One of the great secrets of Public Speaking

by Steve Evans | Blog

The Secret to Overcoming Fear

It’s been said that people fear public speaking more than death!  We’ve heard that statement hundreds of times and is usually quoted by someone trying to sell you a course or book on public speaking.  It’s just not true.  Most people believe this statement is based on information gathered in a survey done in 1973 by the Bruskin/Goldkin Agency. Nobody seems to know who participated in the survey or how it was conducted but somehow they extrapolated results that we hear about even today. It made quite an impression and led to a famous line by Jerry Seinfeld.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”  –  Jerry Seinfeld

It’s really an unfair comparison.  People fear public speaking because it’s conceivable they may actually be asked to speak in front of a group.  It could be a presentation at work, to talk in front of a club or organization, a toast at a wedding, etc. Just the thought of getting up and saying a few words makes people nervous. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be asked to die any time soon, at least I hope not. If they are asked to die, I’m sure the first thing they would do is stand up and try to talk their way out of it, forgetting all about any fear of speaking they may have had.
That said, public speaking is one of our major fears and most people feel like they’ve achieved something if they can get up in front of a group and utter a few words without passing out.

Maybe it’s not actually a fear of public speaking but a fear of public humiliation that’s the problem.  Maybe, they’re thinking things like,

“I’m not afraid of public speaking.  I’m afraid of looking like an idiot in front of my co-workers.”

“I’m not afraid of public speaking but I am afraid of humiliating myself by shaking, sweating and stammering in front of a group of strangers.”

Regardless of what you’re afraid of or where you are on the fear scale, how do you overcome it?  There is certainly no shortage of material out there about overcoming the fear of public speaking.  There are books, articles, blog posts, entire speech courses focusing on this topic.  Most of this information focuses on the speaker and various exercises the speaker can do to settle the nerves.  They recommend things like deep breathing, vigorous exercise, visualization and that old stand-by, imagine the audience naked.  This is all good stuff (maybe not the naked audience part) and it’s great to practice these things but they all focus on the speaker making the speaker quite self-conscious.

The first thing to realize is that fear is natural.  You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t afraid.  We’re hard-wired to react this way.  Speaking in public triggers the “Fight or Flight” mechanism which resides deep in our reptilian brain and we all know how it feels.

So, once you realize that it’s only natural to feel this way, what do you do about it?  The best advice I’ve heard on the subject is from Bill Hoogterp when I attended his excellent course, Own the Room and read his book Your Perfect Presentation.

Bill’s advice (paraphrasing here): Get over yourself!  It’s not about you.  It’s all about the audience and your content.  Are you nervous?  Hands shaking?  Bad hair day? Pants unzipped?  Who cares? It’s not about you, it’s always about the audience and your content. When you are thinking about yourself you are “self-conscious”.  When you focus on your content and how it can help your audience, you become what you should be, “content and audience conscious”. Actors refer to this as “getting out of your head” which means concentrating on the material and the scene you’re creating and not thinking about yourself.

Focus on your content and your audience and see how quickly the nerves disappear.  This is one of the great secrets of being a great public speaker:                It’s not about you. It’s all about your content and your audience.
Steve Evans, Speech Enthusiast



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