Americans are more afraid of public speaking than death. To Jerry Seinfeld that means if we go to a funeral we’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. I have walked off stage to a thundering ovation and have been booed off by a swearing mob. Using the same material! I’ve also had jurors tearfully cheer me after a verdict and had other times I’ve heard crickets. How can we do our best? Or at least improve our chances the boos will be polite? Here are three items to consider.
Fear of public speaking or performing never goes away
First, recognize that our fear of public speaking or performing never goes away. And we never want it to go away. Fear is good. It means we care,we want to do well, and we are growing. Fear can be our ally if we accept it. This may sound a bit unusual but I have learned to appreciate and welcome my fear. I recognize its power and admire it. I know it can cripple me so I work to be its friend. I talk to it. “Well hello my old friend, welcome back.” It sits just off stage or rides in my passenger seat on my way to court. I remind it how it has accompanied me through some rough times and amazing triumphs. Once I welcome it again, fear begins to work with me and not against me. When I make it my friend, it becomes a quiet supporter. Although it has yet to write me a check.
If we go to a funeral we’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse.
Second, as we often hear, rehearse rehearse rehearse. However, I have a twist: don’t try to memorize a script or multiple sentences. Use single words, or better yet concepts, for your preparation. If you begin to concentrate on getting the concept across, specific words don’t matter as much. There are no mistakes because there is no perfect way to say it. If necessary, you can memorize a certain phrase or sentence but always remember your duty is to the listener, not to you or your script. This will ease your mind because you will not be required to recall and deliver an order of specific words; it is much easier to recall and convey a concept. Rehearse by talking about the concept out loud over and over and natural pathways will appear. And they will appear again when you stand up and speak. Trust it and it will come. You may not be funny–and may not want to be–but you will be natural and clear.
Engage – Expand – Elevate
Third, the “Three E’s”: an opening that Engages, a middle that Expands and a closing that Elevates. You can win or lose an audience right up front, so take some time to craft a way to initially engage their self-interest–not yours. It may be how you will help or entertain them in the next few minutes or a personal moment of vulnerability that touches something in them. We need to find a way to connect with them, or at least interest them. All great art engages us up front, and our speaking is no different. Later along the way you may choose to give the listener verbal “chapter headings” but at a minimum, have middle concepts that expand on your topic(s) and a closing that is inclusive and inspiring. Nobody–especially a listener–wants you to end on a down. Finish up.
Always remember: the audience does want you to entertain or enlighten or lead them. Or all three. Even in the toughest environment they are rooting for you when you stand up. “Make my time here special please.” Do it! If nothing else, it sure beats being in a casket.