Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Who's Afraid of Public Speaking: Everyone!

by CWK

I taught a short course on public speaking several years ago, and started developing these notes during that course. Me teaching public speaking: this is ironic since I struggled for many years with a morbid terror of public speaking myself. This is what I learned about overcoming the fear of public speaking in my own life, and in that course.


If polls are to be believed, the # 1 fear of Americans is public speaking. This means many Americans fear public speaking more than natural disasters, pestilence, war, and death. As terrible as those things are, there is something about public speaking that makes it even more unthinkable, traumatic, and scary... so, you are not alone.


OK, if you are reading this you are probably at least in your teen years. All the same, we would all be better off if we started speaking in public  as soon as we could walk and talk. Then, it wouldn't be strange and scary when we had to stand up in front of a crowd.

The point here is: the sooner (and younger) we start, the better.


Part of what makes public speaking so scary is the unknown. How will people respond to me? What will they think of me? What if I mess up? What will I say?

We can't deal with every unknown, but we can deal with one of them: what will I say?

You should know EXACTLY what you will say. You should work hard on crafting your speech, from the first to last sentence. Then, you should have your speech memorized. To memorize it, you will need to practice it. So practice your speech at least 5 times: in front of a mirror, friend, dog, or cat.

A Chinese proverb applies, "For the man who is prepared, there is no emergency."

If you are well prepared you will cancel at least ONE of the unknowns. Furthermore, if you are prepared, and have your material mastered, you will have CONFIDENCE that you know what you are talking about.


Remember the first time you road a bike? It was awkward, right? Remember the first time you drove? You were trying to remember all the rules, right? How did you overcome the awkwardness? You kept at it. You practiced.

You can count on awkwardness the first few times you speak in public. This is normal. Keep practicing.

The MORE you speak in public the MORE confident you will become. So, take every opportunity you can get to speak in public. The more afraid you are, the more you NEED to practice.


Practice is also important because words sound different than they read.  Anyone who has done much public speaking knows what I mean. Sometimes, you will carefully craft a sentence, and it LOOKS so powerful on paper. Then, when you give your speech, it SOUNDS lame. Or, something LOOKS funny on paper, but when you actually SAY it, no one laughs.

The point is: you will need to get a feel for how good speaking is different from good writing. You need to LISTEN to your speech before you WRITE it (at least in the final form).


You will especially want to practice pronunciation of strange, unfamiliar words. Once again, this will increase your confidence. It will also mean that you are less likely to mispronounce things, become embarrassed, and start crying.

Example: The word 'raconteur' looks like a fairly easy word to pronounce on paper, but when it is being spoken, in public, by trembling lips, it may come out 'racks on deer.'

Practice the intro again, and again, and again because:
1) If you are nervous, the introduction will be especially tough.
2) If you do well in the introduction, you will have confidence for the rest of your speech.
3) The introduction is where you will either win or lose your audience.


Courage is not bold recklessness. Rather, as Aristotle pointed out, it is the golden mean between fear and recklessness. So, find that place, somewhere between fear and recklessness, where you can face your speech with courage.

You may say, "I don't feel courageous!"

But, I am not advising you what to feel, but what to do. If we act brave, then bravery will follow.

Some important reminders about courage:

Aristotle: Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

Goethe: If you are bold, mysterious forces will come to your aid.

Shakespeare: Screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail.

Teddy Roosevelt: It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Winston Churchill: Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.

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