March 5, 2018
Palms sweaty, heart racing, hands trembling, legs shaking, knees rattling … you know the feeling! Whether it’s five people, fifteen or fifty, public speaking is a gut-wrenching experience for most of us. You have forgotten what you were supposed to be saying and you are drenched in a hot anxiety that everything is about to go pear-shaped.
Glossophobia or fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, with around 75% of people suffering from various forms of this phobia and 10% of them genuinely terrified. You may have heard the joke that some people would prefer to be in their own coffins than give a eulogy at a funeral. While this may be an exaggeration, many would agree. The average person ranks the fear of public speaking above death. If the thought of public speaking makes you break into a cold sweat, you’re not alone.
The first thing to realise is that if you plan on living a successful life, you're going to have to speak in public. And you're going to have to do it a lot.
The fear may happen in the classroom where the student prays that the teacher doesn’t call on him/her to answer a question. It can happen in the workplace where the manager experiences panic attacks at the thought of making a presentation to his/her superiors. It can happen at home where the jobseeker becomes emotionally distraught before going to a job interview. It can happen at a party where the possibility of meeting someone new is curtailed by butterflies in the stomach. It may happen 35,000 feet above the earth, where pilots and cabin crew feeling intensely uncomfortable having to make announcements to passengers during a flight.
With fear everywhere, I thought it apt to rip the dreaded four-letter-word FEAR and find out ways to manage it.
F - First of all START SMALL
If you're new to the world of public speaking, start small! Begin voicing your ideas in meetings or while in conversations with acquaintances. Introduce yourself to someone in a party and have a chat. Attend sessions. Begin by speaking to smaller groups and build up from there. You might be embarrassed, or disheartened by the experience. But no matter what, if you do it you will subtly gain more confidence.
As a start-up, rehearsing your speeches alone in a room, delivering them solo would help. Practice in front of a mirror. Grab a friend or a family member and practice in front of them. Practice in front of a small group. In a small group, you can see everyone’s facial expressions and feel their gaze burning a hole in your retina. This will set the tone to perform in front of a large audience. Ask for feedback. Every time you go through your presentation, you're adding another layer of "I know this stuff".
Watch news bulletins on television. Analyse what makes successful public speakers so successful. Note their habits and speaking styles. Watching and listening is an integral part of learning.
Sister-in-law’s efforts: My sister-in-law Sunitha while young, I am told used to take assistance from her parents and siblings in preparing her speech. Once that was done, she used to practice on them standing over an elevated place - on the bed, on the dining table, on the washing stone, on the compound wall getting feedback and improving all the while. In the course of time, with this sort of practice with zeal, she became a successful speaker in life and heard many a times almost brought the roof down with equal fluency in English, Kannada and Konkani.
You just have to get out there and make a fool of yourself a few times before you get really comfortable
The more a person delivers public speeches the more he/she can handle his/her stage fear. Presenting at less intimidating settings could really help. Find business organisations, networks and clubs such as Toastmasters in your area that can afford you the opportunity to practice. You will meet people here with the sole purpose of improving their public speaking skills and thus everyone being in the same boat, there is nothing to be ashamed of. I was a member of Student Orators’ Forum of Action (SOFA) - an intercollegiate platform for Public Speaking in College, where the Sessions were held in different Colleges each Saturday. The exposure gained and the feedback received from our Chief Director Sunney Tharappan and other Directors was valuable in moulding me in becoming a better speaker.
Ultimately, the only cure for insecurity is experience. You just have to get out there and make a fool of yourself a few times before you get really comfortable.
E - Embrace your AUDIENCE
Here the word ‘Embrace’ does not mean you go and hug each one in the audience. Perhaps if you do so, your nervousness would have flown away as you would realise that they are humans after all, being made of flesh and blood just like you. In the broad sense, I have taken it as to make ‘adjustments or emend’ to your audience.
To whom are you speaking? If they're colleagues, they probably want to learn something from you. If they're friends, they're likely looking to be entertained. If it's a Court, well, the judge needs to be convinced. If it’s an interview, then the ball is in your court. Know who your audience is and tailor your communication accordingly. Give them what they need! Even if you have given speeches before, be sure to make tweaks to engage the specific audience.
