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Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking
By Bill R. Swetmon   Printer Friendly Version

The research is in and the verdict is: Everyone suffers with Laliophobia: the fear of public speaking! There is no exception. As a matter of fact, it is the number one fear winning out over such things as heights, insects, bugs, financial problems, deep water, sickness, and death. We are more afraid of speaking before a group than of dying; perhaps because we may have to speak publicly many times and die only once!

In any case, there is a great fear of public speaking.

This fear has been called the "Fight or Flight Syndrome." When the human body is in a state of fear and anxiety, several physiological responses begin to take place all at once. The brain's cortex sends a signal to the sympathetic nervous system to be on alert and prepare for action. The adrenal glands begin to pump out stress hormones which trigger a chain reaction. The heart rate increases; the blood pressure rises; the adrenaline increases in the bloodstream; the blood begins to recirculate, filling the nerve endings in the stomach, better know as butterflies.

The first step in calming down all these activities and becoming more relaxed is to give this event a different name. Instead of calling it fear or nervousness, let's call it POWER!

The name you give to something or someone determines how you view that object or person. A positive name produces a positive reaction; a negative name produces a negative reaction.

So from now on call nervousness POWER.

This power gives you the ability to overcome the number one fear: the audience. Why are we so afraid of the audience? We fear...

They will not like us.
They will think we are foolish or at least not very intelligent.
They will laugh at our mistakes.
They will know we have forgotten our train of thought.
They will be bored with our material.
They will decide if we are a good speaker or a bad speaker and react accordingly.
They will know we are nervous.

All of these fears are called: the Voice of Judgment. It is that voice inside us that judges us harshly and believes everyone else judges us the same way, which is not true. Most audiences don't judge speakers as severely as the speaker judges himself or herself. As a matter of fact, most audiences are neutral. If the speaker does a few things right at the very beginning, the audience will be in total support, regardless of what happens during the rest of the presentation.

So the first thing you must learn to do is control your attitude toward the audience by using your nervousness as a powerful and energetic source of strength in order to do a great job communicating to your audiences.

The Method

It all begins with your attitude toward the audience.

Every great Hollywood actor is familiar with the Method. This is a form of acting that utilizes "sense memory." Developed by a Russian director named Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Method is a way for the actor to identify with the character in the play or movie by thinking in terms of "as if." The actor strives to act "as if" he or she is feeling the same emotion the character in the play or movie is feeling. The actor develops his/her sense memory or emotional memory, which is the ability to go back in one's life and think about an experience in which the same emotion was felt. The actor dwells on that experience until the emotion becomes so real the actor is actually reliving it all over again. Bruce Dern, a Method-trained actor, feels that the Method gives the actor a spontaneity that adds to the performance.

The basis for developing a character through Method acting is for the actor to use his/her own characteristics, personality, style, and emotions. For instance, an actor playing Hamlet feels his own vacillation that identifies with Hamlet's vacillation, his own ambition that permeates the character of Hamlet. The actor adds his or her own colors to the tapestry of the character, which gives the character a realistic depth that would not normally be there.

The actor then brings that emotion into the scene in which the character being played by the actor is going through a similar feeling. When the audience watches the actor, they sense the realism of the scene because the actor is actually feeling the emotion of the moment.

The power of this form of acting was demonstrated in the great actress Meryl Streep on the set of Ironwood, a bleak film in which she played a ragged outcast during the Depression who dies in a cheap hotel room. According to an article in Life magazine, Ms. Streep hugged a giant bag of ice cubes to simulate the feeling of lifelessness. In the dramatic scene, her hobo husband, played by Jack Nicholson, cried and sobbed, shaking her lifeless body. When the scene was finished, Ms. Streep just lay on the bed cold and still. After about ten minutes, she began to emerge from a deep, trance-like state which she had entered emotionally and psychologically.

According to Brad Darrach, author of the Life article, Meryl Streep looks, speaks, thinks, moves, and feels like the characters she plays. She is endowed with magnificent powers of self-transformation. Sydney Pollack, the Oscar-winning director, says that Meryl Streep can actually vanish into another person.

A public speaker can also connect to his/her audience by using a similar power to present material so it will be believed and experienced by the audience. In order for that to happen, some important attitudes must be developed by the speaker toward the audience. Here are the keys ones:

The audience is on my side, not against me.
The audience needs to hear what I am presenting.
I care for the audience.
I am glad to be able to present this material.
I have prepared my material and it is good stuff!
I feel good about who I am and how I appear.
I can see myself doing a good job.
I am excited and passionate about my presentation.
I am committed to doing my very best. The audience will like me!

If a speaker can check off all nine of these items each time before getting up to speak, the audience will be delighted with the presentation. If any one of these items is missing or cannot be affirmed, the presentation is in trouble before the speech begins!

Then, in addition to these, the speaker should recall a past experience of successful performance. It does not necessarily have to be public speaking. In recalling that experience, the speaker should try to remember the feelings of joy, pride, and confidence which that successful effort produced. Those feelings of success and positive self-esteem can be tapped into so the same feelings can be brought into the present to provide a confidence factor that would otherwise not be there.

The Greek Factor

The Greeks were great orators. They described effective public speaking with three words: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to the things the speaker believes and is willing to present with courage. Pathos refers to the strong feelings the speaker has for the topic; a willingness to put one's heart into it. Logos refers to the words the speaker uses to formulate the thoughts; in other words, the speaker uses the brain to form the ideas.

Courage-heart-a brain. Sound familiar? Sure it does... The Wizard of Oz!

Here are the sources every speaker can use to turn nervousness into power. When a speaker realizes that every person in the audience has some goals-in other words, is on the Yellow Brick Road of life, and that speaker endeavors to connect to those goals through ethos, pathos, and logos (courage, heart, brain), the presentation will be powerful because it will meet people where they live! They will sense the speaker cares for them and is interested in their lives and knows things that will help them reach their goals. Who would not want to listen to such a person!

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