Saturday, August 25, 2012

Public Speaking: Oh My!

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” ~ Jerry Seinfeld 

“There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.” ~ Mark Twain

Yesterday at work I was asked to give a speech. It had been a while since I had been asked to speak in front of a large group. I had kind of forgotten just how scary it can be! Having an anxiety disorder, I was definitely apprehensive. I was worried that I would forget my lines and look like a fool. I could say something dumb and be the joke of the workplace for weeks. As soon as it was announced that we all would have to give speeches, these thoughts started going through my head. My palms got wet and my mouth got dry. That familiar anxious feeling.

We broke for an extended lunch, giving us all time to prepare our speeches. Talking with some of the others as we left for lunch, I quickly realized that everyone was nervous about this, not just me. Some were even more nervous than I was. Oddly, this made me feel quite a bit better about it. Even the seemingly very outgoing and ultra-confident people in the group expressed that they were nervous as well. So if I stumble a little bit, it's not really a big deal. Other people are going to stumble as well, get a case of the "uhh"'s, or have the most witty, clever line they spent their whole lunch coming up with just float away into thin air as soon as they get up in front of the group. It happens.

Realizing this was a huge relief to me. I opted to scrap my note cards and just go a more extemporaneous route. The subject matter wasn't really tough. I got everything worked out in my head and was pretty confident in the material by the time I headed back to work. The anticipation however was another matter. As the time to start the speeches approached, the nerves got worse. My heart started beating faster. I started to sweat more. The lines that I had all worked out in my head began to blur together in my head more and more as time went on. I just wanted to get my speech over with. I had decided to go first, so that I could I relax with ease while the rest of the speeches commenced, but I was beaten to the punch.

The first person to go up did a great job. She still set the bar really high. Great. It was a tough act to follow, but I took a deep breath and stood up to go second. Most of the next few minutes is a hazy, distant, dream-like memory, even though it was just yesterday. I think anxiety is funny that way. It has an ability to dampen your perceptions. Although I don't remember it well, I know I did fine. I lost my train of thought at some points, but quickly picked it back up, without standing there looking like a fool. I got my point across. There was no laughter when I was finished, just the usual obligatory applause.

The feeling that you feel after you sit back in your chair after giving that ever intimidating speech is priceless! All the anxiety and nervousness just washes away. Everyone gets nervous about public speaking. Even people who you think don't appear nervous probably are. Stand-up comedians, ministers, actors, teachers, motivational speakers, TV personalities. We're all just people, and we all get nervous.

“I was sitting there hoping they wouldn’t call my name – because the idea of having to give a speech in front of everyone in the world is terrifying.” — Reese Witherspoon, on her anxiety before winning the 2006 Oscar for Best Actress for “Walk the Line.”

One of the main things that worries people about public speaking is simply the fact that their nervousness will show. We are afraid that other people will see that we are nervous. But everybody gets nervous about public speaking, so there shouldn't be any fear that somehow people will catch on your act and lose respect for you. They already know that you're nervous. If your audience was in the same situation as you, having to give that speech, they would be a nervous wreck too. We naturally tend not to realize that other people can feel the same way we do in these situations.

Anxiety has a tendency to distort our perspective on things. Generally, in public speaking situations, people tend to overestimate how apparent the symptoms of their stage-fright are to others, and to not really notice those same symptoms in other people. After a previous public speaking appearance, a much longer speech in front of a much larger audience, I was told later by many people that they could not tell I was nervous at all. I had felt like a complete wreck. I was kept up at night over the anticipation of this speech. My heart was absolutely trying to leap out of my chest all throughout the speech. I thought I must have appeared a fool, yet nobody was the wiser. That is how distorted my perception was!

Public speaking is tough. No matter who you are, it's tough. That's why more people list glossophobia (the fear of public speaking) as their number one fear than do necrophobia (the fear of death). But it's a fact of life and an obstacle that most of us have to overcome at some point in our lives. You just have to realize that it's not that bad. Your worst thoughts about it aren't going to actually happen. Your speech won't be the talk around the water-cooler for weeks to come. It will be fine, and you will feel better and stronger for having done it.

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