“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, said Franklin Delano Roosevelt once upon a time in America. In his 1932 inaugural address, the newly elected 32nd President of the United States aimed to instill faith in his countrymen that he could lead them out of the Great Depression’s dusty shadow into an era of renewed prosperity. If anyone could have conceivably been excused for muttering, ‘That’s because none of you has had to explain your plan to repair a crippled economy while hiding your debilitating paralytic illness from a desperate nation that elected you president,’ it would have been FDR. Instead, as his body gradually betrayed him and a destitute electorate at his feet prayed for absolution from their societal misery, he transcended “fake it ‘til you make it” with the weight of his country suddenly upon his shoulders and set out to win over hearts and minds with stalwart conviction and an upper lip stiffer than Irish whiskey.
Here’s a simple flow chart: have you coincidentally also been tasked with digging dirt-poor people out from seemingly insurmountable economic rubble while fighting an inevitable losing battle against polio? No? In that case, FDR remains the undisputed champion of deserving an anxiety attack or two prior to a public speaking engagement and still never cashing in his ‘Get Out of a Fireside Chat Free’ card.
OK, maybe that was a tad dramatic. Hyperbole aside, one survey after another has uplifted public speaking as a commonly suffered phobia roughly as prolific as fear of death. Nevertheless, thousands of individuals worldwide stare down this demon of perceived certain humiliation every single day and tell it to kick rocks. Some never entirely escape their fears despite transcending them to become electrifying and engaging performers, but others conquer their hang-ups decisively and grow to unabashedly love standing before an assemblage of strangers. However, a few never overcome their petrifying nervousness and would almost always choose facing a firing squad over so much as presenting a wedding a toast.
How do some people overcome their fears of public speaking and make it seem so easy? Truth be told, there are a few fairly simple ways captivating orators such as FDR and others have thought their way past psyching themselves out of high-pressure addresses despite circumstances likely to have sent lesser men and women into the fetal position as far from a live microphone as possible.
Public Speaking Is Not ‘A Gift’
There are some skills and traits individuals either possess or lack. A glib adage among basketball coaches and scouts holds that anyone can learn to shoot a free throw, but no one can be taught to stand 7 feet tall. Along similar lines, the arm strength to pop off a 98-mph fastball is a gift only a precious few are ever given by nature, but surgical control and a refined arsenal of breaking pitches allowed Greg Maddux to carve out a legendary Major League Baseball career despite never exhibiting the overpowering, fearsome velocity Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson displayed in their respective prime years. Try and count the number of NFL quarterbacks who could hurl a football seemingly miles but never developed the sharp instincts or precise placement that separated ordinary starters from Super Bowl-winning legends such as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
When confronted with the very thought of speaking to an anonymous sea of strangers, most people reflexively believe they have just been asking to throw a corner-painting heater in a World Series game at Yankee Stadium with one arm and immediately throw a 45-yard strike to Odell Beckham, Jr. with the other. In their minds, they might as well have been asked to simply ‘be 7 feet tall.’ Communication is not always ‘easy,’ but it is rarely ever that complicated. Public speaking boils down to a practiced blending of words and gestures. You can develop vocabulary. You can always polish your body language. Through rehearsal, you can achieve a richer, more resonant voice. Whether you will or you won’t become an in-demand presenter ultimately becomes a matter of whether you muster the commitment to allocate time and effort toward your craft.
Prepare For Success
Public speaking paralyzes so many otherwise bright, capable people precisely because it represents the epitome of survival in the throes of the unknown. Hardly anyone in the audience would know you or your qualifications from Adam. Not everyone quickly grows accustomed to dialing in strings of coherently spoken thoughts while baking beneath stage lighting. Contrary to our natural instincts toward leaving gaps in a conversation wherein at least one other party may chime in at some point, one must somehow fill between 30 and 60 minutes without anyone offering a rebuttal or question that might allow a few moments’ personal respite. Only with time, repetition and mindful planning does that alien set of circumstances eventually begin to feel ‘natural.’
The more information you gather beforehand, the more quickly you will ease into a sense of control over your performance. Once you gather some perfunctory information ahead of time regarding the venue, your anticipated attendance and a tentative schedule, touring the venue beforehand, if possible, may allow you to walk the stage and visualize your audience to the point that the surroundings feel friendly and accommodating instead of terrifyingly unknown. This would also be an opportune time to introduce yourself to and get to know the staff who will keep everything around you chugging along while you focus on your talk. First and foremost, it solidifies your initial impression as a considerate, grateful human being who appreciates the effort others are putting forth on your behalf. Of equal importance, you will feel more comfortable if you have friendly faces around you with names attached to them, especially if/when you come up with questions concerning preparations for your presentation.
