I actually was afraid to speak in public. I would have preferred to go to the dentist to have a tooth pulled (without novocaine) than stand in front of a crowd of people, even classmates or friends, and have to say something. Even minor introductions like saying my name and where I was from were very stressful for me. Using the phone to ask a girl for a date was a nightmare.
Ironically, I later went on to teach public speaking and I was very good because I knew about the fear my students were facing. Nine out of 10 students would rather not have taken the required class in public speaking at Northwest Technical College. Because I could empathize with their feelings and because I was the best speech teacher in Minnesota (I hope other speech teachers feel the same way), they quickly got over their fears. Most said my class was one of their best classes. Why? I had the knack for making public speaking fun and everyone found success.
Teaching speech was much like when I taught archery many years ago at Temple University. I wanted the kids to find almost instant success so they would come back for more. What did I do? I had the students stand 20 feet away from the target. The only way they could miss it was by turning around and shooting in the opposite direction. I taught speech the same way. It was impossible for my students not to do well. From day one they were on their feet and speaking and I never stopped that practice and I was very big on not using notes. Here are some tips for you.
Let’s begin by stating unequivocally that everyone, yes, everyone, is capable of becoming a good public speaker. If you know just a few simple tips, you can do what you previously thought you could not do. Believe you can become a good speaker and, more importantly, believe you can overcome your fear.
Because our brain shuts down under stress, it avoids things that it doesn’t like, such as public speaking. It’s only natural that the brain will avoid speaking in public because it has been taught to fear it. It resorts to its fight or flight syndrome. We learn to fight public speaking by fleeing from it.
The secret to eliminating the stress is not to avoid public speaking but to face it and do it as often as you can. Believe me, it’s true. Take every opportunity to speak in public. Eventually the brain will accept it as just another activity.
The brain learns things in two different ways. It learns by repeating something over and over again. Most of our learning happens in this way. Learning also occurs when you are in a high emotional state, which can be fear or joy. Almost instant memory occurs with emotion.
We have to replace fear with the emotion of joy? Weddings, for example, can be very stressful. When you consider all of the preparations and all of the things that could go wrong, it’s a wonder the preacher doesn’t present the couple with divorce papers at the time he or she says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” What overcomes all of this stress? The answer is joy — the emotion of joy replaced fear. And, because it was a very emotional experience, we remember it, almost totally.
We need to change the way our brain thinks from “I am not going to like this” to “I am going to be just fine and I am going to enjoy myself.” Your confidence is going to improve; your self-esteem is going to improve and you are going to enjoy it. Yes, you will. I guarantee it. It’s a matter of attitude.
Here’s an important fact for you. Another reason why you don’t like to speak in public is because you don’t know how, you haven’t learned some of the simple strategies to wash the fear away. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Millions of other people are in the same boat with you. When we aren’t really sure of what to do, no wonder we tend to fear it and our boat sinks.
The next time you have a chance to speak in public, do these four simple things:
- Look at your listeners, not at your notes (try not to use them if you can) or the wall or the table in front of you.
- Speak slowly and succinctly. You have something important to say so say it slowly and be sure to enunciate your words. Please, please speak loud enough for everyone to hear you.
- Stand. Too many presenters give their presentations sitting. Bad mistake. You can breathe better, use gestures better and your presence is enhanced.
- Smile and smile some more. If you have to pretend that you are enjoying yourself, that’s fine. It’s your secret. Before long your brain will turn and say, “Hey, this ain’t so bad. I kind of like being the center of attention.” If you consistently do these four things, you will become a good public speaker.
The very best organization for keeping your speaking skills in tune, even better than what my speech classes were at NTC, is International Toastmasters. Bemidji Area Toastmasters meets once a week. Stick with Toastmasters and you will overcome your fear and become a polished public speaker. If you want to know more about the club, contact me.
The last tip I have for you is to picture yourself doing well. Can you envision yourself giving a good presentation or even just a short introduction. Begin to train your brain to visualize yourself doing, for example, the four tips I just gave you. Visualization is extremely important in everything you do and it is especially important in public speaking. Here’s how: Block out everything, focus on what you want to do, repeat the major points of your talk again and again. Block, focus, repeat.
Here’s what you need to remember. You can be a good public speaker. You can train your brain not to avoid speaking but to look forward to it. You can learn some easy things to do when you give a speech or presentation. You can join International Toastmasters. You can visualize yourself giving a good speech.
It took me over 30 years to overcome my fear of public speaking. Why? No one told me what I just told you.
Riddle: What did the girl battery say to the boy battery? (Answer: I get a charge out of you.) By remembering to do the things I just told you, and this is a guarantee, you will learn to enjoy public speaking and get a big charge out of it.
Although we have a long way to go to meet our goal of 100%, if just one student was influenced by our message about the need to graduate, we should be happy.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.