Our Number One Fear
Public speaking is, according to West Coast Toastmasters, the number one fear Americans have. Our fear of public speaking is apparently even greater than our fear of death!
I do a lot of public speaking as part of my job. I teach maybe a dozen non-credit workshops at the Bayer Center each year, give breakout sessions at conferences, participate in panel discussions and facilitate meetings regularly. You probably think I’m some kind of extrovert that enjoys being in the spotlight and it comes naturally to me, right?
Absolutely untrue. I am definitely an introvert and have been my entire life. I got a C in high school speech class as well as college undergrad public speaking class. A shy child and teen, speaking or reading aloud in front of a group scared the daylights out of me.
Enrolling in the MBA program at Seton Hill finally made me face it in a hard way. The first semester, when I found out we would have to present to the class every two weeks or so, I nearly dropped out. But I really, really wanted that degree, so I stayed in the program and, with enough practice, reached a point where it became easier.
The Fear Never Totally Disappears, But It Can Be Contained
But “easier” didn’t (and still doesn’t) mean completely without fear or nervousness. Even today, despite how often I train or speak, I still deal with nerves – every single time. Ask any of my work colleagues – the 15 minutes right before a training, I’m usually pacing around or chattering nervously to someone (usually our poor office coordinator, who is fortunately a kind and patient listener).
Here’s how I work past it: before I start a class or workshop, I forcibly direct my mental focus on my audience. I think about the hard and incredible work they do at nonprofits and how they are missing time at the office to be there because they need knowledge that I have. I let myself fill up with love and concern for helping them, instead of worrying about how I’m going to look and sound, and the nerves quiet down. (Once I’m in front of an audience, I’m fine because I’m occupied with the teaching.)
Give it a try the next time you are feeling nervous about speaking in front of a group. Focus on your audience, forget about yourself. You have something that they need and that will make their lives better. It makes all the difference in the world.