Remember that people in the audience really want you to succeed. Just knowing this fact can often shake off a lot of pre-stage jitters
Sonia Gandhi’s Hindi speech: A few years ago, then Congress President Sonia Gandhi addressing a huge election rally read from her prepared text in Hindi. “Aap itne kadi dhoop mein khade ho aur mera bhashan sun rahe ho.” (You are standing in this hot sun and listening to my speech) when in fact it was raining and the umbrellas were up. The huge crowd went hush hush! The opposition parties latched onto this sentence spewing criticism. Perhaps the forecast was that of a sunny day when the speech was drafted, but it wasn’t corrected.
Whether you're speaking before a small group of 10 or a massive audience of 1000, recognise that all audiences are essentially the same. They are just people, many of whom suffer from the same fear of public speaking. Focus on delivering your material in the best way possible, without worrying too much about their reactions.
A - Adhere to PRACTICE
We’ve all heard the saying, “practice makes perfect.” The main benefit of practice is to increase your familiarity of a given task. As this familiarity increases, feelings of anxiety decrease and have less of a negative impact on performance. In other words, the anxiety you feel about speaking in public will be less, the more comfortable you feel with your presentation. ‘The only way to learn to speak is to speak and speak … and speak and speak … and speak and speak and speak.’
The story of a Pakistani: While in Abu Dhabi, UAE apart from my main employment, I used to teach in Training Institute. My good friend Noor Al Ameen, the Chairman had invited me to start English Courses and gave me a free run. A shy 17 year old Pakistani Shehzad Akhtar had enrolled for TOEFL as well as Advanced English courses. His dream was to migrate to the US, but was concerned of his lack of confidence and conversational skills. One fourth of the Syllabus in the Advanced English Course was made up of group discussions, face it and quiz sessions, personality development and public speaking. The first time I virtually forced him to go behind the podium, his throat closed as he was trembling and shaking with his gaze on the ceiling. Four months later when he left he had transformed into a confident speaker. His dad had come to the Institute the last day, to express gratitude and more so to explain his son’s activities at home. When a debating topic was given in the Class, Shehzad used to spend hours in the library preparing his speech, talk to the walls at home, record his voice, play, listen, rehearse, review and practice until he delivered his speech for or against the topic in the Class on the allotted day. He used to absorb all the feedback that was provided. Though everyone in the batch improved, Shehzad was way ahead, totally because of the practice he had put in. Today, apart from being a successful Doctor in the United States, he is also a visiting professor in a University of repute.
When you’re prepared for something, you’re confident. And when you’re confident, there’s less fear to latch onto. Fear magnifies and latches onto uncertainty and doubt. A public speaking appearance is only the culmination of a really thorough process that involves preparing and rehearsing your presentation. When preparing for his legendary presentations, Steve Jobs would spend days rehearsing and getting feedback.
The more talks you give the less nervous you get - partly because you improve, but mainly because you work out that the world does not end if things do not go quite to plan.
R - Readying for PRESENTATION
Unfortunately ‘delivery’ cannot be outsourced. You have to do it yourself. Especially in your workplace or business, you have to be its face. You can take help from people to have your speech prepared or ask for guidelines, but ultimately it has to be YOU!
I have put down a dozen tips that might benefit in reducing your fear before and during your presentation:
1] Practice healthful lifestyle habits. Try to limit caffeine, sugar and alcohol as much as possible. Listening to some high-energy music can help you to get psyched up and motivated just hours before your presentation.
2] Getting organised, ahead of time, will calm your nerves as you are ready. The more organised you are, the less nervous you will be.
3] Arrive early as obviously, if you are late, this will only heighten your anxiety. Arrive early and acclimate to your surroundings.
4] Sip water that’s warm or of room temperature. Squeezing some lemon into your water helps as well as it lubricates your throat. Try to avoid sugary beverages before speaking as these can dry out your mouth and make it harder to talk.
5] Exercising lightly before a presentation can get your blood circulating and send oxygen to your brain. Minutes before you go on stage, take some slow, deep breaths, so that by the time you get to the stage your breathing is relaxed and your nervousness has minimised.
