The single biggest barrier to public speaking of any kind, be it keynotes to business presentations is in our minds. From ancient times it’s been quite natural to sit around at meals or other times and converse naturally and freely. It’s not difficult to have a conversation on your feet either as long as it’s a spontaneous situation, like the impromptu conversation in the passageway, at rush hour on an underground train or walking somewhere with someone.
But as soon as we are expected to stand before a captive audience and deliver something prepared, somehow the wheels fall off completely. Does it do so for everyone? Good question. It probably did for just about everyone at some time or another, but those, like Barack Obama who seem to be able to captivate audiences with seemingly conversational ease had to learn, at some stage how to do it right. When you take the trouble to develop a skill, it eventually looks completely natural – just like Barack Obama does.
For most of us the truth is quite simple – we con ourselves into thinking we can’t do public speaking because of the memory of a poorly prepared past experience that went wrong. Why is this so different from being unsuccessful at your first attempt at fly fishing? Well, in the case of fly fishing the audience was a lot smaller. The problem with public speaking is the human audience – a seemingly hostile crowd of nasty people just waiting to laugh their heads off each time you go blank or make a blooper. I’d like to show you that nothing could be further from the truth.
One of our deepest psychological needs is to belong and to be “cool”. We crave acceptance from those with whom we interact. Disapproval leads to stress and discomfort. By exposing ourselves to an audience we risk disapproval, particularly if we don’t feel assured that we will be successful. So we fear audiences, but we shouldn’t, because most of the time (not all of the time, but certainly most) your audience is keen for you to succeed. Why, because it means their time was well spent, and people prefer that kind of outcome.
It’s the hidden stuff that frightens us. Will I waffle too much? Will my voice be too soft? Will I look nervous and uncertain? Will I go blank? Are my visuals alright? Is my attire and hairdo appropriate? Can I operate the equipment? Am I adequately prepared? The list is endless, a bit like learning to operate a high end camera, I’m afraid.
We understand that to get the best from digital photography it’s a good idea to attend an introductory course to find out how little you really know so the you know what you need to do to master the skills required to take great photographs.
Just as the most important step in a marathon is the first step, so you need to make the decision that you can – and then do what is necessary to acquire the skills. You can start by picking up tips from other presenters, both good and bad. You can also read a good book on speaking, but ultimately you should get a good coach or attend a course – and then keep doing it to get really good at it – just as great sports folk do.
Our fear of public speaking has no bearing on our ability, it is simply a perception of our current ability. Like any skill public speaking can be learned, at any age. It depends entirely on how much you want it, and what you’re prepared to do about it.
Paul du Toit CSP, author of “You Can Present With Confidence” & co-author of “The Exceptional Speaker”