Speak in Public? I'd Rather Die!
According to Psychology Today, more people would rather face the Grim Reaper himself than be placed in a situation which involves public speaking.
In fact, according to information provided by online resource Statistic Brain, the fear of public speaking ranked at number one in the top 10 list of things most Americans fear. A whopping 74 percent of Americans said they were more afraid of speaking in public than dying, which was ranked at number two on the list at 68 percent.
The technical term for the fear of public speaking is glossophobia. Common signs of glossophobia include rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, dry mouth, weakening of the voice, nausea and body tremors. Individuals with severe glossophobia can literally become physically ill at the mere thought of speaking publicly, regardless of whether it’s just to three people or an entire room full of people.
I count myself as fortunate not to be among the 74 percent of people who would rather die than speak to a group of people. That’s not to say I don’t dislike public speaking. But generally, I can manage to get through it without breaking into a sweat or barfing up my breakfast. I credit my public speaking course in college for this, because prior to taking it, I was not terribly keen on public speaking. I would get incredibly nervous at the very thought – though thankfully not so nervous that I’d happily welcome death as an alternative.
As a writer, you’re probably wondering why I’d even worry about speaking publicly since my craft involves the written word. I’ll let you in on a little secret – the ability to write knowledgably about topics involves research, including the kind that requires speaking to other people on a regular basis. Calling up a virtual stranger to ask them if you can pick their brain about a topic for publication can be a scary thing. There is, of course, always the fear of rejection. No one is obligated to speak with me, and many people are actually quite wary of doing so for fear of having their words misrepresented later in print. I spend a lot of time “selling” my credentials and my trustworthiness before I put even a single word down on paper.
There also have been times when I have had to give public presentations on behalf of clients or as part of a professional pitch of my services to prospective clients. Fewer things in life are more intimidating than standing before a room full of people who are judging your ability to perform in your chosen profession based on your public presence.
Regardless of the number of times I’ve spoken publicly, it never gets any easier. I’m still nervous each time and fret over whether I’ll perform to the best of my abilities. However, I draw from the tools and techniques I learned in college in that public speaking course, and find that time and again, they remain effective in helping me to prepare for the task at hand.
The first valuable tool that course taught me was to always be prepared. The most critical aspect of preparation is to know the platform in which you will be speaking. Critical questions to ask the host include:
· How long will I be expected to speak?
· Who is my target audience?
· Is there a general theme/topic on which I am expected to speak?
· What kinds of technology – audio-visual equipment, laptops, sound systems, podium – will be available for my use?
· Will there by a question and answer session following my presentation in which I will be expected to participate?
Once you know the platform, research the topic on which you will be speaking. For instance, if you’ve been asked to speak about your profession, look up current facts and figures about the number of people working in your profession, along with what kind of education and skills are required to work in the field. But don’t go overboard on facts and figures, because that can make for a very boring presentation. Use them only to highlight a necessary point, and fill the rest of your presentation with examples of your own professional experiences. Public speaking is, essentially, nothing more than storytelling, so tell a story.
If your speech will lend itself to visual aids, use them. PowerPoint presentations, slide shows and other visuals help draw the audience’s attention away from you and instead toward the visual being used. For presenters who are nervous about all eyes being on them, this can help to distract them from that fear by giving the audience something else on which to focus, even if just momentarily.
Audience participation is another way to take the pressure off. One of my best-received speeches in my public speaking course in college was the “how-to” speech in which I was required to walk the audience through a task. While my classmates were doing how-to speeches on baking cakes and making paper footballs, I decided to teach the audience how to use sign language. By the time I finished, they could not only sign the complete alphabet, but also a few helpful words. The presentation was a huge hit not only because it kept the audience engaged, but because it also taught them a useful skill.
Use a little humor. While you don’t want to turn your presentation into a comedy routine, using the occasional funny story or relevant joke can help break up the monotony and keep the audience interested. The only caveat to this rule is if you are not a naturally funny person or find it difficult to share funny stories or jokes. Fewer things in life are more embarrassing than telling what you think is a funny joke, only to have an audience staring back at you, dumbfounded. Not everyone is good with using humor to their advantage, so if you are one of those people, it’s best to avoid it.
Make notes to help guide you during your presentation. While some people are just naturally talented orators who can speak on a topic without detailed notes, most of us are not that fortunate and will require some assistance to help keep us on track. I am not suggesting you bring a novella with you to the podium that is word-for-word what you plan to say. Doing so tempts the speaker to look at their notes instead of looking at the audience, which makes for a poor presentation. Instead, keep an outline of your major points and any statistics you plan to share to ensure you quote them accurately. Index cards are generally a good way to keep this kind of outline.
Keep in mind that less is more when it comes to public speaking. The average adult attention span is between 15 and 20 minutes. Unless you’ve specifically been asked to speak for a longer period of time, keeping it brief yet informative is your best bet for keeping the audience engaged.
Once you have your speech and any visual aids you plan to use together, practice, practice and practice some more. Try it out by yourself the first couple of times, and then ask a few trusted colleagues or friends to sit in while you deliver the speech to them. Ask for feedback on what you could do differently and then hone your presentation to include those suggestions.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the little tidbit of advice about picturing the audience in their underwear to help you relax. Well, let me tell you, it’s not a good tool to pull from your toolbox in this kind of situation. While the idea behind that advice was to help the speaker to feel more confident, actually trying this technique usually ends badly for the presenter. Depending on your imagination and creativity – and how well you know the audience members – picturing them in their underwear can be rather distracting, which might cause you to get off track and royally screw up. So trust me when I say this advice is old and tired and completely ineffective, so chuck in it the virtual garbage and forget you ever heard it.
On the day of the presentation, be sure to arrive early. If possible, ask for preparation time in the presentation area to not only get a feel for the physical area in which you will be presenting, but also to have a chance to make sure any visual aids you plan to use are in proper working order. Technology is fabulous – when it works. If you plan to use a PowerPoint presentation or other audio visual equipment, test it prior to your presentation.
Lastly, remember to stay in the moment and expect the unexpected. No matter how many times you’ve rehearsed, things have a way of sometimes not going according to plan. If the unexpected should occur, remain calm. If for instance the audio-visual equipment stops working halfway through your presentation, be prepared to go on without it. You should know your presentation well enough to improvise should the need arise.
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Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for 25 years.