It always makes the top 10 and it always tops fear of dying, by a wide swath. So, what is it about public speaking that unnerves so many? I have my theories, but frankly, they never matter when I’m in the clutches of its paralyzing force. I know—I’ve stared down the barrel of the public-speaking shotgun for years.
The first time it happened I was in high school, in the class of a beloved teacher. Each day he called us up (randomly) to the podium to answer questions on the previous night’s assignment.
When he said “Miss Kelly,” my heart practically leapt out of my chest. I made it to the front, steadied myself at the podium, and stared out at 30 pairs of beady eyes of classmates who were just relieved they weren’t first, in the day’s carnage.
Oh, I tried to speak, but as the afflicted know, the panicked person suffers severe salivary deprivation, as in “I can’t get my tongue unglued from the roof of my mouth.” I stood like a mute fool, as he drilled me on the Dred Scott case. When I stared blankly out, he asked, “Miss Kelly, did you study last night’s assignment?”
I nodded assent.
I wanted to scream, “YES, I studied the Dred Scott case…backwards and forwards… and the ONLY thing I dread about it is being exposed before all of you, with all my imperfections!”
He kept on, hoping I’d recover some shred of confidence, but it was hopeless. He dismissed me, finally, and I tottered back to my seat, beaten. I never forgot the assault to my ego.
In college, I feigned illness in no fewer than 3 student-teacher presentations before my practicum class. I don’t know how I thought I could pull off teaching. But, because my livelihood depended on it, I found ways to master my fear—or at least, give the illusion I had.
Today, I no longer suffer the affliction (OK—maybe a little). I engage with all people (salespeople, clerks, doctors, librarians, etc.)– no matter where. I interact, laugh, and invite them to dialogue (I’m doing it now).
In other words, I avoid separation from others, because THAT’S what trips me up. And just as I stiffened in fear (when I stood at the top of a mountain and contemplated skiing the full descent), I never consider the broad scope of what I attempt.
Instead, I glide into my talk in steps: I banter…I play…I engage my audience, as active participants, investing them in the outcome. This takes the pressure off me.
And I use humor at every opportunity, For, sharing a laugh makes it tough for the odd-ball in the audience to get nasty and let’s face it—that’s always the kicker. He’s the one element that might make this gig a disaster–exposing us with all our imperfections (Sound familiar?).
Finally, I avoid the robotic, fixed-to-a-platform scenario. I spin… I move…I dart in and out. Engage and parry…..Engage and parry.
For Biddy knows: a moving target gathers no moss ………..or public outcry, either.
Are these tips hard-won? Biddy learned them, over 30 years, in the classroom, before anyone’s toughest audience–adolescents. She hopes they help………………