You will benefit at the beginning of your speech if you free yourself from two misconceptions that can result in a fear of public speaking:
- Effective speakers are born, not made; it is hopeless to try being one if you were not gifted with a God-given ability.
- For most people, fear and nervousness are impossible to overcome; it is useless to even try.
Let’s take a look at each of these false assumptions.
Are good speakers born and not made?
You don’t actually believe this, or you wouldn’t be reading this post. Everyone is born a baby, and babies can’t speak. The “born speaker” myth is an alibi for not attempting. People who believe it simply want to save their face from the disgrace speech blunder may bring. It is a fact that practice makes perfect.
A speaker is one who speaks to others for a reason. When you were two or three years old and first said, “Mummy, I need a glass of water,” you were making a speech. Actually you’ve been making speeches from the time you could talk; the difference is that you didn’t treat it then as what you now dreadfully call “speech.”
You can become a good speaker if you have these tools:
- A voice.
- Basic language construction: i.e., a working vocabulary and grammar.
- Something to say.
- A need to express your ideas to others.
You have been using these tools for years. You have been saying something to others, several times everyday, and under these conditions, you call it “conversation.” Conversation is talking to a few. Public speaking is, essentially, talking to a larger group.
Your audience is merely a group of individuals. You can talk easily with one or two individuals. So just think of public speaking as talking to individuals all at the same time – or talking to the group as to one person.
Can you conquer fear?
There are three solutions to help you reduce fear and make it work for rather than against you:
1. Accept it as nature’s way of helping you.
You don’t need to be terrified of fear when you accept it as nature’s way of protecting you and helping you. Recognise it. Don’t condemn yourself for having it. We all feel fear. Whether your fear stems from the thought of standing alone by yourself on stage before hundreds of people, or even from the thought of getting upstage to speak, keep in mind that you are responding normally.
Athletes are nervous before an important competition; musicians tremble before a concert; performers experience stage fright. Seasoned speakers never get rid of apprehension before speaking, nor do they want to. An experienced actor once said: “I used to have butterflies in my stomach every time I stand in front of an audience. Now that I know how to make them work for me, they fly in formation.”
Knowing that you are subject to a normal and common human response, you can drive out the strongest factor contributing to your fear: You can stop condemning yourself for being unusual.
Psychologists tell us that fear is not the real obstacle. We feel awkward or ineffective because we think fear is improper. It is not fear itself but your feeling about it that disappoints you. Franklin Roosevelt’s note on the speech of Henry Thoreau sums it up: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” As soon as you know this and recognise it, you are on your way to self-mastery.
Fear is nature’s way of preparing you for danger, real or fancied. When you face a new or different circumstance, or when many are watching you and you don’t want to mess up, nature does something great to help you, if you recognise the help rather than being disappointed by it. Nature adds the adrenaline in your bloodstream. It speeds up your pulse and your responses. It increases your blood pressure to make you more alert. It provides you with the extra energy you need for doing your best. Without the anxiety there would be no extra effort. Identify fear as a friend. Recognise it and use it well.
2. Analyse your fear.
Your next step in mastering fear is easy and effortless. Analyse your type of fear. Fear is a tool for protection. What are you protecting? You are worried about your self-esteem. In public speaking there are only three dangers to self-esteem:
- Fear of yourself – fear of performing poorly or not pleasing your self-esteem.
- Fear of your audience – fear they may tease or laugh at you.
- Fear of your material – fear you have nothing sensible to say or you are not well prepared.
Fear of yourself (a) and fear of your audience (b) are very much connected. It is possible to be pleasing yourself while failing to satisfy your audience. Aiming for audience approval is often a better alternative because, if you succeed, you are in fact also pleasing yourself.
But in aspiring to satisfy your audience you must never compromise your message. Sometimes you may have to give a message to people you know are particularly opposed to it. This calls for courage. Don’t fear to disagree. Good speakers have done so and have proudly walked off the stage successfully. Honest beliefs equip a speaker and give force to the speech.
3. Make use of what you have learned.
You now know that fear, nature’s secret weapon, can actually help you succeed. You found you were not really afraid of fear but of yourself, your audience, and your material. Now, use your knowledge. Here’s how you can:
- Hide your negative feelings from others. If you lack self-confidence when public speaking, hide it. Letting the audience know it won’t help you in any way. Never discuss it. This will just make you feel worse. Act confidently. It will rub off on you. You will look the way you feel. Ever heard of the scared boy who walked past the cemetery one night? As long as he walked casually and whistled merrily he was all right. But when he walked faster, he could not refuse the temptation to run; and when he ran, terror took over.
Don’t give in. Stay calm and relaxed. Enjoy your talk and your audience.
- Assess your condition reasonably. Think of the reasons why you were called to speak. Among other possible speakers, you were chosen. Whoever asked you had confidence in you, or you would not have been chosen.
You are thought of as a competent, good speaker. And you know your topic. You know more about it than your listeners do.
Your assessment reveals that you are prepared to do well and that you have the benefit over your listeners. When you accept this, your confidence will show to your audience. It will make them believe in you and in your speech.
- Assess your audience reasonably. They want you to do well. Listeners suffer along with a speaker who is having difficulty delivering, and they do not enjoy suffering. They would much rather react and criticise; that would give them a good time. So consider your audience rather than yourself. Win their interest, and you will be more confident, and everybody will be happy.
Another way of putting this: Focus on a good message and speech delivery. You will make the audience happy with this and you will succeed in your mission. Do the first well, and the second will follow.
- Assess your material reasonably. Fear of speech material is the easiest to conquer since the solution is simple: knowledge and preparation. Knowledge and preparation dispel fear, but by themselves they do not automatically assure the delivery of a successful speech.
A good start is when you recognise you don’t need to be afraid – of yourself, your audience, or your material. And as you succeed in making speeches, you will soon say, “I can do it because I have done it often.”