By Paul A. Douglas, Ph.D, founder & CEO, P.A. Douglas & Associates Inc.
According to the Book of Lists, glossophobia or the fear of public speaking ranks as the most significant fear people have. When asked to list their top ten greatest fears the majority of people put speaking in public higher up their list than their fear of death!
Fear of dying was a lowly seventh on the list, fear of heights (acrophobia) was number two and fear of spiders (arachnophobia) was number three. I once heard a wag comment that most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy. It is a common fear; it happens to the most intelligent and creative of us. The great Mark Twain had a debilitating fear of speaking in public. Once, when asked to give an impromptu speech on leadership, he was so gripped with fear that he stood up and said, “Caesar and Hannibal are dead, Wellington has gone to a better place, Napoleon is under the sod and, to be honest, I don’t feel too good myself.” I once had a great fear of public speaking. In the religion in which I grew up, young people were asked, forced really, to speak from the podium in church. I can remember as a boy of twelve or thirteen sitting in front of the congregation with my knees shaking, as I waited my turn to step up to the podium and deliver my two-and-a-half-minute masterpiece.
Now I speak on a regular basis to groups of from a few hundred to several thousand and do so without fear and without written notes. I have overcome my fear of public speaking by overcoming my fear of forgetting what I wanted to say. You see most people don’t fear public speaking because they don’t have anything to say, but they fear instead the experience of looking out at a sea of faces while drawing a blank. I believe that the best public speakers are not born with that gift but have simply learned to be good at it. They have developed or adopted a system that worked so well for them that their fears have evaporated. But make no mistake here your fear of speaking in public can have a very negative impact on both your professional and personal life. As you advance in our careers, the one thing you can count on is that we are increasingly going to be required to give presentations and speeches. Your inability to confidently deliver a talk or speech means lost opportunities. If you allow your nervousness to get the best of you, it can and will affect your credibility and the level of professionalism you exude. But why is it such a significant fear? What is at the root? Why do we angst so much about doing something we have done since our first year of life – speaking? The reason so many people dread speaking in public is the fear of ridicule. We perceive that our audience, whatever the size, be it 5 or 500, will critically judge us and as a result of our self-image our self-esteem will be eroded.
But when you examine this fear, as I have, it comes down to the worry that you will forget what to say next. So to overcome this fear of forgetting most people read their speeches. But the rapport with your audience is built with the eyes, not the voice, and if your head is constantly bobbing up and down, the effect is anything but inspiring. Eye contact is the key to a good delivery, and anything that detracts from that weakens your speaking ability. The first thing you need to do is believe in your knowledge and ability – to believe in yourself. If you didn’t know anything, people wouldn’t be asking you to speak. You have the knowledge and people want to hear what you have to say. The second most important thing is preparation. The more you prepare, the more confident you will be. The problem is most people, even accomplished successful executives and professionals, don’t know how to prepare correctly. An enormous amount of time, often a week’s work or more, will go into writing, editing and memorizing a one-hour speech. Perhaps this allotment of time and all the stress associated with it could be justified if the result was spectacular, but too often it results in a stilted presentation and often a bored audience who sense that what they are hearing has in fact been memorized. The good news is that, as all accomplished speakers know, it is not necessary nor is it advisable to memorize a speech word for word.
A speech is a sequence of thoughts, not a sequence of words, it’s not necessary nor is it wise to try to memorize your speech word for word. The most effective way to deliver a speech is to speak from thought to thought wrapping each idea in the words that come to you at that moment. If you memorize word for word it will sound canned, and the pressure that comes from feeling that you must deliver it verbatim will reduce your effectiveness. You want your speech to appear planned, not canned. The four steps technique I have outlined below is highly useful and easy to learn.
1. Write out the speech, edit, revise and polish.
Write down everything you hope to say, yes actually write it out. This step is crucial as it allows you to rearrange your thoughts in a logical sequence, identify redundancies, etc. Expand on this basic skeleton by jotting down other points that you wished to say under each central topic area, rearrange and edit. When you have arrived at a finished product, read it aloud to see how it feels and to establish the approximate running time for your speech.
2. Identify the major talking points in your speech.
Now that you have your address as you would like it to be delivered read through it once again, but this time identifying the major talking points within it. These are the primary subjects you will be speaking to.
3. Choose a visual image and reminder for each of these talking points.
This image is your cue, a mental picture that will remind you of the talking point.
4. Finally, in step four, associate each of your visual images with a loci (location) or peg.
I might use the ‘Body File,’ the ‘Room Loci’ method or the regular peg system. It is beyond the scope of this short article to teach you any of these specific mnemonic devices, but you can Google the loci method of memory or better yet attend one of our administrative professionals’ courses where we teach the invaluable ‘Peg’ and ‘Body File’ Systems.