Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking, Or Be Judged

Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking, Or Be Judged

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2003

Erik is out of the office this week, and just finished speaking at a seminar last week, so we are pulling out an old column from 2003 about public speaking.

What is it about public speaking that scares the bejeezus out of some people?

Public speaking is considered such a horrible, terrible, awful ordeal that it frightens people more than snakes, spiders, or the words "President Paris Hilton."

According to the Book of Lists, more people cite public speaking as their worst fear, more than any other stressful event including death. Or as we speech teachers like to joke, people would rather die than give a speech.

Speech teachers have the sense of humor of a can of salmon.

So what's wrong with public speaking? Why can people talk to two friends about any topic for hours on end without the slightest nervous twitch, but they can't speak to more than five people without wetting their pants?

I used to teach public speaking at our area community college, and at the start of every semester, I ask my students what scares them about it. The most frequent answers were usually "I'm afraid I'll be laughed at" or "I don't want to look stupid." So I helped them become desensitized to their fears by making them wear silly wigs while the rest of the class laughs at them.

Actually, we would spend the first class doing exercises to help them see how easy public speaking can be. The silly wigs and laughter are part of the final exam.

I'm actually one of those rare individuals who enjoys public speaking. I love being the center of attention, and having people hang on my every word. Short of running into a crowded restaurant and shouting, "Hey everyone, look at me!" public speaking is the best way to get this kind of attention. I'm what non-public speakers call "an outgoing personality," "an attention seeker," or "a nerd."

But you don't have to take a class to conquer this fear. I belonged to an organization that helps people overcome their fears and improve their speaking skills. Toastmasters International is a worldwide organization dedicated to the fine art of lightly scorching bread and then describing it to fellow toast lovers. Other discussion topics range from the best brands of toasters, butter versus margarine, and whether to use pre-sliced bread or to slice your own.

Actually, Toastmasters speeches will cover a wide range of topics, and will almost never discuss burned bread.

"So what can public speaking do for me?" you're asking yourself quietly, because there are more than three people nearby.

Lots of things. It boosts your self-confidence. It can enhance your communication skills. It can help you shout "Fire!" in a burning building without stammering or blushing furiously.

It can even make you world famous, like Masanam Venu from India. He is currently the world record holder for longest public speaker. He spoke for 51-and-a-half hours in January 2003 on the fundamentals of chemistry. By an amazing coincidence, everyone in attendance also shattered the world's record for longest boredom-induced slumber with an amazing 51-hour-and-25-minute performance.

The previous record was held by 15-year-old American high school student Bridget Garvey, who spoke for 47 hours and 39 minutes about how she heard from Stephanie that Alex broke up with Stacy and started going out with Heather and now Stacy is going out with some creep named Garrett but Stacy and Alex danced together at the dance last weekend and oh my God I think they may get back together but they say they're not and do you think I would look good with bangs?

But you don't have to be world-famous. You don't even have to make a career out of public speaking. You may only use the skill a few times in your life, but wouldn't it be nice to know how?

I know, you've got a variety of reasons to avoid it. Maybe you don't like feeling like they're being judged. Or you're afraid people won't like you. Or you may just be one of those people who don't like all those other people watching you. Staring at you. Studying you under their steely gaze. Finding every fault, every flaw, until the pressure becomes too much. Then you finally crack and run screaming from the—sorry. That doesn't really happen. Much.

So if you ever find that you have to give a speech, presentation, or even just a toast to a friend, just relax. Remember, your audience wants you to succeed. They'll forgive your little flubs and verbal mixups. They understand your nervousness, because they've felt it too.

Besides, I'm sure no one even noticed your fly was open.

Photo: HelloLeticia from my presentation at BlogIndiana 2008. Doug Karr calls that my "I have an orange" move.

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