Public Speaking: Expert Advice To Help You Fight The Fear

Not too long ago, Becoming Fearless featured a post about the new documentary "Speak," which follows the lives of several men and women competing to win the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. I've since seen the DVD (you can order it here, and even host a screening), and I was pretty much blown away by how the wannabe winners were so determined to tell their stories in public, on stage, to very large crowds... some of them in the face of their own extreme fear of public speaking. Yes, there was only one winner, but all of them powered through and gave masterful speeches, and I found that to be inspiring.

The fear of public speaking is Americans' top fear, and it encompasses every type of public speech, from work presentations to TV appearances to wedding toasts. For insight into just why it's so scary -- and how to fight the fear -- I chatted with "Speak's" filmmakers, Brian Weidling and Paul Galichia. Read on...

Why is the fear of public speaking so universal, do you think?
Brian: Everyone has to deal with it on some level. Even the people in "Speak"... it may seem like they don’t have the fear of public speaking, that they’ve overcome their fear and it's like a drug or adrenaline that they feed off. But they are compelled to tell their story. What brings the fear back into it for them is, it's a case of "What personal story are you going to share with the audience? What are you going to say in seven minutes?"

Paul: In the end, you don’t have to be afraid. You have a voice, and if you’re able to tell your story, you can change somebody’s life. Every voice matters. I believe that to have a fully realized life, it's important for you -- for everyone -- to be able to get up in front of people and speak. The contestants in our film have been through a lot of stuff, and there's something very inspiring and powerful about that. It does say something about how, if you’re sincere and you’re honest about who you are and what you love and what you do and your fears and failures, people will identify with that and you will draw them in.

Brian: It's like connective tissue. If you look within yourself and think, “What are these people thinking of me? This isn’t going to go well," you will get clammy hands and your heart will pitter-patter and you will have fear, whether you're speaking in front of professional people or at a wedding. Fear comes when you worry about how others are perceiving you instead of about the message you're trying to give your audience. But that feeling of knowing that you're trying to say something about this beautiful couple at the wedding... that will help you.

Paul: The people who make the best presentations are the ones who can tell a story about what they’re trying to convey -- the ones who have a narrative to communicate to their coworkers. It sounds goofy, but that’s when a presentation goes from being something everyone has to sit through to being something that's inspiring. In "Mad Men," they’re always talking about pitching the story of the product.

Speaking of stories, do either of you have a personal story you can share about having to cope with the fear of public speaking?
Paul: When I was a freshman in high school, I was asked in an impromptu way to speak at a school fundraiser. I gave this personal, heartfelt speech that everyone loved. I was proud of myself, and they thought it was so great that they asked me to do it again... and the next time, I wasn't so personal. It wasn’t coming from my heart. I was flailing in front of the whole student body. It was one of those nightmare situations where you just want to get the hell out of there. Everyone’s looking at you and listening to what you're saying… it can be a really terrible feeling. To really gather myself and recover from that was tough. It became a situation where I wasn't talking about what I felt or what was on my mind, but about what I thought other people wanted me to say. That’s when you get into a lot of trouble. Anyway, I after I stepped off the stage, my friends were so embarrassed for me that they couldn’t even look me in the eyes. Humiliating!

God, that sounds horrible. What was the topic, do you remember?
Things I liked about the school! It was kind of a vague topic; the first time, I had talked about experiences other students had had at that school, but the second time I said stuff like, "My friends are cool….” It fell so flat. Everyone felt so terrible for me. It was like I was trying to give a sales pitch for the school.

Did that experience haunt you?
Paul: Well, last year I was asked to speak at the school again for something called "Mentor Day." It's funny that they asked, for a variety of reasons. First of all, I had appeared for Mentor Day before -- and no one had shown up, so I just went home. This time, though, I worked with a couple of Toastmasters, and they helped me. But I still had that moment standing at the lectern with everyone looking at me. For one flash, I had a quick moment of panic: What am I doing? Why did I agree to do this? I can get out of here right now. It's that knowledge that if you stop talking, there’s nothing going on in the room. So I just started talking. Once I started sharing my story, it was easy.

Brian: And so the first tip is: Know what you want to say. Write it all out! Write your speech. And edit it: Go through it and make the edits on paper. Make sure the message sits straight with you.

Paul: Know what you’re talking about. If you need help, there are a lot of boot camps out there, seminars, public-speaking coaches who have insights into what makes a great public speech.

Brian: People like that will help you hone your message. That's tip two: Tailor the message to your audience. Make sure it's a message your audience wants to hear. And tip three is, rehearsing and practicing are paramount. If you spend time rehearsing, you will be more relaxed because you will know your material better.

Paul: When it comes to knowing what you want to say, you need to ask yourself, "What is the point of what I'm doing? What’s the objective?" That’s part of the fabric of being a good public speaker. Sometimes you can't decide on the message -- it's given to you. But if you're going to be good, you have to feel like you have some sort of control over how that message is communicated. If the overall message is "profits are down," and you’re able to convey how it’s happening or why you're telling your audience this, it will resonate differently than if you just read it.

Have you ever had to give a speech along the lines of, "Profits are down"? Or about something you didn't agree with? I'm thinking about people who have to kind of spout the "company line." That makes it harder -- and scarier.

