There is no doubt about the important role that fear plays when it comes to public speaking. Public-speaking anxiety is a disturbance of mind regarding a forthcoming public-speaking event for which you are the speaker. As a fear, it ranks higher than the fear of death. It is nearly universal, yet it obviously doesn’t prevent successful speeches. Not only is it widely proclaimed, but it is widely written about as well. In this essay I want to offer a philosophical perspective that I have written about in my textbook, Communicating Effectively (McGraw-Hill), but which has the potential for overcoming it if practiced regularly.
Here is the key to this approach: Focus on your speech as a communication task, not as a performance. Most speakers with stage fright view speeches as performances. In viewing speeches as performances, the goal of speakers is to satisfy an audience of critics. That is, they realize their audience members will be analyzing and criticizing their performance just as movie critics go to movies with a different purpose and point of view than ordinary movie goers.
There are other characteristics of such a performance orientation, too. Speakers view the speech as a formal talk, and because of the formality, they tend to “put on” a false front or engage in somewhat artificial behavior. The public speech, thus, is an extraordinary, exceptional, and unusual situation undertaken in unfamiliar circumstances. Because of this, speakers feel they must follow proper behaviors to be correct, and their results — how effective they are in connecting with their listeners — depends on polish, eloquence, and refinement.
The problem with a performance orientation is simple: effective public speaking is more like ordinary communication encounters than like a public performances. This is an important insight. Just as I characterized the performance orientation, above, let’s look at the characteristics of a communication orientation to see the differences. First, the goal changes. No longer are speakers trying to satisfy an audience of critics; they are, instead, sharing ideas with an audience. And the goal of listeners is not to analyze and criticize, it is, rather, to show interest in and even learn from what speakers have to say.
There are other characteristics as well. With a communication orientation, speakers must realize that public speaking is similar to everyday conversation, thus, it is normal, natural behavior — not formal, put-on, or artificial. When your communication becomes common, ordinary, and average, rather than extraordinary, exceptional, and unusual, a whole new mindset takes place that signals speakers that this is a normal activity with which they are familiar. Being something that is standard and routine, they can approach public-speaking opportunities as occasions they can face realistically and approach in a pragmatic, matter-of-fact, down-to-earth manner.
With a communication orientation, speakers frame the entire public-speaking situation in a familiar way. Their speeches will reveal genuine and true expressions of themselves, not behaviors that must adhere to some standard of proper conduct. No longer does their effort depend on polish, eloquence, and refinement; their results depend simply on whether or not they shared their message.
Do these differences make a difference? A communication orientation has several advantages for speakers. First, and I am quoting my textbook here [without using quotation marks] it means that all those negative past public performances you may have had — from elementary school through high school — can be deleted from your memory. After all, those were “performances,” and they no longer fall under your new mindset, your communication orientation.
Second, you do not have to memorize your speech. Performances create anxiety because of the fear of forgetting words, thoughts, or your place in the speech. One of the biggest fears people have regarding giving speeches is forgetting what they have to say during the speech. It is being embarrassed which is the overpowering thought. Think about it, how often do you have memory blocks during conversations with others? Seldom, of course. When you are talking with others during speeches, you are having a conversation with your listeners, not talking at them.
The third advantage of a communication orientation is that speakers can focus on their real purpose in speaking to their listeners — getting audience members to accept and understand their information or change their attitude or actions. There is an important and worthwhile consideration here that may help speakers change their focus: Listeners are more interested in what speakers have to say than in evaluating their performance.
One thing that happens when speakers change from a performance to a communication perspective is that they become less concerned about themselves—the performer—and more concerned about their mission. Performers have to be concerned about their performance for that’s what they live for. Now, with a communication perspective, speakers can stop their preoccupation with themselves, “How do I look?’ “How will I do?” “What will they think of me?” “Will they like me?” This is a major re-orientation because it will quiet their mind by reducing the amount of self-chatter. They will be able to stop defending their ego against failure and criticism. Threats to their ego have no real implications now.
What all of this means is that if speakers dress in comfortable clothes, practice positive self-talk, are well prepared, picture (visualize) themselves doing well, take several deep breaths before speaking, pick out friendly faces and make eye contact with them, and plan to offer a reward after the speech, all the elements of potential distraction will have been eliminated, and all the elements of comfort, encouragement, and support will be supplied so that the communication orientation has a real opportunity to work at full capacity.
Speakers can do all of the things recommended for eliminating, or at least reducing, the fear of public speaking. There are many of these, and what works for one person may not work as well for another. The overarching, umbrella-like concept, however, that can make it all happen — whatever the individual elements employed — may just be a broader, more comprehensive principle. To adopt a communication perspective rather than a performance perspective may be the very key that unlocks the door to confidence, comfort, and effective public speaking.
Daniel J. DeNoon’s article, “Fear of Public Speaking Hardwired: Speech Anxiety Worse for Some, but Most Can Overcome It” (reviewed by Amal Chakraburtty) at the website WebMD Health News MD http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/20061101/fear-public-speaking
This article reports a study that “shows that those who suffer most over speaking in public get more anxious -- not less anxious -- as their presentation gets under way. And when it's over, instead of feeling relief, they feel even more anxious.”
At Suite 101.com, Naomi Rockler-Gladen writes about the “Fear of Public Speaking.” Visit the web site: http://collegeuniversity.suite101.com/article.cfm/fear_of_public_speaking and learn how to overcome speech anxiety. Gladen has some excellent suggestions. , and they are provided in a succinct, straightforward manner.
Contact Richard L. Weaver II