According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
– Jerry Seinfeld
[Writing is easy. Comedy is hard. Presenting is harder. Can’t do comedy without it.]
You’re blogging. You have your blog listed on LinkedIn. You dress up to impress (or dress down depending on whom you are trying to impress), The next thing you need to do is…give a presentation.
Why You Should
So there you are. Standing naked in front of a Congressional committee explaining the positive health benefits of broccoli (it is a cruciferous vegetable, after all). You know you are make a good point, but you can’t help wondering if your lack of clothing is blunting your point.
Of course, you wake up in a cold sweat and realize that you are not in a GoDaddy Superbowl commercial, but dreaming that ultimate representation of embarrassment and shame that nags us all: public speaking.
Please don’t run screaming out of the room. The children will hear.
Besides, what is there to be afraid of anyway? You are standing/sitting in front of a potentially large group of people who are waiting for you to stumble so they can eat your flesh while it is still fresh.
Hmm. Let’s talk about this for a second.
When the goal of a conversation is to persuade, and by definition we are working one-on-one with someone, there is almost the thrill of the hunt. Almost as sharp a high as sniping on eBay.
Other metaphoric hunting thrills:
- As a sales person your goal in life is to make your quota. No. Surpass your quota.
- As a technical person your goal in life is to solve cool problems which also happen to help people out as an interesting side effect.
- As a friend you want to be there for another person. Of course, their habits might gross us out or make us angry depending on what sort of deeply rooted childhood issues you might have or your friend is so perfect you can’t wait to see them screw up so you can feel better about yourself. In any case, if there is anything you can do to convince your friend of the error of their ways that can’t be bad, can it?
What I am trying to illustrate is that in a one-on-one situation presenting is not so bad. We confront the enemy and it is usually a trivial exercise to either convince them to give up or give up ourselves.
Not the same when we have a group of people who may or not be friendly to our conversation. Are they really listening or did they come for the donuts? Is that oncoming shoe meant for you?
Actually, the reaction we have to public speaking hearkens back to our prehistoric days. Standing in front of a bunch of people is lunacy as far as your limbic is concerned (you know, the part of your brain that controls your non-verbal behavior; for example, forcing you to climb up a tree if it suspects you are about to be eaten). Are the attendees friendly or just hungry? Friends or foe? From a distance they all look the same to your limbic: threatening. And who are you to argue with your limbic? Try it. I know I never win.
And yet public speaking as an important part of your upbringing can’t be ignored by your fear (well, maybe it can, but it shouldn’t).
Public speaking is well known to bring those with an iron constitution to their knees so what can the rest of us hope for? Perhaps hope is the wrong word. Why should we bother with public speaking when there is so much anxiety involved?
Here is the real reason to do it: it will make you money.
[What? Did he say money? Oh! So now I have your attention.]
Yes, yes, we can all pretend that we do what we do for the love of the game, or whatever rationalization you like, but the bottom line is that for the vast majority of us we do what we do so we can pay the bills. Not pretty, but there you have it.
Making money is all about convincing someone they should pay you and not someone else for a service or product. Want to convince someone that you know what you are talking about it? Build up a solid reputation as someone who knows what they are doing and saying. How do you build a solid reputation? You do it by knowing what you know and presenting that information in a useful form to others.
In other words, for better or worse, you have to come across as competent to build your reputation which will in turn get you better positions or better jobs which leads to more money which makes it possible to pay the bills…and that Ferrari parked out front (maybe it’s a Camry, but you’re getting there).
Oh, yes, you get to enjoy the work you do a little bit more as well. As you learn more about things you enjoy you will learn more about things you enjoy. When you learn more about a subject area than the average person you will then be an expert.
As a side-effect public speaking sharpens your head. If you thought you were pointy-headed before wait until you do a few talks.
So where does public speaking come into this? Well, everywhere.
Remember the whole you-control-what-people-think-of-you thing? Presenting a topic to a group of people is the ultimate level of control:
- You have something to say
- A group of people self-select and come out to hear you
- They sit, they listen, they ask questions
- Sometimes they fill out evaluation forms to let you know how well, or badly, you did
[When I say that a group of people self-select to come and hear you speak what I mean is that the general population whittles itself down to a group that is, for the most part, friendly towards what you have to say. Think about it: let’s say you are giving a talk to a group of people who don’t have to listen to you. You post a topic. Some look at the topic, turn away and think: I have to flirt with that person on the other side of the room. Some will look at your topic and think: what a great topic! I have been looking for a talk on criminal justice since my Dad lied to me about that conviction statistic (with interest ranging from mild interest to compulsive obsession)! They sign up. The room slowly fills with people who want to be there and listen to what you have to say. The rest just think you’re cute.
In other words, you start with a group that is receptive to what you have to say. Without even trying! If only making beef stroganoff was that easy.]
The event could be over in 5 minutes or a few hours (sometimes it is 5 minutes and only feels like a few hours), but you will have survived because the audience found something in what you were saying that allowed them to connect with you for a brief period of time which gave them the motivation they needed to hear you out and learn something.
Speaking of learning something: you have to make sure that you actually have something useful to say. Again, not that hard if you remember one thing: talk about something that you are interested in. If you are disinterested in what you are talking about the audience will figure it out long before you are done. Once the torches come out there is no putting them back without someone being tied to a stake and straw being set on fire. Luckily most venues have fire safety rules; not all speaker would survive otherwise.
How to do It
Now that I have convinced you how important and easy public speaking really is (did I?) now I am compelled to give concrete advice on how to do it.
- Talk to the guy in the back with the occasional foray to the eyes in the front
- Make eye contact
- Don’t turn your back on your audience unless you are pointing at a slide
Practice. Be natural. Don’t waste time; say what you have to say and move on. Practice some more.
Don’t be afraid to take questions.
How should you structure your talk? Like a standard sales pitch:
- Agenda (tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em)
- Your presentation (tell ’em)
- Summary (tell ’em what you told ’em)
And remember: always tell them something unexpected. The brain loves novelty so feed it a healthy dose during your talk.
So speak in public. At your job, at your kid’s school, at a volunteer event. The more you experience fear like that the less it will control you. Volunteer to speak. Stand in front of a group and say what you have to say. Everyone has an opinion. Make your opinion credible and don’t be afraid to voice it at an opportune moment (when is an opportune moment? Get it wrong often enough and you will figure it out).
To Inna Gordin for the Seinfeld reference.
And just to keep things interesting there is Seven Speaking Tips That Beat “Pretend Your Audience Is Naked” from Psychology Today. Enjoy.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, recruiter, psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist or anyone with professional credentials who might actually speak authoritatively on life, the universe or anything. I’ve just been around a while. The above is for informational purposes only. Make up your own damned mind.