Public Speaking

Bill Abbate

Would you rather die than speak in front of a large group? Many claim they fear public speaking more than death itself. If you dread the very thought of speaking in public, this article is for you!

Most of us are familiar with the claim that the fear of public speaking can be overwhelming. Psychology Today has written a good amount on the subject as found in this article - Thing We Fear More Than Death.

It was certainly true for me as a young man in my twenties! I was deathly afraid of public speaking. The first time I spoke to a group, I was so weak in the knees I would have collapsed if there had not been a lectern to lean on. I recall sweating profusely and wondering what was wrong with me. I had not experienced such fear before, including during my time in the military.

I eventually overcame the fear and have since spoken to thousands of people in numerous meetings, associations, and organizations. If I had only known a few simple things, I could have overcome this fear much sooner. Let's look at some of the lessons that helped release me from this fear and set me free!

Training, learning, and teaching

The call to speak came more often as I rose through the ranks. I approached my employer and convinced them to pay more than $700 (about $2,000 today) for a Dale Carnegie course on "Human Relations and Public Speaking" in the mid-1980s.

While the course helped me tremendously, the desire to continue learning put me over the top. I read more books adding to what I learned in the Dale Carnegie course and began helping others sharpen their skills. They say the best way to learn is to teach, which is certainly true for me.

During this time, I uncovered three critical lessons to calm my fear when speaking to a group, regardless of size. The first was preparation.

"Best way to conquer stage fright is to know what you're talking about." Michael H. Mescon (1931-2017)

Preparation

Have you ever thought that some people are lucky because they are great public speakers? If they are lucky, where does the luck come from – genetics, school, practice, or something else?

While practice is always a good thing, the secret to being lucky is one thing for the vast majority of us. Preparation!

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Seneca (4 BC-65 AD)

Knowing your subject well is crucial to public speaking. Learn the topic so well you can practically do the talk in your sleep. The secret to this is preparation, preparation, and more preparation. Whenever I do not prepare, the old fears can return.

As with anything in life, the better you know the subject, the more confidence you will show in front of a group. If you do not know the subject and attempt to speak about it, be prepared for the consequences. When you speak to a group of people, they see you as an authority on the subject. If you are not, become one, or make it clear you are not!

I find it best to know my subject inside out, upside down, and sideways. This enables me to have real confidence and speak with authority to any group, especially larger groups of hundreds of people. As the old saying goes,

"You can't swim in a puddle - you need a pool of knowledge deep enough not to drown but to learn freestyle!"

The best way to prepare is to learn as much as possible about the subject, then rehearse to the point you could put a few keywords outlining the talk on a 3x5 card. In preparation, I would take this 3x5 card with me on stage. While I rarely pulled it out of my pocket, it contained just enough information to keep me on track if I did.

Early on, I rehearsed in front of a mirror. This is not as easy as you think! There is something about seeing yourself speak that almost makes you feel like you are in front of an audience. I will never forget the anxiousness that came over me when I started doing this.

I would also record and video the entire talk and listen to or watch it. When you begin doing this, you may find, as I did, it to be an uncomfortable and unnerving experience.

There is no doubt in my mind that using that mirror and recording myself on tape and video made a huge improvement in my ability to speak in front of a group in a far more calm and confident way.

Years ago, I heard it said if you listen to a speech or talk six times, you internalize it. In other words, it becomes part of you and your thinking. Without question, I had it down pat by the sixth time I practiced, without fail.

Over time the disciplines I practiced paid off tremendously, and I was able to ease up on some of them and still do very well.

"Grasp the subject, the words will follow." – Cato The Elder (234-139 BC)

The audience is on your side

The second lesson I learned about public speaking was that the audience is friendly! Have you ever asked yourself, "I wonder if they will screw up and fail?" I never have and know no one that would admit to such a thing.

If people take time out of their busy lives to listen to you speak to a group, they are there for their benefit more than yours. They want useful information or insights and do not wish you harm. They want you to succeed, not just for yourself, but for them!

If you come across as nervous, they likely feel for you and still want you to succeed anyway. So long as you put forth honest effort in preparing, no one will find fault with you. Over the years, I have found people wanted me to succeed, providing them with beneficial information. They would applaud 99.9% of the time, regardless of my performance. When you understand this you will want to prepare well to give them as much value as possible.

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Know yourself

The final lesson that helped me enormously when I started speaking in public was getting to know myself better. As I learned more about self-limiting and self-empowering beliefs, everything about me began to change. I realized the major cause of my fear was a younger part of myself trying to protect me from failing.

It happened when I was about seven years old. I was in a school play and tripped going on stage. The entire world saw me (at least my world at the time). My family, classmates, teachers, and everyone else saw my trip. Being a shy introvert, I was embarrassed for no reason other than how I saw myself and thought at the time. This 7-year-old Bill Abbate's little incident was so traumatic in my young mind; it affected me for years.

That experience sounds silly now, but many of us have been affected by a younger part of ourselves in similar ways. I finally realized this 7-year-old part of me was simply trying to protect me from embarrassing myself again. Once I exposed it, I learned to thank the 7-year-old in me when I would get nervous and tell him I had it handled. As I spoke to audiances more and more frequently, I found the fear lessened greatly, and the good experiences far outweighed the bad. I had finally conquered that dreaded terror!

"Always be yourself and have faith in yourself." Bruce Lee (1940-1973)

Final thoughts

There are many techniques and skills that can help you further master public speaking, but the lessons above will put you in a solid position to speak well to any size group.

You, too, can overcome the fear of public speaking. It takes some work, but the rewards will be absolutely worth it!

To summarize:

  • Read and learn all you can about public speaking. Take a class or course on the subject and join Toastmasters.
  • Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more.
  • Never forget the audience is on your side, and they want you to succeed.
  • Uncover the source of your fear by getting to know yourself better.

Nothing in my career propelled me to the highest levels in several organizations more than learning to speak in public with confidence. Find any opportunity you can to speak. Even volunteer if you must! There is no better training than practicing this art by doing it to strengthen who you are and who you are becoming.

Lastly, the nervous feeling may never leave completely, but you can bet it will subside significantly. It is good to have a tiny bit of fear as it keeps you sharp and ensures you do not become complacent. I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite writers to consider as you go forth and speak.

"There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars." Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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