Does Public Speaking Spook You? Six Strategies to Exorcise your Fears

No.2 Fear: Public Speaking!

As it’s Halloween week, when everyone’s thoughts turn to things that scare them, it seems topical to think about the fear that is number two on the list of common phobias – glossophobia, or fear of speaking in public.

I was reminded of this recently when I spoke to a delegate who shared that the thought of standing up and speaking in front of people was his absolute nightmare.  This gentleman was a senior manager and openly admitted that while he enjoyed his job, liked and trusted his colleagues, he would mentally freak at the thought of having to give a presentation or a speech in front of them.  An acquaintance who dreads public speaking described the fear as, “paralysing” or “petrifying”.  He didn’t necessarily mind explaining a point in front of a meeting group, but he froze the second he thought he had to stand up on stage in front of people. 

Are Great Speakers Born or Made?

When I did my PGCE, along with most of my cohort, I felt that the very best teachers were the ones who really came alive in front of a class.  Surprisingly, there were in fact very few of us who loved that particular element of teaching. We didn’t mind it but, given a choice, most of us preferred teaching to smaller groups away from standing in front of the class.  On a personal level, given my own career choice, it’s fair to say that speaking in front of a packed room isn’t something that bothers me. (If we were to be discussing ‘heights’ then that would be a different matter!)   As above, I don’t particularly relish the spotlight or thrive on the attention, and I am usually nervous before I start speaking. Once started though, I get into my flow and I enjoy it. I know at least two other professional trainers who say the same thing.  

So what does this suggest?  Well, maybe that very few people are natural born public speakers?  

So who was “Great”?

When asked to name great speakers, a quick straw poll of colleagues produces some familiar names; Martin Luther King , Barrack Obama, Adolf Hitler (bear with me with this one), and Oprah Winfrey.  There were also a few less obvious ones like Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, and Akala.  While the ‘obvious’ names are, well, obvious, the other names, such as Akala, are more of a natural reflection of someone’s age and political persuasion.

Hitler tends to make these lists because we are so familiar with film of him animatedly rousing the crowd into a frenzy at torchlit rallies.  While we may despise his message, it cannot be denied that his oratory had an incredible effect on the people in the audience. Curiously, unless we are fairly advanced German speakers, most of us in the UK cannot actually understand what Hitler is saying.  It is perhaps the German language itself which, to the English ear, sounds rousing and powerful – listen to German opera and you may think this too. As such, it’s tempting to wonder if the speeches would still sound so impressive had they been delivered in a different language.

Public speaking expert, Caroline Goyder, says that to be a great speaker there should be three things present.  These can be summarised as:

  •  Expertise – your audience needs to believe that you fully understand what are you are talking about.  Either you are a proven expert in the subject, or it is something you have personally experienced.
  • Passion – you have to be enthusiastic about your subject.  The audience needs to feel like you want to speak to them and share your knowledge.
  • Authenticity –  your audience has to feel that you believe what you are saying to them. We often see politicians criticised for being ‘shifty’ or more bluntly ‘outright lying’!  This happens when we don’t believe that they are being honest with us. They lack authenticity.

So to return to our list of great speakers, I have mentioned Martin Luther King in a previous blog article.  Why is is he, and in particular his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, consistently cited as one of the best examples of public speaking?  I think it is because it checks the three elements I have listed above. Dr King was both an African-American living with racism and also an academic so he was therefore an expert when he spoke about civil rights.  In that speech he references his own family and his own experiences which clearly demonstrates his authenticity. He believes what he is telling us. The passion goes without saying, and this is probably one of the most memorable elements of that speech.

Former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s speech denouncing terrorism at her party’s conference the morning after the Brighton Bombing is notable.  Again, it contains the three elements which Caroline Goyder says we need: it is authentic – the bomb was an attempt to assassinate the PM and her colleagues; it is passionate – she is clearly angry, disgusted, and no doubt frightened by what has just happened; and she is undoubtedly an expert by virtue of her political and personal experience of terrorism.

Six Strategies

So now we know what makes a great speech, how can we start using this ourselves? What if you’re still terrified of getting up on stage, or quaking at the thought of drying up in front of your work colleagues?  While very few of us will ever be called upon to make speeches like Mrs Thatcher’s or Dr King’s (or even Adolf Hitler’s). We can still employ some of Goyder’s elements for success.  Admittedly, it may seem a little challenging to evoke strong feelings when talking about, for example, health and safety at work but we can still try our best with what we have!

Here are some personal strategies which I try to use to deliver a great talk:

  • If you are really petrified of standing in front of a crowd of people is there another way you can deliver your talk?  Few managers will want you to be in a situation where you are terrified. Could the talk be delivered to smaller groups, around a table (so you don’t have to stand) or even via Zoom or Skype?
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare!!  If you do nothing else, please do this!  I cannot over-emphasise the need for proper preparation.  Sort out all your handouts, notes, and visuals (Powerpoint, Prezi, etc) the day before.
  • Think beforehand about what you want your audience to come away with in terms of knowledge or training.  Focus on two or three learning objectives and this will give you a framework around which to base your talk.
  • If you are really nervous, consider ditching the visuals completely.  They are just something else to potentially go wrong, and nervous speakers usually end up completely focussing on the screen and reading from the slides neither of which makes for a great learning or presenting experience.  Have some written bullet points or a mind-map in front of you instead.
  • Rehearse your timings in advance. Time often goes a lot quicker than you think it will once you start talking, so make sure you have extra material or an activity in reserve just in case.
  • Try not talk for more than 20 minutes at a time.  Break up the talk with an activity or coffee break.  If you’re nervous this will also help you break your talking time down into shorter chunks so it won’t feel like such an ordeal.  

Finally, it’s easier said than done but try and relax!  You’re well prepared (aren’t you?), and your audience want you to succeed.  Grit your teeth and, if all else fails, remember that, early in their careers, both Barrack Obama and Margaret Thatcher were each told that they wouldn’t make a good speaker! 

Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

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