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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Chapter 1: Afraid? You Are Not Alone!

How Universal Is the Fear?

Cicero, one of the great philosophers of the world, who lived in the first century b.c., wrote that all good public speaking was characterized by nervousness.

Benjamin Disraeli, known in England in the 1800s for his dramatic political views, once said that he would rather have led a cavalry charge than faced the House of Commons for the first time.

William Jennings Bryan, one of the great American orators of the twentieth century, admitted that, in his first attempts, "his knees fairly smote together."

More recently The People's Almanack Book of Lists printed the results of a survey of three thousand Americans. One of the most startling outcomes was the answer to the question: "What are you most afraid of?" The results appear in Figure 1-1:

People's Fears

Figure 1-1:  From The People's Almanack Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, et al.

A Survey - What Are You Most Afraid of?

You can see from the percentages that this survey elicited more than one response per person.

But it's important to recognize that there were no multiple choices involved in this survey, no hints to lead the respondents. It's called an "unaided" survey. A cross-section of America searched its collective soul and 41 percent said, "Speaking before a group is what I fear most."

When the same question was asked on an "aided basis," which means the respondents are given a list of probable fears to select from, more than 90 percent selected speaking before a group.

Feelings of Nervousness

So if you have ever felt the roaring wings of butterflies fluttering around in your stomach before a presentation, you are just like the rest of us, part of the human race. A dry mouth is normal. So is a feeling of tension. So is a quaver in your voice, a sense of awkwardness, not knowing what to do with your hands, shortness of breath, sweatiness, a somewhat sickly pallor, and more.

It's hard to pin down what causes this virtually universal fear. The simplest explanation is that when you stand up to speak to a group you see a superior force out there. All those people. And it's them against you. A primal safety valve flicks open. The central nervous system sends you an extra jolt of adrenaline to help you meet this challenge.

Part of the Human Condition

It's the same adrenaline rush and the same question that your ancestors faced back in the Stone Age, when they suddenly came face-to-face with a saber-tooth tiger. Fight or flight? Do they stay there and fight or do they run for the hills? No matter what their decision, they needed all the adrenaline they could get.

I share this with you so that you will see that you are not alone if you suffer stage fright or fear of speaking in public. It happens to everyone. It's simply part of the human condition.

But let's stop here. We don't overcome fear by wishing it were gone. There is a process involved, and I don't want to gloss over it.

The First Three Steps in Overcoming Fear

Back in the early days of broadcasting, one of the great newsmen was Lowell Thomas. Thomas was a strong believer in the importance of being able to speak your mind in front of a group. One of his statements is particularly meaningful if you are concerned with improving your station in life. He said, "The speaker's platform is inevitable for the man on the way up."

His use of the word "man" is generic; his statement is meant to imply all of humanity. So let's approach it the way we would any in-evitable human situation. Learn about it, decide what to do, and learn how to do it well.

Step One - Admit Your Fear

Admit to yourself that your fear of speaking in public is hurting you. It is limiting your opportunity for recognition and advancement. It is holding you back. It is embarrassing you. It has no advantages, only disadvantages.

Step Two - Examine Possible Solutions

You and I are not unique. There are hundreds of thousands like us. Which means there are hundreds of programs available to you. Dale Carnegie is one and Toastmasters is another. Every adult education syllabus offers speaker training.

Some are better than others, of course, but any of them will help you. The most important criterion to look for is the number of "on your feet" speaking opportunities the program provides - the more the better. You don't overcome fear and develop self-confidence by listening to lectures.

Emerson said, "If you can do a thing once, you can do it twice. If you can do it twice, you can make a habit out of it." We learn by doing. Most of the skills that have to do with overcoming fear are physical, and we will discuss these types of techniques in Chapter 2.

Step Three - Make a Decision

There's no sense wallowing around in all the material you may have uncovered. Select the course or training program that captures your fancy and sign up. If you are like me, you may have gotten this far many times in the past but procrastinated because the unknown is frightening.

But here is good news: The very act of making a decision will free you. The instant you make it you will feel good, perhaps even euphoric. That's one of the beautiful mysteries of life. Making a decision carries its own reward, independent of the work that will follow, perhaps because decisions are so difficult to make.

It's the Right Thing

Tom Hall, a director at communications company, tells about a time when he was driving from his home in Riverdale, New York, to Mount Holly, New Jersey, to teach a program the next morning. It was four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon and he had been on the road for two hours when it started to rain. He was only a half hour from the hotel, which was the next day's program site and where he would spend the night.

Suddenly, he wondered if he had put the class books and other necessary materials for the next day's program in the trunk. He stopped the car alongside the Jersey turnpike, opened the trunk, and - it was empty. The rain was pouring down, but that meant nothing to him. He was furious with himself. No way was he going to drive two hours home and another two hours back to be exactly where he was now.

He raged silently to himself. "Not fair. No way. I can do the program without the materials. The participants won't know the difference. I'll wing it. I've done enough of these to know what to do. I'll use magic markers. I'll make charts . . ."

Then he stopped and asked himself one question. What is the right thing to do? His answer was to turn around, drive back home, and get the materials. And that is what he decided to do.

Here is how he describes his feelings at that moment: "When I first realized my predicament, I was furious. I had been looking forward to getting to the hotel, having a relaxing dinner, and getting to bed early. Now I was churning inside. I was ready to tear my hair out.

"But once I faced up to my error and decided that I had to do what was right, I felt an amazing kind of peace settle over me. I had made my decision. So what if I had to drive an extra four hours, it wouldn't kill me. And, most important, I was pleased with myself because I was doing the right thing."

You will find the same kind of peace once you make a decision to take action. You won't have to wait. It will come upon you immediately. There will still be a lot of work to be done before you've accomplished your goals, but you will have begun. And you will be pleased with yourself.

Key Learnings for Taking the First Steps in Overcoming Your Fear



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