We all get it at certain times, and to different degrees. When it comes to public speaking, self-consciousness and anxiety can weaken our presentations and make us miserable. In fact, feeling exposed and vulnerable defines public speaking in some people’s minds!
You’ve probably heard, for instance, that the general public fears speaking in public more than death. That's a famous finding from The Book of Lists, published in 1977. (Death itself came in at #7 in the survey.)
Or you may have heard the Jerry Seinfeld joke about delivering a eulogy. That one goes like this: in terms of the speech anxiety involved, if you go to a funeral you’d be better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
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Why Public Speaking Makes You Nervous
Whether you’re a novice presenter or a seasoned pro, public speaking likely gives you butterflies at least some of the time, or serves up much worse sensations. If it’s not outright fear, you may like to beat up on yourself, imagining everything that could go wrong. (Most of us seem to have a talent for that behavior!)
Fair enough: public speaking can give you the sense that you’re in a bright spotlight with nowhere to hide. But the truth is, it’s your vulnerability itself that alerts an audience to your honest desire to do the best you can while giving listeners something of value.
So isn’t it time you stopped being your own worst enemy? Below are four ways you can step off the Stage Fright Merry-Go-Round that’s actually making it difficult for you to succeed. Try these solutions to give public speaking performances that you’ll enjoy as much as your audience.
Lesson #1: Learn that it ain’t about you. In the Fear of Public Speaking coaching I conduct, my clients over the years have taught me more than I can say. One of those lessons couldn’t be simpler or more profound: anxious speakers need to be reminded that public speaking isn’t about them.
When you wrap yourself in a cocoon of self-awareness, it becomes impossible to reach—and reach out—to the people you’re there to influence. Audiences can intimidate you until you realize that all these listeners want is information they can use. Your job is to give it to them, out of your preparation, practice, and commitment. Your task isn't to morph into a world-class speaker.
Once you focus or re-focus on the message you’re there to share, you’ll feel a great burden being lifted from your shoulders. All the pointing fingers and hard judgmental stares you're imagining aren't there any more. Suddenly, your self-worth is no longer on the line! You and your audience will be sharing an experience you both can enjoy.
Lesson #2: Learn from your successes as well as your failures. Learned behavior explains what happens when you fail at something and “learn” that things are always going to play out this way. If you deliver a disastrous presentation to the management team, for instance, every time you speak to them you’ll anticipate the same awful scenario happening all over again.
It’s part of that infinite capacity we have of imagining bad things and making it difficult for ourselves. When I work with people who have this issue, I have them do a simple exercise: Write out at least a half-dozen scenarios when things went wonderfully well in a speech or presentation. After all, if bad situations teach you that things will repeat themselves, shouldn’t you make the same discovery following a favorable outcome? (Hint: your favorable presentations will almost certainly outweigh your unfavorable ones by a wide margin.) Here's more on how to overcome fear of public speaking through positive thinking.
Lesson #3: Learn how to forget yourself. As an actor, my speech coaching is always concerned in one way or another with theater-based performance skills. Actors are the best communicators in the world, and it’s worth learning from them not only about performance techniques, but how to persuade and move an audience.
A famous true theater story concerns the 20th century stage and film actor Laurence Olivier. The great British tragedian was playing Othello in Moscow, and on opening night was lauded by one of his fellow players for giving “the performance of a lifetime.” But Olivier was devastated. “I don’t know what I did,” was the essence of his response.
But that is precisely the reason Olivier not only triumphed, but was able to repeat his brilliant performance night after night. He became Othello on stage. Moment to moment as the life of the character unfolded, Olivier played it—and that’s all he did. For three hours, he was no longer Laurence Olivier, but Shakespeare’s Moor. Immerse yourself in your message and your audience’s need to hear it, and you too will disappear, along with all the self-consciousness that comes from monitoring your performance. Here are 5 acting techniques for greater stage presence in your own public speaking. And here's an actor's focusing technique to improve your public speaking.
Lesson #4: Learn from improvisational comedy. A recent coaching session with a client reminded me of the power of positive thinking—once again in theatrical terms. It got me thinking of improv comedy. If you’ve ever watched a show by an improv troupe, you’ve seen how every actor takes what he or she is given, and goes with it.
The person I was working with that day had a tendency to assume a negative outlook concerning any of the approaches we were discussing to counter her speaking fear. It was a classic glass-half-empty outlook; and it manifested itself through a repeated use of the word “But.”
“But I can’t do it that way, because . . . .” was the kind of thing she kept saying. Suddenly gaining an insight, I said, “Let’s change that ‘But’ to ‘And,’”—and it was improv comedy I was thinking of. When an actor says something on stage to an improv partner (usually based on what the audience has thrown their way), the second actor can’t refuse the scenario. In other words, no 'But's' allowed!
“Welcome home, sweetheart. How was your day?”
“Terrible. A Tyrannosaurus Rex chomped my left leg off.”
“Huh? — But I see your leg, still attached!” is a response that will smother the developing action of that scene in the cradle.
Instead, each actor has to go with what they’re given by the other, back and forth, so the story builds through the creativity and imagination of both audience and performers.
I wanted my client to accept the possibilities of her own speaking situations, to stay open to the positive outcomes she herself could help make happen. I explained the analogy with improvisational comedy; and by the end of our session, she was self-correcting each “But” as she spoke it.
That’s learning how to be your own best friend where stage fright is concerned!
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