A REAL WORLD GUIDE TO
ANXIETY ABOUT PUBLIC SPEAKING
Tired of the same tired advice? Get sleep, visualize success, practice, blahblahblah? Let’s say you are nervous NOW.
Maybe you have a speech in an hour and it is too late for all of that. If you have 5 minutes, read this blog post.
If you have 5 seconds, read the underlined sections J.
Most people face some level of speaking fear all their lives. There are two things to think about that can make this better.
Channel Your Nervous Energy
First, it is important to see your nervousness as not only inevitable, but as a valuable source of energy. At a simple level, we know that passionate energy is one of the keys to good delivery, and nervousness is the most reliable source of that energy. But at a deeper level, your nervousness is about the audience. You are worried about their reaction to you, their eyes on you, their judgment. Your nervousness is your willingness to open up to that experience. And that experience has to be scary, or it is not authentic.
The real problem for those of us who get nervous is the way we deal with that anxiety. We close down. We read our speeches word-for-word. We read the slides off our Power Points with our backs to the room. We kill all of those potential places we can connect with the audience, those places that scare us. Instead of giving them the opportunity to reject us, we reject them first, like an awkward teen drama. This leads to a terrible speech experience for all. And it cements our nervousness because of those bad experiences, our new certainty, each time, that we really suck at public speaking.
So how do we stay in communion with our nervous energy? For each of us, channeling that energy will look different. Here is an example of how I’ve seen it done successfully: A faculty member who had to present an idea for discussion at a faculty meeting (notoriously contentious places) began with, “Ooh, it’s just as scary up here as I thought.” She made repeated, good-humored references, in response to aggressive questioning, to her nervousness: “See, that’s why I wanted someone else on the committee to do this instead of me.” And when she finished, a “Phew, I did it. -----‘s turn next time!”
Second, it is important to think about speaking as a communication task, not a performance task. Michael Motley (1997) innovated this approach in his work with the extremely, clinically nervous speaker. Focus on the information, the idea goes, and teaching it to an audience who might need to learn it, not a performance that involves them looking at you, like a trained seal, reading or reciting things from memory. In a communication situation, you can’t mess up. You could trip over the podium and everyone would remember what you were saying for the rest of their lives.
In other words, make what you are doing a conversation between actual people, not a show in front of a faceless crowd. Do not look over their heads, as someone once told you. Do not imagine them in their underwear. Focus on them, specifically, and who they really are. See if they are getting the point. Stop and explain it again or argue in a different way if they don’t.
Even the most paralyzing nervousness will fail to the insistent pressure of another human being who wants the information. Find someone in the audience who will provide that for you if the worst happens. Just talk to that person for a minute until you can pull it together. Or take a breath, stop, and ask someone where you were before you lost your way. Better still, focus, in all of your practice, and throughout your speech, on getting the ideas across to a real set of people in the room with you, and you will make it.
Don’t let them remain a faceless zombie horde. Make that human connection.
I’m not saying you will enjoy it. It really is okay that you never will. You can hate speaking, your speech, this book, me, the world, stupid zombie references, and your $%*&*#@?#$!! Power Point. And it will be fine if you hate all of those things in every speech for the rest of your life.
But you can still get it done.