry about!"

Once I was delivering a presentation wearing business slacks. Well into my speech, a man in the audience held up a sign that said, "Debbie, your fly is open." My face turned as red as a California tomato, while considering my options. Then I noticed the flip-chart in the corner. I slipped behind it, zipped up my fly, returned to center stage, spread my arms out wide, and said, "Ta da!" The audience loved it. As long as I was able to make light of the moment, they could too - and they knew they could trust me to handle anything else that might happen as well. And the audience wants to trust you, because for the time that you are standing up in front of them, you are their leader. They want you to take care of them. They'll understand if you fall down, but they don't want their leader to let them down.

Fear that Your Material Is Not Good Enough

This is the easiest fear to overcome because you are in control of preparation and content. You won't be on the spot if you know your subject thoroughly.

Mind Over Fear

Fear may not be welcome, but it is normal. Every successful speaker has his or her own tricks to psych out fear. Winston Churchill liked to imagine that each member of the audience was naked. Franklin Roosevelt pretended that the members all had holes in their socks. Carol Burnett thinks of them sitting on the toilet. The point is, even though your mind seems to work overtime before a speech, filling you with dread, you can counter with tricks of the imagination that make you feel confident and in control.

The Best Tip of Them All: Confidence

Fear has its good side: The perception of public speaking as difficult and demanding adds to a confident speaker's power, because people are perceived as more knowledgeable and confident simply because of their ability to conquer the dreaded task of public speaking. That confidence comes from within; once you believe you have the ability to be a confident speaker, it's a lot easier to be just that.

The best way to bolster your confidence before a speech or presentation is to think positively. Saturate your mind with positive thoughts. Repeat to yourself any positive catch phrase that appeals: "I am poised, prepared, persuasive, positive, and powerful. I also feel composed, confident, convincing, commanding, and compelling."

Keys to Breaking Through the Fear Barrier

By keeping these steps in mind, you can put fear in its place and get on with the career-enhancing opportunities that await you by becoming an excellent and persuasive public speaker.

Professional Projects: Work on Your Fear
  1. Decide on your personal action plan for controlling your fear. For example: If your voice shakes when you give a presentation, tell yourself that you are going to practice deep breathing the next time you have to begin speaking. Write it on an index card and study it before each presentation.

  2. Never avoid a chance to present. List three opportunities where you could volunteer to speak and when and how you will arrange to be the speaker. Commit to speak up at least once in every meeting you attend.

  3. Decide on which visualization technique works best for you and then practice it conscientiously.

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