Let’s do this. Let’s talk about the fear of public speaking. And how it is hurting speaking experiences for all of us. Not by those who are feeling fear (we all have large sensations before speaking), but by our collective perception that if we aren’t shaking in fear...we’re just fine.
To start, I’m haunted by the thought that so many people have a deep fear of public speaking when it is such an essential skill. This could be not just a keynote on a stage, but a presentation to colleagues, or speaking up at that one important gathering. Those who feel this terror could be sharing their valuable ideas and stories with their audience, but are missing the opportunity.
Public speaking isn’t just a skill that C-suite executives need in order to lead their organizations. We all need it. Today. And tomorrow..
In the eloquent words of Head of TED Chris Anderson,
“...however much public speaking skills matter today, they’re going to matter even more in the future. Driven by our growing connectedness, one of humankind’s most ancient abilities is being reinvented for the modern era. I’ve become convinced that tomorrow, even more than today, learning to present your ideas live to other humans will prove to be an absolutely essential skill for:
- Any child who wants to build confidence.
- Anyone leaving school and wanting to progress at work
- Anyone who cares about an issue
- Anyone period.”
I think this overwhelming fear has bifurcated how we approach speaking. We are either
we are not.
Thus we are fine.
But hold on.
Not afraid ≠ great public speaking.
Numerous times as I’m introduced to people as a public speaking and communications consultant, someone will respond, “Oh that’s great! So many people need that skill and are deathly afraid of speaking. I got over that years ago. I’m fine.”
Which I’m always glad to hear, but then I wonder... are they? Are we fine with fine? Don’t we want to speak and listen at a level better than fine? In the audience we are relieved when someone isn’t shaking in their boots, but aren’t we craving more than that too?
What else is there?
I was discussing this with my friend and teaching partner Ryan Foley last year, and we decided to take on this challenge. What training do speakers need after they have some comfort with public speaking? What comes next? What skills are needed to go from good to great speaking?
By looking at what is next, I’m not belittling the plight of those gripped in fear. This is real, and needs to be addressed head on with patience, skills, and compassion to get to the other side. Some of my most treasured moments with clients have been when they have reached the light at the end of this dark tunnel. I welcome anyone wanting to work with/through/on their fear and also am grateful that there are organizations like WomanSpeak and Toastmasters to help.
And what’s next?
Think about the times you have been charmed, moved, and even changed by someone you heard speak. What was the magic? Actually, it’s really difficult to point out the specific ingredients that made a great talk since we were in the middle of experiencing it. Afterwards, we mostly just remember the feeling we had.
Let’s take a closer look at one of these skills specifically: the skill of speaking with your own authentic style.
I’ve heard some things that strike me as funny tips for how to deliver a great talk when they are used on their own without the context of the natural style of the speaker
- Plant your feet and don’t move
- Imagine a box in front of you and keep your hands inside it
- Exaggerate every gesture
- Speak very very slowly
These are speaking techniques - purposeful actions that you consciously choose to do. They themselves aren’t actually good or bad, it is how they are used. Here’s what my teaching partner says about the difference between speaking techniques and personal speaking style:
Much like a melody played on a perfectly in-tune instrument, your talks, presentations, stories, and interviews will sound infinitely more interesting, relatable, and persuasive when delivered in your own well- tuned speaking style.
Technique is the precise use of tools or behaviors to enhance your general speaking quality and appeal, regardless of your speaking style. It includes methods for enhancing qualities like volume, timing, pausing, story structure, and eye contact.
You could compare a speaker using refined technique to a musician playing a song with technical skill. When played on a well-tuned instrument, the melody flows beautifully. However, technical skill can’t save a melody played on an out-of-tune instrument. In the same way, speaking technique can’t save a talk delivered by an inauthentic speaker. If you try to emulate someone else’s style, or fail to engage your speaking flow state, you will become like an out-of-tune instrument and your talk like a melody that doesn’t quite sound right.
A speaker who is skilled at speaking with their own unique style from the stage creates an intimate and impactful connection with their audience. Then, if that speaker understands how to further naturally enhance their style with careful adoption of speaking techniques...that is a talk to be remembered.
Imagine if every speaker had developed their style and their speaking toolkit beyond the not-scared-so-I’m-just-fine: storytelling, humor, the gift of a great core idea, and beyond...
Perhaps we could feel more community and connection as we return to “one of humankind’s most ancient abilities.”
After all, no one swipes left when you’re telling a great story.