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Public Speaking For 'Scaredy Cats'

Business communications researchers have studied the phenomenon of stage fright experienced by would-be public speakers. Let me summarize most of the findings in very down-to-earth terms: Most people would rather die than stand up before an audience and deliver a speech.

To suggest that these individuals are as 'nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs' may be something of an understatement in describing these public speaking 'scaredy cats.' The symptoms are similar to food poisoning: a queasy feeling in the pit of one's stomach, shakes and jitters, and a sincere desire to roll up into a fetal position.

As a public speaker and one who has provided instruction to others to help them develop their own skills, I have found that certain approaches work. Other approaches 'look good in theory,' but are not as helpful. One of the oft-repeated suggestions for overcoming stage fright includes the classic advice, 'imagine everyone else is naked.' However, it is rare that everyone else is naked, upon the speaker's arrival to the podium and as he or she surveys the audience. In fact, I have spoken extensively, and I have yet to spot even one naked audience member - I do think I would have noticed.

Another typical suggestion is to arrive early, meet attendees, and establish personal contacts with audience members. In keeping with this, speakers are to 'find a friendly face' in the audience, and imagine 'you are merely having a conversation' with that one person. That's not a bad idea, except that it would not alleviate the problem that arises with a large audience sprinkled with several unfriendly faces, or one that includes even one hostile heckler.

Now we're getting into the root of the problem - the one thing that most public speaking scaredy cats are deathly afraid of - the fear of ridicule, rejection, and public embarrassment. We were kids before we arrived in this predicament of being asked or told to deliver a presentation (usually by a boss or a teacher, the first time around). We know that some people can be real 'meanies,' and maybe a few readers even have something to feel guilty about. Perhaps this article will serve a dual purpose, and encourage audience members to become kinder, more attentive, more supportive, too. Maybe more people will quit whispering (sometimes not so quietly) and turn off their cell phones. Smiling would be nice, for both fellow audience members and from the point-of-view of speakers. (If not, don't worry would-be speakers, I will give you tips to roar like a lion and put those meanies in their rightful place - professionally, and politely.)

Let's review a few more of the standard suggestions. There is some value in knowing that you should relax. You should try to relax. However, individuals who have those occasional sleepless nights have been told that they should go to sleep. Swimmers should avoid sharks and avoid sinking. This advice, while true, is about as helpful to would-be speakers as an anchor is to one of those swimmers (of course he or she could possibly fend off a shark by striking it with the anchor, while on the way down to the bottom of the ocean). Practice breathing, stretch, exercise, think positive thoughts, learn from other speakers, rehearse - don't get me wrong - these are not bad ideas at all, but they are not enough.

What really works? Training. You can attend a workshop and receive formal training, or you can train yourself. Why haven't most people been trained before? A detailed explanation would require a treatise on the education system and a discussion of how to improve upon typical results (critics complain that graduates at any level lack strong oral and written communication skills).

Let's summarize by reviewing three problems that often exist: 1) New speakers are often forced to address topics that are unfamiliar to them. 2) Speakers are put under undue pressure, prior to developing basic skills. In academic settings there are egg timers and grade point reductions. In professional settings there are hopes for promotion and fears of demotion, pegged to the performance. 3) Athletes practice five hours a day; students may not accumulate that same amount of podium or stage experience during the course of earning an entire degree, unless speech becomes a personal pursuit.

Let's turn this around, for the sake of your academic progress, career potential, and (or) self esteem. First, you need coaching, training, and practice. You need role models. You need to make 'speaking,' as an activity, a pursuit that you engage in with at least the same amount of vigor as a hobby that you enjoy.

Here are some of the elements of a good training regimen: Practice speaking several times per week. Have you seen those exercise equipment infomercials that say, 'in just twenty minutes a day, three times a week, you can have the kind of body you've always wanted - ? Well, that sounds about right, except that what you need is a podium and an audience. You can join a speaking group such as Toastmasters (as a member of a chapter near you). You can offer to read announcements in a business, religious, or school setting. You can introduce yourself, often, in organized networking meetings. You can introduce yourself to other groups. You can introduce other speakers to groups (that might be a great way to get coaching - assisting an established speaker as an intern).

The nice thing about following the above training regimen advice, is that you can start small, and take care of the challenge of developing basic skills in bite-sized increments. There is one catch, which has to do with the fact that you'll have homework. You must read other people's speeches, and practice writing your own. One source for studying the heavy hitters is to visit your local library and look for access to a 'Vital Speeches of the Day' database. You may also want to do what I just did on a popular search engine. I ran the term 'speech writing' and came up with over three million hits. Now, as we all know, some of those hits will lead to services that require commercial payment. Later, that may be appropriate for some resources.

If you develop basic skills and progress to a level of mastery, you can actually get paid for speeches. How much do speakers make? According to the National Speakers Association, an average professional speaker's fee is around $3,500, plus expenses such as travel, accommodations, and program materials. Newly established speakers charge less, often an honorarium is given in the range of a few hundred dollars. On the other hand, nationally recognized 'celebrity speakers' often charge fees ranging from $5,000 to $100,000. Now that's what I would call a built-in incentive program for you, if being promoted or passing an academic course with flying colors is not enough.

If you've been following my article writing progress, you have probably deduced that the other critical component of public speaking success is to know your subject. This is not just knowledge at an intellectual level, however. It's also the kind of knowledge that you embrace with all your heart.

A passion for your subject gives you a sense of commitment and self-assuredness. Deep down, people feel your spirit, and that is what resonates with any speech and with any audience. In marketing it is said that one should 'sell the sizzle, not the steak.' In performing as a public speaker, it's the inspiring delivery of desirable information that sways an audience.

Finally, let's talk about rejection, the 'thing' that you fear - the imaginary monster that is keeping you awake at night. The monster that makes hands tremble, voices crack, and podiums shake as though they were in the shadow of a giant carnivore; a ferocious 'speaker eater,' that will devour you and anything you have to say like a tasty snack. This one critical insight will help you slay that monster: People want you to make them feel good. They want you to help them with insights that they do not have. Audiences want an 'experience, not words.' They want you to succeed. For self-serving reasons, audience members do not want you to fail, because then they would feel disappointed, and would be no better off than they were prior to giving you their time. It's only logical. Audiences want to accept you, and they want you to accept them as they are, and make their lives better by the time you leave.

No critic or heckler is a match for an expert - it's not even a fair fight (but it does create an outcome that's in your favor, if you develop your own area of expertise). The heckler, kind of a critic on steroids, is someone who yearns for attention. Knowing this, we can give that individual all of the attention that he or she deserves, in a calm and completely confident manner. Our weapons are factual, credible sources, which carry far more weight than any heckler's opinion; you are merely a humble messenger whose basis for speaking is facts in evidence. Ironically, the combination of credible information delivered with conviction, a bit of humility, and a sense of humor will transform your audience. Audience members will see you differently. They will respect you, and in time, adore you. You, too, will change and metamorphose from a scaredy cat to a majestic lion. You will be known as a speaker whose message, and whose passion and delivery, roars.

About the Author: Dr. Robert J. Lahm is the founder of several businesses, an entrepreneurship professor, a public speaker, and a writer. This article may be republished in its entirety, providing content, author's information, and any links remain intact. Copyright 2005 Dr. Robert J. Lahm.

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