For years people have been asking me to give public courses on overcoming the fear of public speaking. And I promise I will, as soon as I clone myself. But in the meantime, I thought it would be helpful to debunk some of the most ridiculous myths that can actually make the fear worse rather than help.
Most of us have heard the statistic that public speaking is the number one fear in the USA, even before death. And comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a famous joke that if most people had to go to a funeral, they would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. It's a big laugh line, but we know it’s not true. Public speaking is a fear that bothers people more than death, and for many professionals, it plays top of mind more than death does. I can assure you from 30 years of experience, however, most people would rather give a presentation and keep on living!
That is a harmless misunderstanding, but here are some myths that can hurt you:
1. The fear of public speaking cannot be overcome.
Several people have asked me about this, and it's 100% false! I speak from first-hand experience—and from seeing hundreds of clients overcome their fear. Some people diminish their fear, going from gripping terror to mild butterflies, while others never feel the fear again. I'm in the latter category. I experimented on myself many years ago, and if the techniques I developed can work on me, they can work on anyone. If you've tried to overcome your fear of public speaking and it hasn't worked, that doesn't mean you can't do it. It just means you haven't found the right techniques yet. Note that I say techniques in the plural—the winning combination is usually a mix of tools to calm the fight-flight-freeze response, boost confidence, and arm the speaker with an arsenal of techniques to reach their speaking goal, whatever that may be.
2. If you're nervous, your presentation isn't up to snuff. I actually heard a professional trainer say that once, and no disrespect, but I was horrified.
Many of the world's top speakers have been nervous wrecks…even US presidents. Does that mean they weren't fully prepared after hours with professional speechwriters and rehearsal with professional coaches? No. Does it mean these edgy elocutionists weren't some of the most highly regarded speakers in history? Well, some of those speakers include Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Warren Buffet, and Oprah Winfrey. So, you tell me.
Can nerves affect your performance? Yes, but that doesn't mean your stuff isn't up to snuff.
And conversely, does that mean that if you're not nervous, your speech is A-ok? I've seen countless overconfident speakers strut up to the mic and/or camera, off-message, underprepared, and off-putting. And they reap the consequences—some of which are seen and some in the form of backroom comments they may never know about.
3. You should imagine the audience naked. While this may work for a few people, I can't imagine a technique more prone to unintended consequences. What if you burst out laughing? One woman told me she tried this in a meeting and felt herself start to blush. Not to mention, at the very least, it pulls focus from what you should be paying attention to, which is your material and how it's reaching your audience. Why not put that effort into connecting to your audience instead? You'll come off as much more natural and approachable than if you were talking to a group of nudists who just invaded your conference room.
So take a deep breath, don't let absurd notions overrule your good sense, and know that there are real solutions to presentation nerves and anxiety.