Brian: Neither Paul nor I have worked in the corporate world. That’s the disclaimer. Our own experiences involve trying to get a documentary financed, pitching it to investors. The big thing I've learned is, even if it's not necessarily a message that you want to trumpet but one that you have to trumpet to reach your objective... if you have to give the company line on a certain thing, even if it's not how you feel, well, that's life. That’s part of being a grown-up and making sure you survive in your job. When you work at a corporation, it's important to get on board with what their message is, so you can convey it in a way that is dynamic. Actually, that's probably how you grow as a small-businessperson, too. It comes back to worrying less about yourself and how others are perceiving you, and more about the message you want to deliver.

Paul: It's not about you, it’s about the message. When you know what you’re talking about so you don’t have to fumble around, you’re on your way to becoming a good public speaker.

Brian: The narrative should always come from what’s inside you, rather than from macro issues going on with the project. Even if what you have to say is of a technical nature, you as the speaker should decide what needs to get conveyed. You have to put who you are into it.

Paul: What do you want to leave them with when they walk out the door? What’s the leave-behind? When you stop talking and step down and the mike turns off, what was the point of your being there at all? Those are the questions to ask yourself. Even if it's a sales presentation, or a boring slog of bullshit you have to convey about a boss or a job you don’t like, there's still a way to express yourself!

Why is it important for people to address their fear of public speaking, and to try to overcome it in the first place?
We've talked to various Toastmasters who had shyness issues and paranoia about public speaking. Once they learned how to get up in front of people and talk, they became more successful at their jobs. Public speaking is a huge component of everything you do. It's a component of leadership, of people having confidence in you and what you're doing. When you go from being the silent person in the room to being the person who volunteers to get up in front of executives, you impress everyone and get a promotion!

Brian: Not being able to do it can really hold you back. I’ve done several speeches at weddings -- including Paul’s. I always have some butterflies when I'm up there, but I'm smart enough now to have something written down, to at least have good words that I can deliver. But I remember at my own wedding sitting off on the side of the dance floor and watching my wife dancing with her friends. I had this thought: I'm the luckiest guy in the world, literally, and I have no idea how I was able to get this beautiful woman to marry me. I wanted to get up and say something to that effect, but my feet became cement blocks and I couldn’t do it! Now, every wedding we go to where the groom stands up to say something about the bride, my wife gives me "the look." Like, “See? He got up and he gave his speech!" She doesn’t have compassion that I was fearful that day.

Why were you so scared, exactly?
For some reason, knowing everybody who’s looking at me is more fear-inducing than speaking to strangers. For me, being in front of friends and family... I have more difficulty with interpersonal communication than I do with an audience of total strangers. When it’s people that I know -- even if it's only one or two of them -- I start to think about what they're thinking about me: Do they think I’m stupid? What am I wearing?

Paul: Talking in front of people you know can be a lot harder.

Why is talking on camera so scary? I'm thinking of that newscaster in your film who flubbed up and kind of froze....
We asked, and he said he was thinking about all of the people seeing the broadcast. And he was thinking, I can’t believe this is going so terribly. Live audience or no, it comes down to: It’s just you talking. Everyone's listening to everything you are saying. That spotlight. In acting, you have another actor to play off of; you can get into a character. But if you're just talking to a camera and you know there’s a huge audience out there, the spotlight is on you.

How is giving a work presentation different, fear-wise?
I once worked in an office that had 200 people, all these writers and editors. We’d work all night, and we had a guy come over and give us updates on the company. We had to sit through these PowerPoints, and it was a nightmare. Then one day we had a new guy... and he would just crush it. He was entertaining and captivating: "This is what the company is doing right now!" It was a completely different experience from the first guy. The perception of that guy as a person was that he was just strolling through it, trying to get through, not that comfortable, clearly didn’t identify with anything we were about and just couldn’t relate. We didn’t like that guy. But the guy who came in next, it was like, “I like that guy! This place is all right! I don’t care that I just worked 12 hours.” He succeeded at turning it from something to endure into something to enjoy.

How did making this movie make you more fearless?
The tales of personal transformation that we’ve heard are really kind of unbelievable. We went to a prison that had a speaking club. The judge who put them in prison was like, "These are guys who could rob a bank and not be afraid. But getting up in front of people makes them terrified." Something about them participating in the speaking club helped them learn empathy, made them better people, and reduced their "criminal element" to the point where they were able to have relationships they didn’t have before. To have a self-confidence they didn’t have before. When you become a confident public speaker, your self-esteem rises; you believe in yourself on a different level than you did before, and that has to make you on some level more fearless than you were before.

Brian: Empathy comes from the listening aspect of public speaking. The prisoners who participated realized that people have feelings, and because of that, they grew the ability to have empathy. Even first-degree murderers who are in prison for the rest of their lives, and had so much hate on the surface. The speaking club is like AA: People get up and have to present, and everyone else has to listen to other people's stories. It's through listening to those stories that you learn and grow.

Paul: There always has to be an element of empathy to what you’re talking about. Look at Bill Clinton: When he speaks, he’s right there with you. He has that element of connection to your experience, and he puts that into just about everything. It's important to have that when it comes to public speaking. It makes it more effective!

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