Public Speaking – The fear we all have but never admit to

Giving speeches and presentations have never been a strong suit of mine. Ask me to write two hundred words on the topic of why green is a soothing colour, or a paragraph on the benefits of being in the EU, and I’ll have it to you within the half hour. Ask me to do a quick presentation/speech on it, and I’ll be flustered for about a week. And it’s not just for the big, important speeches either, the ones which require planning, researching, doing surveys and data collection and whatnot. I’ve been doing various forms of public or group speaking for years, and yet, I still get that squeak in my throat the minute I open my mouth to speak. I’m a real professional – until I have to actually gather a group of people together and tell them about how professional I can be.

We’ve all had to do it. In schools we had to give presentations about different projects and things we’ve learned, why Macbeth is so tortured, why water can a liquid, solid and a gas, and why King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. In university I remember having to give plenty of presentations in class, staring at the bored faces and trying to jazz up PowerPoint slides with music, films, artwork, (even a drama enactment, once), anything to not stand there for too long and talk in a deadpan voice. We’ve all met that one (or three) person in our class whose knees shook while they gave class presentations, and whose shoes we didn’t want to be in. And of course, my working-life has been just the same. At present, every month I have to give the same speech to a group of professionals at various training sessions and courses which I run, and each time I

breathe
Just breathe!

manage to stammer my way through and pretend that the room is empty, or look at the most harmless-looking inhabitant of the room and pretend I’m just speaking to them. Which helps. A little bit.

The symptoms, I’m sure you all recognise. Stammering. Repeatedly saying ‘um’, ‘like’, ‘you know’, ‘er’, ‘erm’ interjected into your speech – you know what to say but you still sound unsure about it. The chest tightening, the sweaty palms, or otherwise that horrible feeling in your stomach and your clothes feeling very uncomfortable. The sweaty armpits and the clammy hair (oh dear). Voices going high and getting stuck in your throat, or otherwise talking in a robotic tone. Speaking too quietly or speaking too loud, too slow for everyone to pay attention to, or too fast for anyone to keep up (guilty!). Staring at everyone and not being sure where to focus, or not making eye contact at all (I’ve seen people stare at the floor even, or just fixate on their pieces of paper). I’ve even had friends tell me about nervous gas issues, nervous hiccups, and nervous pacing about (I’ve seen my Dad do this and I do this myself, it drives my mother up the wall.)

And of course, the dreaded silence before you even start speaking, which acts as the biggest hurdle. Tell a joke, a story, an anecdote, anything to break the ice and make yourself (and them) feel more comfortable. We’ve heard it all before, we convince ourselves that once we break the ice, once we get started, then it’s all a doddle from there. Just get started, and you’ll be fine. And a lot of the time, it’s not. I’ve rarely met anyone who actually loves speaking in public. Even the most confident people I know (and I’m not wallflower myself, most of the times), will baulk a little at the thought of public speaking.

nervAnd it’s not like it’s always about a fear of strangers either – even when you know everyone in the group, and you’ve had plenty of easy one-on-one conversations with them, it’s suddenly a different animal when they’re all together. Because that’s when they all turn into scary pairs of eyes, putting you in the spot and making you feel very conscious of yourself, your words and your self-image which is being projected.

As much as we hate going up in front of a group, avoid speeches and try to even run away from it, we also want to be adored by an audience, we want to have that after-speech glow from imparting some beautiful, witty, amazing and wise sermon to an enraptured audience. And in truth, it’s rarely ever that. As much as we are scared that nobody is listening, we’re also scared that someone actually is. There’s a saying which says ‘no one’s listening until you make a mistake’. Well in these kinds of situations, it’s probably ten times true.

Where does it all come from? There’s plenty of factors, and not just our own nervousness about our abilities and self-image. I also partly blame the ever-growing sophisticated technology of today. Why say something out loud when you can Tweet, Facebook update, text, Whatsapp, email or even blog about it, without worry what people think? You can’t see them, and you can hide behind the anonymous curtain of ‘teh internetz’ and tippy-tappy out opinions on your keyboard.

And yes, a lot of us do have confidence issues, which also makes us feel vulnerable when we speak. Some of us worry about what message we are projecting, the way we look, the hand gestures and body language, or even just what our peers are thinking of us. And don’t get me started on those speeches you haven’t prepared for, the ones where we just try to wing it!

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And yes, a lot of us do have confidence issues, which also makes us feel vulnerable when we speak. Some of us worry about what message we are projecting, the way we look, the hand gestures and body language, or even just what our peers are thinking of us. And don’t get me started on those speeches you haven’t prepared for, the ones where we just try to wing it!

I’ve heard about various ‘Public Speaking’ seminars, but I don’t think I could ever see myself as going to that extent and feeling the need to attend them. I’ve heard plenty of different ways of combating nervousness (the ‘imagining everyone naked is the most common one I’ve heard but it’s never worked for me. I just find it incredibly weird and awkward. Repressed Asian girl and nekked-ness? I think not) – but I’m sure you’ll agree, different things work for everyone. In the end, I wouldn’t say that public speaking is a bad thing, but it’s not something I’ve heard many people talk about – perhaps because we don’t like admitting our awkwardness to other people. I know I’ve blagged my way through plent of speeches to have a fake sense of confidence about public speaking!

The best advice I’ve heard so far? ‘Smile like a buffoon and don’t take yourself so seriously. The audience probably won’t,  so why waste time being nervous?’

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