For years I believed that Speaking to a Group of people was the number one human fear – well ahead of fear of death. This belief has been confirmed by countless studies over the years listing public speaking at or near the top of the list of human fears… but the truth is that not many people are afraid of speaking in public.
Now that may come as a bit of a shock to you if every time you stand up to speak all the saliva in your mouth rushes to your hand, your hearth starts pounding and there is an instant blood rush to or away from your face. Those are very real responses to speaking that impact millions of people but it is not a fear of speaking that causes it, so if you try to cure fear of speaking in public the chances are it will fail because you are addressing the wrong fear.
What we humans fear more than anything else is “making a fool of ourselves.”
We fear embarrassing ourselves in front of friends, work colleagues and other people that matter in our lives, of undermining our credibility, of causing people to talk about us behind dour backs and unfortunately we have powerful emotional memories of just that level of embarrassment happening in our past.
Most of us do have past experiences of faltering, stuttering, badly prepared public speaking disasters and these anchored memories may be dramatically recalled and reinforced every time we have to speak in public. However our past memories are not necessarily about speaking in public.
Our emotional anchors link us to memories of being embarrassed by enthusiastic parents or grandparents in front of their friends, stammering through reading aloud in school to giggles and derision and forgetting our lines in a school play. With no positive experiences to balance this out, the fear can reach phobic levels where often some form of therapeutic help is necessary.
What are the consequences of this fear?
This fear leads us to a conclusion that we are “not good enough.” People start to develop a whole series of alibis to avoid the trauma of speaking in public. “I’ve nothing valuable to say,” or “My life is pretty boring,” or “I don’t have an experience in this,” or “It’s all been said already,” etc. Those verbal and internal scripts that constantly put us down are not true, they are simply a survival mechanism to prevent us being put into a position of being embarrassed.
Unfortunately one of the worst side effects of this process is that people “keep their heads down” at work, disempowering themselves by never speaking out, avoiding promotion and therefore sabotaging their careers. This in turn leads to further self sabotage and negative scripts to justify not progressing at work and in life. It is terrible vicious circle all build on the fear of embarrassment.
How do you overcome this Fear?
There is no shortage of advice on overcoming fear of speaking but my concern is that often this advice makes the problem worse. “Be well prepared and to practice” you will hear. Nothing wrong in principle but follow that advice alone and you will increase the fear instead of taking it away, because it doesn’t overcome the real fear that you are going to make a fool of yourself.
The key to overcoming fear of public speaking is in the content of the speech not the delivery.
1. Speak from Experience
The number one rule of Public Speaking is to speak from experience; speak on a topic about which you have earned the right to speak. If you speak about something you know well, if you speak on a topic about which you feel passionate then you are going to feel far more confident. Make a list of all the things you have experience in. Your passions, your achievements, your lessons in life, your work experience, your education and training, your hobbies and interests, your family and travel experiences etc.
2. Become a Storyteller
Develop stories about your experiences in life and in work. Start getting into the habit of telling stories to friends and colleagues socially or at work. Listen to any professional speaker and you will notice that their speeches are filled with stories. Stories are easy for us to remember as speakers and easy for the audience to remember. Write out your best stories making sure they all have a clear message. Buy some books of short stories and fables and learn how the masters construct entertaining stories.
3. Give your Speech a Clear Purpose
When you start writing your speech, begin with a clear and definite purpose. Why are you delivering this speech? What exactly do you want to achieve with it? What are the audience expecting from it? The audience will not be able to remember more than one clear message especially if there are lots of other speeches. Keep your speech very focused and write out your purpose in a single sentence as your primary message. State up front the purpose so that the audience knows what to expect and finish with the purpose and a call to action – what do you want the audience to do now. Give them a clear reason for having listened to you. The by product of this is that you are seen to be a leader. All great speeches have a clear and definite purpose, so should yours.
4. Stick to Three or Four Supporting Points
The biggest mistake people make is to ramble on and on with far too much content. One main message – your purpose – supported by three or four points all illustrated by interesting facts and stories and you have a winning speech. It’s not too much to remember and it’s easy for the audience to recall. They will thank you for the clarity and you will overcome your fear because it is easy to remember and deliver. People do not need to hear everything you know, give them the key points and let them come to you for more detail.