Roughly the same concept applies directly to your speech itself. Do you know how so many legendary speakers convey such conversational, unrehearsed shades of calm when delivering a talk? Simple: they rehearse constantly. They can recite their respective bread-and-butter speeches backwards in their sleep precisely because they obsessed over timing and tweaking each phrase hundreds of times before offering it once to an audience. They are constantly comfortable with improvisation out of either necessity or simply an in-the-moment groove. Nothing rattles them, because the entire presentation structure has become as naturally ingrained as a genetically encoded reflex. Record yourself for later review, rope a few friends into sitting through your talk privately, but above all, show up feeling like your performance will be just another relaxed run-through.
Reality Check: It Isn’t Always About ‘You’
Prepare your ego for a tidal wave of cold water: you are not the reason the auditorium is filled with a butt every 18 inches. Accept that as a good thing. When you cease to fixate on your winning personality galvanizing a crowd’s adoration as the imaginary main attraction, all the energy you would have focused on declaring yourself the center of attention can suddenly flow freely into maintaining your audience’s interest in your message. In the end, you merely stylize and administer the information your attendees have arrived to receive. When preparing your speech, you need not worry a second about making anyone else actually like you. If you dedicate yourself to getting your point across in the most interesting fashion possible and maximizing the value everyone takes away from your presentation, you will inevitably astound the audience with your calm onstage demeanor and obvious commitment to your subject matter anyway.
Your Speech May Not Be About You, But Set Aside Some Pre-Performance ‘You’ Time, Anyway
Overcoming fear of public speaking is not remotely as schizophrenic a process as the juxtaposition of these first two steps might make it seem. Still, block off some dedicated time unto yourself before a speech in order to tap into your desired impact on your audience. Bonafide millionaire and influential mentor Dan Lok has made a habit of reminding himself that everybody in the room should take away something of value from his message by visualizing a white light striking him from the sky and spreading with increasing brightness over every single person in the room. Whether that exact approach suits you or not, extract yourself from any backstage frenzy or glad-handing with attendees and go to the right places inside your head before stepping on stage. You may merely be a vehicle for some knowledge more precious than your polished persona, but wouldn’t it be better for your message to arrive in a precision-tuned Dodge Charger than dragged behind an El Camino in obviously desperate need of a tuneup?
If All Else Fails, Bookend Your Memorization
When new to public speaking, you may struggle with a fear of memorization. Let’s assume you don’t trust your panic-addled mind to recall much more of your speech than a snappy opening and inspiring closing. That’s fine, as nailing down those two critical components will at least free you up to lay out a few clear bullet points in the middle. On either side of your talk’s meat, your first salvo will set the tone for your entire performance and a compelling closing should contain a call to action or some inspired rallying thought to involve your audience more deeply in your message. Not to understate the value of everything else you have to say, but if you fail to quickly hook the crowd’s attention and eventually fire them up to pursue some specific action, everything else was a complete waste of time.
Laugh if you must, but professional wrestling embodies the art of selective memorization. In the ring, some of the most beloved performers ever to grace the squared circle, from ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair to ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and The Rock, could have thousands of people eating out of their palms from bell to bell with little more than a finish and a few key spots actually planned ahead of time. On the mic, it was the same business. A booker could give “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes as little as a few words (if even that), and that rotund, blonde-haired Texan son of a plumber could effortlessly ‘talk the people into the building’ for his next big match with an everyman affability that can only come from walking your talk day-in and day-out. Your cerebellum might recall your exact practiced phrasing and ideas in a heartbeat, but you can neither consciously access that ability mid-performance nor trust its 100-percent accuracy. Whereas concentrating too intently may have you stumbling over your own feet, your thoughts will pour forth far more fluidly if you just open your mouth and let go without thinking too hard about any one phrase. Trust yourself and your prep work.
Let’s not sugarcoat it: overcoming your fear of public speaking may demand some repetition. More than likely, you will continue to agonize over the same trepidations ad nauseum until you stumble upon a comfortable routine. Be prepared to try and try again. At the same time, remember that this is a skill, not an inherent superpower. Be yourself. Enjoy and celebrate even the minuscule steps forward wherever you spot them. Like any other challenging endeavor, public speaking follows an often misunderstood pattern: it doesn’t ‘get easier.’ More excitingly, you keep getting better.
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