6] Pace yourself and remember to speak at a normal (or even slightly slower) pace when you're speaking publicly. One of the biggest indicators of nervousness is the lightning-fast talker. You might have the best speech ever written, but if no one can understand what you're saying, the very purpose is defeated.
7] Nail the beginning and the ending - Your opening sets the tone for your speech and your closing is what you will leave your audience with. Rather than expecting those sentences to happen spontaneously in the moment; write and practice them in advance.
Prime Minister of India’s address to the Parliament of Australia: When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in November 2014, he was given the honour to address the Australian Parliament in Canberra. He began with a ‘shirt fronting’ joke (about then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s threat to ‘shirt-front’ Russian President Vladimir Putin over Malaysian Airlines - M17 plane attack. The term, used in Australian football and rugby league, describes aggressively grabbing an opponent or knocking them to the ground) drawing laughter and applause from the gathering of Australian MPs and thus made them to focus on his speech. It was a superb start! While concluding though, he wished Australia the very best in hosting the Cricket World Cup. Now, in an Indian context this sentence is perfectly fine as Cricket is the only game that grips the nation, but in an Aussie context it fell a bit flat as Cricket is one of the many games and it does not necessarily grip the country.
8] Making gestures while you speak will increase your creativity as well as fills you with confidence as action and words go together.
9] While you may not have slept the night before (or for an entire week prior to your speech) your audience doesn’t know it. You think that people may notice you’re nervous. This makes you even more nervous. The truth is that most people can't tell that you are nervous or afraid. Keep in mind that you're the only one who knows.
10] Refuse to think thoughts that create self-doubt and of low confidence.
11] Always, always run short - If you have been given thirty minutes, take 25. If you have an hour, take 50. Always respect your audience’s time and end early. Finishing early will allow you to take questions from the audience but never run long - because all the goodwill you built could be lost.
12] Give up trying to be perfect and know that it is OK to make mistakes. Be natural, be yourself and visualise your success.
Pace yourself and remember to speak at a normal (or even slightly slower) pace when you're speaking publicly
As I have said, you are not alone. Many famous people have suffered from glossophobia. At some point, they all mention going out of their way to avoid speaking in public. Abraham Lincoln be it known that the cause of his nervousness was public speaking, excused himself from many addresses. According to an article I had read in ‘The Atlantic Daily,’ Gandhiji was due to be speaking in a Court and only managed to say the first sentence of his speech before he dried up and an assistant had to step in to continue from where he left.
My first speech of recognition was when I was in standard IV in Mary Immaculate School, Bengaluru. The boys had to leave after Std. IV. Each year, two ‘Best Outgoing Students’ awards were bestowed - one for the ‘best outgoing tenth standard girl’ and the other for the ‘best outgoing fourth standard boy.’ I was chosen for the latter and it would be conferred on the School Day. Though that part was good, the horror part was after receiving the award, we have to give a speech. I remember telling Sr Henrita, my class teacher that I do not want the award and let someone else have it. On the School Day, seeing and hearing the ‘best outgoing girl’ speaking so well, thoughts cropped up in my mind to flee! However, having started small, embracing the audience that comprised of my class-mates, school-mates, teachers and parents - preparing, practicing and rehearsing well, I did pull off a reasonably good show.
Since then, I have given several keynote speeches, numerous presentations, conducted innumerable social occasions - my presentation at IMF/World Bank Annual Meeting in Dubai in September 2003, my best by far. I get nervous occasionally, but public speaking is now one of my favourite activities.
There's a Japanese proverb that says, "Fear is only as deep as the mind allows". If you are willing to stop avoiding your fears and learn new skills to reduce and manage them, you will develop an empowering belief and trust in yourself. In facing your fear, it becomes possible to overcome performance anxiety and find comfort and ease in expressing yourself in front of others.
Public speakers are not born, but made. The earlier you start doing it the better, because the longer you wait the more pressure you'll feel. Start now! Because you're either going to face it head on and get better at it, or waste your existence running away from it your whole life. Don't let your fear get in the way of your dreams. You may be a work-in-progress for sometime, but eventually you will get there. The thunderous applause will then follow even before you have begun, wherever you go!
Starting small gradually shedding all fear
Embracing the audience who yearn to hear
Practicing and believing that perfection is near
You will be the one to stand out amongst your peers.
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