The Eulogy or the Box

“If I ever stop getting nervous before a performance, it’s time for me to quit.”— Garth Brooks

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” But, why do people become afraid when speaking in public?

We as humans all have fears and insecurities. Some fears are rational, some are not. Some fears are hardwired into us all, because our reaction to those fears kept our ancestors alive a long, long time ago.  And because those fears ended up keeping them alive, they were around to make more of them… er, us.  It’s natural, and our fears help us in many cases survive and overcome tremendous obstacles.  Everyone has heard stories about the wonders of adrenaline and how mothers have had the strength to lift up cars to rescue their children.

But when you stand (figuratively) naked before a group of strangers it compounds all of our worst fears into one big moment of terror. We feel, as our ancestors did when they stumbled, alone, upon a group from another tribe, the fear that only comes when we realize we are “one against many.” We feel exposed, we feel as though we can’t hide (that’s why people love podiums), and we’re mortified in front of a room full of listeners as if they were a threat to our actual existence.

To the audience, however, it rarely looks as bad as we actually feel.  No matter how nervous you feel inside, the outside you doesn’t project anywhere near the anxiety you feel. So the first thing you need to know is that you can’t believe your own press: the last thing you want to do is get anxious about looking anxious — the audience simply does not see you as you think you look, no matter how nervous you might feel.

Speaking in public can in many ways be a great equalizer because no matter how smart or rich you are, it won’t help you when you hear your heart pounding and feel your mouth going dry. Absolutely no one is immune to what can happen to you on the platform.

Many great performers are nervous before a performance. Barbara Streisand is notorious for her stage fright, and so was Michael Jackson. Is it possible you can learn to harness your nervousness, control it, and use it to your advantage?

According to The Book of Lists, here is how the following percentage of people, when asked to name the things they feared most, responded:

Flying 18%

Death 19%

Sickness 19%

Deep Water 22%

Financial Problems 22%

Insects & Bugs 22%

Heights 32%

Public Speaking 41%

A quick glimpse at the numbers here tell you that over twice as many people fear speaking before a group as those that fear death itself. Seinfeld famously said of this list, “It suggests that at a funeral, the person giving the eulogy would rather be in the box.” 

Funny, until it’s your turn to give the eulogy.

You cannot possibly learn anything, especially changing physical behavior, unless you actually expose yourself and try it. Reading a book or going to a lecture will give you an introduction to enhancing your presentation skills, but in the end, you have to actually try new techniques and practice them to have a chance at being a confident and successful public speaker.

Learning to speak properly before a group is very much like learning to ride a bicycle. It feels awkward at first, but it gets easier, and before you know it, you get really good at it.  Embrace the challenge!  Everybody, repeat, everybody gets “butterflies” before they speak.  And that’s a good thing, because it’s what gives us an edge. What you need to learn is how to make those butterflies fly in unison! 

The good news here is that although everybody gets butterflies before they speak, those that have learned a different path don’t continue to get them when they actually begin speaking.  That’s because a lucky few have learned that the whole butterfly process comes from having learned to do things the wrong way since the day they started speaking to groups. Learning to unlearn those processes can create an environment where the whole “one against many” scenario never erupts — but that is the stuff of a later post.