Monday Mornings with Madison

Overcoming Most People’s Biggest Fear: Speaking in Public, Part 2

Word Count:  1,619 

Estimated Read Time: 6  min.

Preparing to Speak

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”  Fear is the great conqueror.  Fear is a paralyzing and malevolent force that lies, cheats and steals.  Fear of speaking in public – which is one of the most common but also one of the most undermining fears to have — whispers lies in the mind of a person, robbing him (or her) of the ability to share ideas, influence decisions, connect with others and lead groups.  By keeping a person silent, fear of public speaking steals away achievements, promotions, and raises.  Fear of speaking in public cheats a person from reaching his fullest potential and making his greatest contributions to the world.  It not only robs him of success, it also robs others of his voice and wisdom.  Fear of speaking in public is a prison of a person’s own making.

It’s also been said that the truth can set one free. The truth is that people who fear speaking in public are not alone.  College surveys indicate that 80-90% of all students suffer from stage fright at the beginning of any course that involves public speaking.  Just knowing they aren’t alone in feeling afraid to speak to groups helps.   It is also true that a certain amount of stage fright can be useful.  It pumps adrenaline into the body.  A manageable amount of that adrenaline and stimulation helps the mind think faster, speak more fluently and communicate with greater intensity than normal.  Here’s another truth.  Most professional speakers – even the very best ones — never completely lose all of their stage fright.  Most professional speakers usually have a small amount of stage fright before they start and for the first minute or two, and then they get past it and use that adrenaline to deliver a great presentation.  So it’s good to be a little afraid.  But here’s the most important truth of all about public speaking.  The main reason most people fear public speaking is simply because they are unaccustomed to speaking in public.  It’s normal to feel unsure and uneasy when learning anything new.  Riding a bike.  Being interviewed for a job.  Driving a car.  Public speaking is no different and no more difficult.  It just takes practice.  Knowing these truths should make it a bit easier to conquer the fear of public speaking.  But the very best way to overcome this fear is to properly prepare.

Preparing to Speak in Public

Few people are truly adept at extemporaneous speaking… that is, speaking in an impromptu way to a gathering.  No matter how bright, knowledgeable or eloquent the individual, most people cannot just get up in front of others and speak at length about a given topic in a way that is compelling, organized, clear and impactful.  Lack of preparation usually results in rambling and fumbling, or worse, boredom and tangents.  This type of delivery typically entails a person beginning without knowing what he is going to say and finishing without knowing what he actually did say.

To avoid this, there are some basic steps a person must take to properly prepare to speak to a small group or large audience.  The reason why preparation is so important is simple:  preparation breeds confidence.  Preparation casts out fear.  Only the prepared speaker is deserving of confidence.  What does preparation entail?

1.  Organize Ideas and Thoughts in Advance

Begin by assembling thoughts, ideas and convictions that come from personal, past experiences as well as outside sources.  Being very knowledgeable is a good first step.  True preparation is all about ruminating, stewing and even fussing over the topic at hand.  It’s about giving the idea a great deal of concentrated thought to extract the key points.  Write a few words that nail each point.  Put those various points on index cards and then arrange and rearrange them to find the best order to drive home the main ideas.  This is a process that, while not difficult, can be time-consuming and frustrating.  It’s a process that cannot be rushed.  That is why preparation for a talk requires advance notice.

2.  Immerse in the Topic

It’s not enough for a person to be able to speaking convincingly to others about a subject.  The person must believe it himself to be truly effective and engaging.  A belief in one’s cause or topic is an essential component of speaking in public.  Knowing the subject well, digging deep for its meaning, and understanding how the topic will help the audience to do better or be better helps the speaker become more connected to the information and thereby connect better with the audience.  Instead of just being a speaker armed with facts, the person must become a “missionary” seeking to win people to his cause.

3. Never Memorize a Speech Word-for-Word

If preparation is key, then it might follow that memorization is the ideal way to prepare. While it might seem logical to write out and commit to memory an entire speech, thus ensuring full and perfect preparation, that is exactly the WRONG thing to do.  Never write and then memorize a speech word-for-word.  Not only is this a terribly time-consuming, painful way to prepare, it literally kills the vitality and passion of a well-delivered talk.  It will likely sound mechanical and stiff. What’s worse is that there is a strong possibility that, due to stage fright or distractions, the person might very likely forget some or all of his speech… which is, for many, their worst nightmare realized.

Even truly gifted orators have made the initial mistake of writing and memorizing their speeches word-for-word.  Case in point.  Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain who led the British to victory during World War II, used to memorize his talks to Parliament.  Then, in one of those famous speeches, his mind went blank.  Why is a question that will remain unanswered forever, but he found himself speechless in front of the most important audiences of his job.  It was plainly obvious that he had forgotten what he was going to say and was deeply embarrassed.  After that, he never again memorized a speech.  Learn from Churchill’s mistake.  Instead, do as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once suggested.  “When I hear a man speak, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees,” said Lincoln.  The goal is to act natural and allow the excitement and passion of the ideas be expressed through words and body language.

4.  Rehearse

Instead of memorizing and delivering a speech word-for-word, rehearse a speech or presentation.  Rehearsal is about repetition, but not exact repetition.  It is about running through the points to find where to put emphasis and identify what points, if any, fall flat.  Rehearsing helps improve the delivery by increasing confidence without sucking it dry of the emotion that accompanies any good talk.

To understand the concept, consider a story that’s been told by a person over and over.  The person shares it once.  At first, it is more factual and to the point.  Then it is shared again.  With each telling, questions are asked and reactions are noted.  The story gets longer in some places and shorter in others.  Some points are explained in greater detail while others might get forgotten altogether.  That is exactly what rehearsing a talk should be like…. the refining of a good story.

To rehearse a talk, one need not even tell the person listening that it is a “rehearsal.”  Just share the talk as if sharing an unusual or recent experience.  See the person’s reactions and comments.  That will help refine the presentation.  Any talk or presentation should not be delivered without ample rehearsal first.

5.  Cast out any Doubts

Every speaker will have moments of self-doubt before teaching a class, speaking to a group or delivering a speech to an audience.  He will doubt if he is the best person to speak on the topic or if the topic is worthwhile.  He might doubt his own abilities.  Self-doubt will creep in, and only an inner pep talk can push it out.  At this point, the speaker must say to himself “I am the most qualified person to talk about this.  I am going to do my very best to share this information.”  Self-talk can boost confidence and quell any doubts (which is just a manifestation of fear).

6.  “Fake it ‘til You Make It”

Sometimes it is necessary to fake confidence until confidence materializes.  While we may not be able to fully control our emotions, we can control our actions.  A person preparing to speak in public should act confident even if not confident.  That means standing tall with head held high and shoulders back.  He must put on a smile and walk with a stride.  He must take a deep breath and walk briskly on stage.  He must look at the audience directly in the eyes.  To feel brave, one must first act bravely.  When this is kept up long enough, it changes from pretense to reality.

Many companies, such as General Motors, give speech training to their managers, supervisors and leaders.  That’s because they recognize that every supervisor is a teacher to a greater or lesser degree.  A supervisor is called upon daily to describe, inform, instruct, review and discuss topics with groups and departments.  Up the chain of command, public speaking is used in discussions, decision-making, problem-solving and policy-making.  The rules for effective public speaking – organizing an idea to be presented, choosing the right words, and delivering the message with enthusiasm –are directly applicable to leading and managing.  The skill of public speaking is useful in every stage of a person’s career.  Don’t fear it.  Master it.

Quote of the Week

“One important key to success is self-confidence.  An important key to self-confidence is preparation.” Arthur Ashe



© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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