Of the many hundreds of people I coach or train each year, I’d say I encounter one who greets the process and me with, “I just love public speaking!” That’s maybe one in 300-500 per year, or 0.003% to 0.005% of the population.
Because it’s so rare and I’m so bemused, I always ask a lot of questions to learn more about these creatures and what makes them tick. Not surprisingly, it turns out they love people, feed off the energy of a crowd and are often wannabe performers — in other words, extroverts.
While those who say they love it are always extroverts, not every extrovert is a public-speaking lover. Introverts, on the other hand, never love public speaking. Some tolerate it just fine and many even acknowledge their relative comfort, skill or ease with it, but in my experience, they never love it. So what is it about public speaking that strikes fear, dread and/or anxiety in the overwhelming majority of the population, including in those whom we assume it wouldn’t? In a word: self-consciousness.
In my experience, the most common reasons people loathe public speaking are concerns about how they look (awkward), how they sound (stupid) and how they will be received (poorly). Even optimistic extroverts (i.e., positive-thinking people-lovers) are plagued by these negative thoughts. Honestly, it’s confounding.
It’s time to address the conundrum of public speaking and unpack the mental blocks that come with it so we can turn this around. Below are three factors that offer some rational (and tough love) perspective on public speaking, followed by three tips to boost your confidence and your willingness to speak.
Let’s be rational about this.
First, if you’re asked to speak somewhere or you’re simply invited to the front of the room, then you’ve already cleared the hurdle of looking fine, sounding smart and being at least moderately impressive. If not, then someone else would be speaking instead of you. So, yeah, you are that person; you might as well get used to it.
Second, the starting point for every audience and how they view the speaker is an expectation of success. In other words, they expect the speaker to be fine. They are looking at you through the lens of authority, competence and confidence, not the opposite. Their faith in you is inherent in the situation. It’s yours to lose. Please don’t convince yourself otherwise.
Third, public speaking is an opportunity, not an obligation. OK, so it might be an obligation from the standpoint of it being a commitment. But you shouldn’t view it as an obligation, as in a dreaded chore. Look at it as an opportunity for you, your organization and your project or product/service. It’s a chance to raise awareness, impress, build relationships or partnerships, or simply to enhance reputation. You don’t want to squander a good opportunity, so don’t!
What if you accept these three factors but still dread getting up to speak in front of a group? Fair enough. Here are three tips to help you when it’s showtime:
1. Know your opening really well so you can nail it! Nerves, as well as the disconnect from your audience that they cause, are at their worst in the first two minutes of your talk. Usually, after those initial 120 seconds, your nerves dissipate, and you begin to relax and hit your stride. Working with that in mind (along with the assumption that you may not have oodles of time to rehearse the entire presentation), know and practice your first two minutes well enough so you’re able to take care of yourself and your audience when it’s most challenging.
2. Focus your attention on them. Focus on your audience rather than on yourself. Actually stop thinking about yourself. Turn your attention to them. Look at them. Move closer to them. Talk to them. Surrender your attachment to how well you’re doing or to your material. Instead, connect with the people in front of you. It’s a shift, and it needs to be conscious, but it works. Once you let go of worrying about whether you’ll forget a point or what people might be thinking of you and you focus on connecting with and delivering to your audience, it becomes easier, and you become a better speaker.
3. Have a goal in mind. Decide what your desired outcome or goal is for your presentation. Finish this sentence for yourself: By the end of this talk, I hope the audience [knows, does, feels, thinks] [a certain thing]. Then use that desired outcome or goal as a guideline for your content and as a statement to your audience in your opening. Once you and your audience know where you’re going, you’ll both have clarity about what’s coming and what’s expected, even if you stray or their attention does.
The opportunity to speak publicly is (or should be) a win for you and your audience. Yet it’s one of the most universally dreaded undertakings. Most people would rather go to the dentist than go to a podium. Do yourself a favor and modify your mindset about public speaking. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to adopt and practice the three tips. Trust me: If you take this advice, public speaking won’t be nearly as painful as a root canal. It’ll be what it’s supposed to be: a win-win opportunity.