It's been said that the fear of public speaking is up there with the fear of death. Ironically, the next thing that is thought to happen after death is a gruelling self-promotional presentation, from which the location of the eternal soul is decided. With this in mind, you would think more people would be more keen to practice public speaking while alive. Yet most people avoid public speaking at all costs.
Think back to childhood. When the adults are talking, the children are told to be quiet and not interrupt. ‘Children,’ they say, ‘should be seen and not heard.’ These huge flawless people run the world. They are bigger, stronger, and more important than you. Talking in front of them is a privilege and you have to learn that.
So the first choice as a child is to speak up anyway, so basically stage a rebellion against the adults. As a small child this can be extremely daunting, and besides the adults are the ones who decide whether or not you get chocolate, so it’s definitely not worth the risk.
The other choice is to wait until the adults give you permission to talk. It’s a family dinner and the adults are getting bored of talking to each other and all of a sudden the limelight is on you. “Child, get up in front of all us adults and tell us what you have been doing at school”. This is a big moment! After being told to be quiet for so long, all of a sudden you have to satisfy them with an entertaining school-based impro set. No pressure.
The next day you are sitting in class talking quietly with a friend about something that is a lot more interesting than what the lesson is about. The big adult in the front of the class notices and shouts to you, “If that is so interesting, get up and tell the rest of the class!” Although this is an obvious trap, what can you do? The adult has spoken, now get up and do what you are told. Perform, monkey!
So, it’s little surprise that later in life people are apprehensive about public speaking. We are conditioned to think of it as a big, scary, and important thing that we have to get right. Given the choice most adults therefore avoid it and only give it a go when they are formally expected to such as being a best man and reading out a brilliant comedic and poetic speech downloaded from the Internet.
A little attitude adjustment and change in strategy can make a big difference. Start off by treating public speaking as you do with any other activity that you are new at. Seldom do people participate in Formula 1 driving when they are on their learners drivers license. Have realistic expectations about how good you need to be at first, because if you expect yourself to be perfect then that’s just setting yourself up for failure.
Get in the habit of putting yourself in positions where you are likely to fail. It will be a while before you are a brilliant speaker, so the sooner you get used to getting it wrong and realise that’s not so bad, the quicker you can get on with focusing on improving.
And don’t try to get good at everything at once. When planning your next talk, pick a single aspect of the performance to focus on. Maybe just focus on how you use your hands, your voice, or timing. Trying to improve too many things at once adds too much pressure so don’t set it up to be so difficult. Small improvements add up to big ones if you stick at it.