Then and Now: Public Speaking in the Media Age

Once upon a time, in the distant past, people did what they were trained to do: dancers danced, authors wrote, lawyers argued, doctors doctored, corporate heads led, and everyone lived happily ever after in their neat little niche. End of story!

But times have changed. Now, it seems, everyone at one time or another will be called upon to speak about their work, about their product, service, idea, or vision. What was once reserved for the talented few has become commonplace. From homemakers to lawmakers, from leaders to leading ladies, from talking heads to corporate heads, all must face an audience at some point in their lives.

And most dread this prospect. I mean really dread it. It is an often-quoted fact that public speaking ranks above death in the list of people’s fears. I get it . . . I know.

I used to be among the ranks of those who would rather dig ditches than get up in front of an audience. You may be wondering what changed in my life to make this fear vanish.

Well, first of all, it did not vanish. It faded away gradually as I was forced to get up in front of groups to share a technique of teaching that was unique, lots of fun, and something I passionately believed in. I forgot my natural reserve. I threw myself into the moment. I set it up so that I wasn’t lecturing, I was conversing with the audience. Then I understood that directing a conversation felt natural, whereas giving a speech did not. And so I decided that whenever I would get up in public, I would not give a (dreaded) speech, I would simply hold a conversation.

You may think I’m quibbling; you may think the distinction is unimportant; you may think that just being in front of an audience would give most people hives. But I’m here to tell you that performance anxiety does not take place simply because we’re on a stage, or in front of a room. Performance anxiety takes place in our mind! If we perceive our audience as our judges, then we develop knocking knees and sweaty palms.

But if we perceive our audience as our friends who have gathered to cheer us and admire us, and if we perceive ourselves as having valuable thoughts, feelings, ideas to share, our anxiety can’t find room at the table. We’re too busy with our enthusiasm. We’re too busy having a good time. We’re too busy being real to worry about how we’re being perceived.

I’m here also to tell you that how you feel at the podium—joyous, enthused, sincere, knowledgeable—is how you’ll be perceived by those listening. What you project is what you get back. How you see the world is how the world sees you.

What made my own dread of standing up in public fade away was a change of mind and a change of heart. It wasn’t learning tips & tricks, although those can be helpful.

But tips & tricks are only band-aids on a spiritual wound. The fear of speaking in public is not a material fear, like the fear of meeting a bear in the woods. It is a spiritual fear—internal, not external. And so the cure must also be spiritual.

We may gain confidence from learning tips and tricks about speaking in public, but in-depth confidence is to be found only within us. When we examine our motives, when we fish around in our hearts for true meaning, when we unearth our own voice, then we command the stage with presence—a presence born from knowing who we are any why we are there, then we claim our power. Anything less is window dressing.

So the moral of the tale is simple: before you work on a speech, you must work on yourself. You must have a talk with your mind before you talk to anyone not living inside your head. You must explore what you love best; what really turns you on; why it is of value to anyone else; and how you can make it a story they’ll never forget. And contrary to the advice you may hear from others, you are not on the podium primarily to engage the audience. The audience’s pleasure is always a by-product of you engaging yourself.

For if you are not having fun, no one else can. If you convey authenticity, your truth will find its way into their heads and their hearts.

© 2009 – 2015, Saskia Shakin. All rights reserved.

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