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Public Speaking - One Key Strategy to Overcome Fear

La Velle Goodwin

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Considered to be a more common fear than even the fear of dying, the fear of public speaking can be a real hindrance for people who want to move up the corporate ladder, or start their own business, represent themselves in court, or just say a few words at a loved ones wedding.

The causes of this common anxiety are many and varied, but with a little planning and strategy implementation, public speaking can be anyone’s ability, no matter how scared they are now.

I asked some fearful friends “What really scares you about public speaking?" and the most common answer can be summed up in the words of Camille.

Camille is a hairdresser. She is sometimes called upon to give demonstrations at hair shows and also in her community group. “I am always afraid that I will make a mistake, or screw up some how. I don't want to look like an idiot in front of all those people!"

Camille's fear is a double whammy, because the fear Camille experiences will undoubtedly cause her to trip up. She will make a mistake and her obvious, horrified reaction to having messed up will make her audience uncomfortable and cause her nervousness to increase. Really, Camille has set herself up with a self-fulfilling prophecy. No wonder she is scared!

Camille's focus is so tuned into her desire to avoid “looking like an idiot in front of all those people" that she has built this up to be the ultimate in public speaking failure. The potential to make a mistake is so high in a public speaking setting, Camille feels defeated before she even gets started.

Camille's biggest stumbling block is, in reality, all a matter of perception. She perceives the making of a mistake as something that would disqualify her from being a good public speaker. Further, she believes that if she makes a mistake, she will “look like an idiot", people will mock and make fun of her, the humiliation and embarrassment paramount to wetting your pants on the first day of school.

Is Camille's perception a true reflection of how audiences respond when speakers trip on their lips? No. If Camille's perception were true, there would be no public speakers! We would all be out of jobs because we make mistakes all the time. I have come across very few public speakers who did not make mistakes. Understand, the only thing that makes a speaker look bad when a mistake is made is how that speaker deals with it. I'll say it again, it is how the speaker reacts to their error that will make or break them.

If the fear of looking foolish is a problem you face, spend some time observing public speakers like Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Craig Fergusson, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert etc. These people are professional public speakers. We often do not think of them that way, but that is what they are.

Have you ever seen one of them make a mistake? If you haven’t, you have not been watching for the errors they make. Watch them and study how they roll with the trips, blunders and crack ups. Pay particular attention to how you, as the audience, respond to their recovery strategies. You will find that you like them even more when they make mistakes because each one of them has learned to laugh with the audience at themselves.

Audiences find it endearing when they see that these individuals are willing to be human. When we see them make mistakes, we enjoy it and the way these professionals deal with a mistake makes it OK. All a speaker needs to do is show that the mistake is not a big deal to them. If you, as the speaker do not react as though it has ruined your presentation, your audience will not think it has either. So practice ways to respond to mistakes you make that will give everyone a laugh. Then move on, confident that your faux pas just made your delivery a little more entertaining to the audience.

I enjoy it when I mess up because it draws the audience in. They wait to see how I will react. When I calmly and seriously shake my head and say “I should never attempt this under the influence of cola beverages. ", the tension is broken, everyone has a good chuckle and now, they are even more interested in what I will say next. Really, mistakes are something you can use as a tool to work with the audience!

Things to remember:

  • It is OK to make mistakes. In fact, using mistakes as a tool can work to your advantage.
  • Know ahead of time how you will deal with errors when they happen so that your audience's respect and interest in you and your topic are elevated.
  • Have several “recovery" plans so that if you make more than one mistake, you do not have to resort to the same recovery plan each time.
  • Practice your recovery plan ahead of time, in the mirror and also in social situations when it is appropriate.

    Suggestions for recovery:

  • Pause, visibly giggle at yourself, look up at the audience and with a big smile say “lets try that again"

  • Say “I should never try using more than one polysyllabic word in a single sentence!"

  • Pause, and pretend to write a note. Speak slowly and in syllables so as to convey the idea that you are saying the words as you write them: “remember for next time, no al-co-hol before speak-ing en-gage-ment”

    Most importantly, always remember that anything that another human being has done, you can do. Public speaking is something you can do. The key to overcoming that fear is to alter your perception of it by preparing strategies to glide beyond the stumbling blocks.

    La Velle Goodwin has been speaking, performing, teaching and entertaining for nearly 20 years. She is a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, Director of Rabid Entertainment Inc. , and developer of Speech Savvy Workshops

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