Monday Mornings with Madison

Overcoming Most People’s Biggest Fear: Speaking in Public

Word Count:  1,421 

Estimated Read Time: 6  min.

Part 1 – Preparing to Speak

Forget heights, planes and confined spaces.  Snakes, spiders and frogs move over.  Most people’s biggest fear is talking in public.  Standing up and speaking in front of a group of strangers is downright paralyzing to a great many people.  Giving a speech.  Teaching a class.  Addressing a group at a social gathering.  For many, these are all scenarios that cause some people to complete freeze.  Perhaps that is why those who are particularly good at it can make a living doing it.  Gifted motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins, Les Brown, Zig Ziglar, Dr. Wayne Dyer and Jim Rohn earn seven figure salaries annually and their primary job is to speak in public.

Speaking to dignitaries and groups is an essential skill for certain professions, such as teachers, trial lawyers, news reporters, politicians and PR spokespeople.  But speaking to groups is actually an increasingly important skill for people in most any profession.  Web conferencing, social media groups and other technologies have made speaking to groups more commonplace and the ability to be able to speak to groups – large and small — more necessary.  Yet, the fear of public speaking plagues many today.  Even incredibly talented media icons were once intimidated to speak to famous and powerful people as well as to groups.  For example, Barbara Walters was once a shy, introverted person.  But she overcame her natural shyness and went on to become arguably one of the world greatest media reporters ever, having interviewed hundreds of business tycoons, royalty, political leaders, celebrities and religious leaders around the world.  If she can do it, anyone can.  Here are some tips.

Public Speaking is Beneficial

Practically every activity of our lives involves communication of one sort or another.  But it is through speaking that we assert our distinctiveness from all other forms of life.  If we are unable to say clearly what we mean, either because of nervousness, timidity or foggy thought processes, our personality and intentions are blocked, dimmed and misunderstood.   And when we do that with key people or groups of people, our intelligence and value might be questioned, at best, or diminished, at worst.  The ability to speak to others with authority, clarity, and confidence is valuable to everyone socially and invaluable to professionals.  And, it is not only beneficial socially and professionally, it is also good physically and mentally.

Dr. David Allman, a former president of the American Medical Association, felt the benefit of public speaking go beyond professional and social.  He said that speaking publicly is like writing a prescription that no drugstore can fill.  Allman said “Try your best to develop an ability to let others look into your head and heart.  Learn to make your thoughts, your ideas, clear to others individually, in groups and in public.  You will find, as you improve in your efforts to do this, that you – your real self – are making an impression, an impact, on people such as you never made before.   You reap a double benefit from this prescription.  Your self-confidence strengthens as you learn to speak to others, and your whole personality grows warmer.  This means you are better off emotionally, and thus physically.  Public speaking in our modern world is for everybody, men and women, young and elderly….  Speak when you can, to a few or to many.  You will do it better and better; and you will feel a buoyancy of spirit, a sense of being a whole, rounded person such as you have never felt before.”

Public Speaking is a Skill, not an Aptitude

According to Dale Carnegie, whose courses on effective speaking circle the globe, “Business, social and personal satisfaction depend heavily upon our ability to communicate clearly to other what we are, what we desire and what we believe.”  However, Carnegie approached public speaking not as a fine art requiring special talents and aptitude, but as a skill which any normally intelligent person could acquire and develop at will.  So while public speaking comes more easily to some, it is absolutely “learnable” by all.  And like all skills, improvement comes through practice.  As Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book The Outliers, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice of any skill to achieve mastery.  Certainly, all the greatest public speakers achieved mastery through sheer practice.  But first, it takes preparation.

With all Skills, Preparation is Key

There are things that a person can do to in advance of speaking in public that can turn even the most petrified novice into a smooth orator.

1. Believe It

Any person can become a skilled public speaker.  Step one is believing that it can be done.  The fear of public speaking can be conquered.  It’s that simple and that hard.  Those who believe that they cannot become confident and effective public speakers will not.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  To quote a cliché, “To achieve it, you must believe it.”

2.  Picture It

There is one single factor, more than any other, which contributes to a person’s ability to master public speaking.  It is focusing on that goal.  Sure, a person must follow directions and do the work to become skilled.  But that must be driven by a desire to become a successful speaker.  The person must project himself into the future and see the vision, and then work toward making that projection a reality.  To do that, concentrate attention on what self-confidence and the ability to speak more effectively can mean socially and professionally.  Consider the friends it will bring.  Consider the influence and power that comes with eloquent speaking.  Consider the leadership opportunities it can deliver.  Focus on that and let that desire drive all action.  As another common saying goes, “If you can see it, you can be it.”

William James, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, once wrote, “In almost any subject, your passion for the subject will save you.  If you wish to be good, you will be good…  You must really wish for this exclusively and not wish for a hundred other incompatible things just as strongly.  If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it.”  That passion must then be channeled into a vision of what that looks like.

A person must picture himself before an audience he is about to address.  He (or she) must see himself stepping forward with confidence.  He must hear the hush fall upon the audience as he is about to begin.  He must envision the attentive absorption of the room as he hits upon point after point.  He must feel the warmth of the applause as he leaves the platform.  He must imagine the words of appreciation with which individual members of the audience greet him after the meeting.  He must look forward to the inner satisfaction and thrill that comes with speaking in public successfully.

3.  Practice It

Carnegie’s most famous course on public speaking has evolved over the century it has been taught, but one feature of the course remains unchanged.   Every member of every class must get up once, and in the majority of classes twice, and give a talk before the class.   Those who want to speed up the process of proficiency attends three to four classes a week.  Why?  Because no one can learn to speak in pubic without speaking in public, just as no one can learn to swim without getting in the water and swimming.  Reading about it is not enough.  The tips here are just that, tips.  But to become a good public speaker, it takes practice.

To make a person’s weakest point his strongest quality requires facing the issue head on.  Debate clubs.  Speaking classes.  Teaching small groups.  To learn to speak in public, a person must join organizations and volunteer for offices that will require speaking to a group, even if it is a very small group.  At department meetings, he must speak up.  At public meetings, he must voice a viewpoint even if it is only to second a motion.  These are all small, baby steps to being able to speak at larger, more significant moments and events.   There is scarcely a single business, community, political, professional or neighborhood activity that does not provide an opportunity to step forward and be heard.  Take advantage of every challenge.   Learning this skill must be viewed with a “conquering spirit.”

Of course, all of this practice requires confidence.  More about how to develop that confidence and more tips on how to prepare to speak in public next week.  Don’t miss it.

Quote of the Week

“Too many people spend too much time trying to perfect something before they actually do it.  Instead of waiting for perfection, run with what you got, and fix it along the way.” Paul Arden


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

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