Researching various online lists of common fears I am overwhelmed by how fraught the world is for so many people. Fears that come up over and over again are flying, falling, dogs, dentists, spiders, snakes, heights, germs, needles and death. Some common adult dreads are vague, if scary nonetheless—fears of disappointment, of intimacy, of the unknown. I can empathize with many, although I share few of them. What really surprised me was one common to many lists gathered by various sociological and psychological researchers—the fear of speaking in public.
Do you suppose this stems back to school days? Being called on when one didn’t have any idea of the answer was embarrassing, to say the least, and made worse when having to stand up and recite or asked to come to the front of the class and write on the boards. Personally, I’ve had a way with words since my earliest childhood. I was a good student and when I didn’t know an answer I could usually b.s. my way through a response.
For most of my professional life I have spoken in public under various circumstances. I have been on TV many times and had my own radio show, taught classes and lectured to large groups. I’ve been trying to come up with what factors made it easier, or at least less stressful, and what made it worse. What follows are some ideas and observations.
1. Know your own strengths and style. If you feel better memorizing what you are going to say, by all means do it. Practice into a recorder or in front of a mirror if you feel that helps you feel prepared. Write down key words or points so you won’t “go blank”. I prefer to have a general idea of my emphases and take the temperature of my audience, so to speak, when I face them. I don’t like to rehearse and enjoy the challenge of winging it according to what I sense. When all else might fail I rely on questions from the audience to direct my responses. You can too. If your hands tend to shake don’t hold papers that will rattle; try cards instead. And positively nothing is as dull as reading from a prepared script, no matter how well written.
2. Be as physically comfortable as you can. Wear an outfit in which you know you look and feel good to avoid fidgeting with your clothing. Nothing looks worse than frequent tugs at your neckline or jacket or fiddling with jewelry. Make sure your shoes are comfortable if you will be standing throughout your presentation and that water, a chair, table or lectern on which to place your notes is nearby if you think you might need them. Adjust your microphone before you begin so that you can then forget about it.
3. Employ some speakers’ tricks. I remember hearing that imagining your audience naked was one way of feeling less intimidated but when I was asked to give a lecture at a clothing optional event I was horrified at the thought of it actually happening. My lecture turned out to be indoors in an air conditioned hall, thank goodness. One speakers’ aid that does work for me is finding a friendly face in the audience and aiming what you have to say to her or him. Someone who nods in agreement with what you’re saying is very reassuring.
4. Behave professionally. No need to announce to all that you are nervous, if you are. Fake it, if need be. Smile. Breathe. Know exactly how much time you have and stay within those limits. Take occasional pauses to check that your audience is with you. If people are looking at their watches or electronic devices either say something fascinating, funny, or quickly wrap it up.
5. Go easy on yourself. Life is too short to cause yourself unnecessary stress. If speaking in public is extremely uncomfortable for you avoid doing it if at all possible. If your work demands it consider taking some professional coaching so that you can learn to be more at ease in these circumstances. Once you are, it actually can be fun. Hearing the applause when you are finished, along with the relief that you are, can be quite heady stuff.