Over my career I have occasionally encountered people who have a fear of public speaking. For those that are affected, it seems as though this is closer to a phobia than it is to a dislike. It is powerful for them. Yet I have seen people overcome it to the extent you cannot tell that there is any degree of discomfort with the process.
Public speaking isn’t a fear of mine. In fact, I happen to really love it and get energy from it. But what occurred to me was that I might want to understand what I like about it so when I am working as a coach with clients who face this fear, I have a positive context of public speaking in mind that I can reflect back to clients.
That got me thinking about what it is that I love about making a presentation. I love the creativity that goes into building a presentation. I love the opportunity to express ideas and concepts. I have a strong hope that by making that presentation I may contributing to the knowledge and/or growth of others. But by doing this inner work I also more clearly understood what it is about larger groups that make speaking so intimidating.
It came in the thing I love the most about making presentations: the connection and interaction with people within the smaller group size that one normally addresses when presenting, which can be quite different from public speaking. I love the ability to listen while I speak, if you will.
When presenting to a smaller group it is much more likely that there will be Interaction with the group, questions asked. It is this dynamic that can inform us on some basic thoughts to take with us into a presentation:
- Prepared Confidence. Let’s face it – you wouldn’t be asked to make a presentation, and you certainly wouldn’t volunteer, if you didn’t know more than the audience about the subject. That’s just the nature of the beast. The trick is to prepare yourself with that knowledge before you stand up. Whether it is just innate, or you look in a mirror and say to yourself “I know this subject better than my audience” it is important that you are confident in that stance. If you’re not, perhaps it may be right to seek out the true expert and request that he/she make the presentation.
- Success Through Interactive Listening. So you are prepared, knowledgeable and you know it. You believe you are an expert in the room. So what’s next? Do we go out there and prove we are the expert? My belief is no – we go out there and just know we are an expert. The difference is this: do we listen for questions fearing that we won’t know the answer proving we are not the expert? Alternatively, do we listen deeply for brilliance in the question and thus learn as we go? This is the stance of an expert – one who knows there are other experts who may also be able to contribute to the group knowledge. One who knows that “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer for many questions. After all, the intent of the presentation is to impart knowledge – use all of your resources!!
- Success Through Collaboration. What happens when someone in the room is also informed on the subject, perhaps even more so than you? Do you struggle to maintain control as the expert? Or do you work to enhance the experience for the group by engaging the other expert? If you think about it, you’ll realize that you are probably still at least the second most knowledgeable person in the room and thus are still of value to the overall value of the session. You may just shift your use of your knowledge to facilitator and collaborator rather than just presenter.
What this adds up is just knowing you belong. Once you know you belong you implicitly acknowledge that you are a member of a group. Groups have common goals and interests. Membership implies connection, affinity and support, bringing us back to where we started with prepared confidence.
What I haven’t addressed is true public speaking, where the audience is a large group. Generally large groups aren’t so interactive and real-time feedback is harder to come by. For those with a fear of public speaking, I would think it is easy to start listening to the inner voices that cause us to question ourselves.
However, I believe the above principles can still apply.
First, we can still enter with prepared confidence – we were asked to speak so we must be an expert!
In such a large group, we can still use interactive listening techniques with some modification. Using all of our senses – the sounds, the movement, the energy in the room – we can sense that it might be time to engage the crowd. We can ask a question such as: “How many people are already aware of this? Should I move on?” We can take a poll at appropriate points: “Raise your hand if you have experienced this before.” We can ask the audience to raise their hand if they wish to ask a question.
Collaboration is a bit more of a challenge in a large group, but we can use the principles. If another expert appears in the crowd it may be difficult to bring them into collaboration in the moment. If that is the case, acknowledging them is powerful: “Madam/Sir, I would love to connect with you after the session. I have something to learn!”
In fact that same principle works for the undeclared experts in the crowd as well. Invite them to contact you by providing contact information as a part of your presentation. By doing so, I’m guessing the thing you will learn most is that people were glad you were there! You belong!