The first time I gave an oral report, I was in middle school, and I almost lost consciousness.
I was an excellent student in the traditional sense. I got straight A’s, was well behaved and followed the rules. So why on earth was I being punished with the evilest, most fearful, loathsome act on the planet – public speaking?
In preparation for my report, I did all the requisite research and writing. I created notecards and did my best not to write every word I wanted to say on the cards but instead, use bullet points and key phrases. I felt as prepared as I thought I could be but still felt like I was going to throw up the night before my day of punishment.
My palms sweated, I had knots in my stomach, my throat was dry.
Other kids went up to the front of the class, gave their reports, but I didn’t hear a word they said. All I could think about was forgetting what I wanted to say.
It didn’t help that my English teacher was a total jerk. He was smug and didn’t give compliments let alone any helpful advice. As I walked past him to the front of the room, he kept his head down and twirled his thick, dark mustache in a most sinister way, red marking pen in hand.
I was doomed.
He barked at me to get started and my heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach. I have no idea what I said. I used my cards. I finished my report. I sat back down. But, to this day I don’t know what words came out of my mouth.
What I do know is I experienced the classic fear response of fight-or-flight activated by the sympathetic nervous system. I also joined the ranks of the approximately 80% of people who fear public speaking. It’s fascinating to me that as a social species, largely defined by our communication abilities, we would be so afraid to talk in front of one another.
What the hell went wrong in the evolutionary process?
Let’s first talk about what went right. In the days of early humans, our social tendencies were rewarded by protection from predators and a better chance of not starving. When ostracized from the group, for a variety of reasons, early humans (and other social animals alike) experienced not only social death but actual death.
Today we don’t need to worry about large predators, but the fear of ostracism still lives deep in our limbic system. Shunning, shame, isolation, and rejection all way heavy on our psyches. According to Glenn Croston in The Real Story of Risk, the fear of rejection is actually what’s behind the fear of public speaking.
Fear is interesting because no matter what the cause, the reaction is typically the same.
During the time of my first oral report, I also saw my first horror movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street. For a year or two (maybe three) I had massive anxiety when going to sleep because of that stupid movie. What seems crazy to me is no matter what triggers our fear, our brains sense and respond to those threats similarly. Speeding up of heart rate, slowing down of digestion, clamping/toning of muscles, tunnel vision and the fun stuff like sweaty palms, dry mouth, nausea, and anxiety when thinking of or doing the fear-causing thing.
It’s likely these reactions served us well at one time in our lives or in our evolution. But, what happens when we react like we’re about to fight a sabertooth tiger when in actuality we’re just talking to a group of fellow humans?
What if I told you nothing bad is going to happen to you?
As a professional speaker, I’ve had a lot of practice speaking in front of crowds. Even still, I get a little nervous each and every time I’m about to step on stage. But, I’ve learned over time that nothing bad is going to happen to me.
No one is going to cast you out into the cold to fend for yourself. You’ll still have friends and loved ones. And if you practice these public speaking tips, you may even have some admirers too:
1. Know your content well. I don’t mean have your content memorized. I mean, know the subject matter really well and have a specific flow of your presentation. Study your content and have a beginning, middle and end defined. The better you know your stuff, the more relaxed you’ll be, and the more you can let your personality shine through the sweat.
2. Befriend your audience. If you get a chance before you present to casually chat with the audience do it. If not, in your mind’s eye believe everyone is your friend and they’re rooting for you. You may not see their faces, they may look bored, indifferent, or pissed but imagine their hearts want you to succeed. If you can locate a few smiling faces in the crowd, focus on them, and let their energy give you strength.
3. Empower yourself. In order to exude confidence, you need to feel confident. Feeling confident stems from having good feelings about yourself and holding yourself in high regard. If you don’t naturally feel this way, there are many ways to get there. Use positive self-talk (I’m smart and passionate!) and cut out the negative self-talk (I’m a loser). Forgive yourself (release shame) and others (release anger) for negative experiences over the course of your life. Shit happens. You don’t have to let what happened in the past rule the rest of your life. Releasing shame and anger will allow self-love to flow in and then out to others. This is, of course, beneficial in all aspects of your life, not just when speaking in front of an audience, so treat it as the most important practice you have.
Speaking in front of an audience may seem like your worst nightmare – as bad as meeting Freddy Kruger in your dreams.
But, just like a horror movie murderer, public speaking poses no real threat to you. Even with all the experience, I didn’t become a great public speaker until I mastered my fear of rejection and came to know my own power.
There are other technical details to public speaking you can use to refine your skills, but knowing your content, befriending your audience, and empowering yourself are your best allies.
If you’re still not convinced, attend one of my workshops. I’ll help you overcome your fear of public speaking, uncover what you want to say, and create a sellable program your audience will love.
Sign up to receive announcements of upcoming workshops on my website. Join me and learn how to use speaking to light up your life and the lives of others.
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