Experts agree that fear of public speaking is one of the most common, if not the most common, phobias in modern society. This doesn’t surprise me. What does in fact, amaze me, is that millions of people who fear public speaking are required to do it on a regular basis – at work, doing presentations and reports, for example – and they suffer miserably as a result. They endure silently in order to keep their career positions. Many resort to powerpoint, so they can hover in darkness and simply read from the screen, rather than interact with their audience.
But it’s the interaction with the audience that brings the fun, the funny, the thrills, and all the other benefits of public speaking. In addressing a group of our fellow human beings, we have the opportunity to “plug in” to the mainframe of the human experience. It’s a relationship. We’re making friends with our audience. When our audience accepts us, our ideas, we experience the sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves.
Preparedness is essential in public speaking. Of course, we prepare our material, what we’re going to say. But often as speakers we get so wrapped up in the words we plan to say that we forget the spirit, the energy, the passion of our message. I always ask myself, What am I bringing to the relationship? Am I approaching my audience with respect – do I want them to benefit from this – or am I only worried about my ego? Am I speaking from the heart? What do I love about my message? About this speaking opportunity? About this audience?
If I fill myself with love and good feelings, there’s no room for fear. We can only truly experience one emotion at a time. I learned early in standup that it’s how you feel when you’re up there that powers the whole show. Enthusiasm, passion, fun — these are infectious and they attract a like response from the audience. It’s exactly the same in a one to one relationship, isn’t it? Anyone who’s been on a date or experienced a friendship knows it’s true.
As in relationships, mutual respect is a very important ingredient in successful public speaking. If I prepare myself by thinking about all the things I respect about my audience, and I carry that respect onto the stage, I will likely receive respect in return.
I disagree with many of the “tips” that are offered to people as solutions to fear of public speaking. I’ve heard it said that a speaker or performer should regard the audience as of no consequence, or imagine the audience in diapers, or naked, or in their underwear. I disagree. Why should my having confidence require me to think of my audience as negated, humiliated or compromised?
An angry young standup comic once told me, “ Before every show, I prepare myself — I think of the audience as one person – one person I have to fight – and the fight is to the death!! I visualize myself jumping onto the stage and ripping their (the audience’s) face off!” This guy frequently got laughs for a minute or two, but invariably the audience turned on him. His energy was a downer. He made them feel uncomfortable and they couldn’t like him. How could they like a guy who visualizes an adversarial exchange? (Eventually, he changed his attitude and audiences came along with him. He became a successful comic.)
We want to speak it the way we live it – with optimism, passion, gratitude, and the ability to refrain from taking ourselves too seriously. When our eyes are open to possibilities, we can always find a way to bring these things onto the stage and to muster enthusiasm. Make a list of the things you love. Start each entry with, “I love it when…” or, “I love…” Then, before stepping up to the microphone or the podium, take time to read the list to yourself. Or memorize part of it and run it back and forth in your head before you step up to speak. Fill yourself with love and the fear will roll over and shove off!