Someone I met recently at a party confessed to me he had been offered the chairmanship of a local society, a coveted position that carries quite some weight. Despite being eminently capable of carrying out the role, he turned it down, purely because he couldn’t face the public speaking involved. I hear this kind of story disturbingly often and every time it renews my determination to help people in this situation to confront and destroy their demons.
Why is it that public speaking has the power to strike such fear into the hearts of all sorts of people, the shy and the extrovert alike? I believe in most cases it comes down to those twin myths I’ve mentioned in my ebook: 1) public speaking is scary, and 2) public speaking is something we all ought to know how to do without ever being taught.
If I tell you public speaking is scary, you approach it with trepidation. This makes it more difficult for you and you find it scary. You then tell the next person public speaking is scary… and so the myth is perpetuated.
Because public speaking is so widely misconceived as ‘just speaking’, only to more people than usual, there is a totally erroneous stigma attached to asking for help with it. My clients frequently ask me to be discreet when I visit their workplaces – “Just say we’ve got a meeting; don’t tell anyone what it’s about”. I sympathise with this and I am always discreet, even when I haven’t been asked to be, but it’s sad that people feel this additional pressure on them. Actually, public speaking is a skill like any other, which needs to be learnt and practised.
So, how do we face down those demons? The first thing I’d say is that a lot of activities seem pretty intimidating before we’ve tried them – or they do to me, anyway. The secret of success is to put great effort into preparation and practice before the first attempt: if you go in unprepared or over-confident, your first experience of running a marathon, cooking for 20 or making a speech is likely to end in tears. On the other hand, if you’ve worked hard in advance and know what you’re doing, you’ll be OK.
The majority of my clients who seek help because they’re afraid of public speaking find that once they’ve mastered the techniques, they feel confident enough to go ahead and make a success. Sometimes it’s useful to explore psychological preparation as well and there are many surprisingly simple and effective ways to combat anxiety. In the cases where people’s fear goes very deep, it’s usually a question of identifying a mistaken belief they carry about themselves in relation to the world – for example, that their opinions are not worth listening to. Once we can dig out and examine such beliefs, we’re well on the way to dispelling them.
If you’re afraid of public speaking, please don’t take steps to avoid having to do it. Instead, put that energy into overcoming your fear. As the great Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Every time you meet a situation, though you think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it, you find that forever after you are freer than you were before.”