Making Friends With Terror- Overcoming Fear Of Public Speaking

There’s a joke told by Jerry Seinfeld which goes something like this: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Wait a minute, death is number two? This means that to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy!”

Ever since reading about The TAI Group here in New York, I’ve been longing to take one of their courses in public speaking. Two weeks ago, I finally had that opportunity. The course I took is their popular 2-day foundation course, entitled “Communicating With Power And Presence.”

Truth be told, I’ve actually had some training. Unfortunately, most of it was in grammar school when I managed to maintain a strong presence on the Forensics Team. Since that time, speaking as a part of my job has forced me to confront some of my own issues. When called on to present, I sometimes find myself searching for excuses. But since one of my coaching values is to “stretch” – get beyond the comfort zone – I knew the time had come for me to really tackle this head on. Drawing upon roots in theater, psychology and leadership development, TAI teaches people how to properly engage an audience. Without an engaged audience, you are literally talking to yourself. First, let me say how much I enjoyed this workshop. It was challenging, experiential, humbling and…absolutely brilliant. For anyone who presents on a regular basis, this course should be mandatory. Hell, even if you never need to present, this would still be worth doing. Gifford Booth, Director and Co-Founder of TAI, taught the class along with coach-in-training, Michael Filan. Both gentlemen were friendly and inviting. One of the things I loved was the democracy of it—there was no regard given to title or rank. Most in attendance were senior or C-level people, but in this little room for 2 days, we were just 9 people wanting to learn how to communicate more effectively. I came away with a whole arsenal of tools, some of which are worth sharing here. Character is King The conventional wisdom holds that “content is king” when it comes to presentation. But according to The Actor’s Institute, this is only a small part of it. In their world, the essence of a great presentation involves:

Character – 55%

Craft – 38%

Content – 7%

Yes, good content is necessary, but it is not sufficient. This means that we should step out from behind Powerpoint and give the audience a little piece of ourselves – our personality. When I first stood up in front of the group – under bright stage lights, feeling nervous – I was concerned that my message wasn’t useful and that I didn’t have the chops. I was terrified that they would hear every mistake or ‘um’ that I’d say. Instead, what I came to learn from Gifford was that I was a “natural”. A “natural”? Yep. Once I allowed my authentic self to come through, I actually had a gift as a presenter. The same skills that make me a good “private” one-on-one speaker during my coaching sessions are the exact same ones that enable me to be an exceptional public speaker: good eye-contact, listening, gesturing and animated facial expressions. The goal is not to “give a speech” (like I used to back in the 7th grade), but rather to make your presentation a “conversation” – even though the audience is not talking. When I did this, I noticed my credibility and presence increase.

Tell Me A Story Since our early ancestors first gathered around the campfire, people have been hardwired to respond to story. The response to shared human experience is deep-seated within all of us, and we’d be foolish not to use it in our presentations. Think you’re not a storyteller? Nonsense! We all do it naturally in our day-to-day life all the time: “You won’t believe what happened to me today…” “Are you sitting down? Cos I’m gonna tell you something that is going to rock your world…” Companies, governments, advertisers and good speakers all understand the inherent power of narrative. Telling a story is the surest way to hook a listener’s imagination, and then when you have their attention – get your message across. The great success of the Obama election campaign was due in no small part to the power of narrative. His personal story combined with his sweeping narrative of “change” galvanized his followers and secured his election over John McCain. Wait For It To Land When you’re out in front of a crowd, time seems to move very quickly. What feels like an eternity to you, may in fact, be only a half second to your audience. The tendency for most people is to hurry – rushing headlong to get to the end. Throughout the workshop, we were encouraged to slow down, giving our words a moment to “land.” Look people in the eye, give them a chance to acknowledge and respond to what you are actually saying – just like you would in a real conversation. In practice, this is really hard to do. Most people tend to just glance furtively at an audience without really connecting. All good speakers understand the power of looking at their audience, pausing for effect – leaving space so that your words have room to be heard. Connect With One Person At A Time Great politicians understand that connecting on an individual level is key. Probably the greatest example in modern history is Bill Clinton. Like him or not, the man was a masterful “connector.” If he was speaking in a town hall setting and someone asked a question, he would speak directly to that person like they were the only one in the room. You would think that other people might feel left out, but in fact, the opposite is true. When the speaker is connecting with someone in the audience, we unconsciously “lean in” to observe what is going on. The same phenomenon known as “rubbernecking” – which causes the highway to be backed up for miles – can actually help you as a presenter, if you know how to use it. What people call “magnetism” is really the ability to fully engage one person, so that they feel special. Breathe Coach Mike was especially good at reminding us of our breathing, or lack thereof. While standing in front of the audience, Mike told us to scan our bodies for tension, to feel our feet on the floor and to take a minute to see the audience. He showed us how to take deep breaths that result from diaphragm movement. During this exercise we let air in slowly for 5 counts, then we held the breath for 5 counts and then slowly let the air out for 5 counts and repeated when necessary. Neglect of proper breathing results in fast, breathless speech and plain old discomfort on the part of the speaker. After a while, I could spot when a speaker was not breathing properly during their talk because my own breath often resonated theirs. According to Gifford, “the difference between fear and excitement…is breathing.” Practice How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Keeping in mind that we are not born with public speaking skills, we need to practice in order to see results. For me, this means prepping for hours before I deliver a presentation and over time, increasing the number of talks I give. A great leader is able to influence because she/he knows their craft. You need be so familiar with your content that you can easily go “off message” – and still find your way back into the presentation without missing a beat. How do you do that? Know your material. It’s Not About You After I had finished my piece, Gifford instructed each of the participants to share what they saw and felt as they listened to me. What astonished me most was that the audience found pieces of my story to be compelling for entirely different reasons. What each person heard was unique to their individual lens – just as two people can read the same book, and have an entirely different experience. I thought I had control over that, but I didn’t. Nobody does. When it comes to speaking, power and control are polar opposites. On the other hand, power and vulnerability go hand in hand. If you have the courage to reveal your true character in front of an audience, your message will resonate. All the audience really wants is a well-prepared, honest speaker who believes in her message and is willing to passionately communicate that belief. So give up the need to “control” the audience. Because ultimately, it’s not about you – it’s about them.
The TAI Group is a boutique consulting firm pioneering new directions in executive leadership and organizational change. For 31 years, The TAI Group has been at the forefront of developing customized programs for businesses and individuals that fosters meaningful collaboration, promotes an environment in which creativity and innovation thrive and cultivates inspired leaders and high performing organizations. Their most popular foundation program, “Communicating with Power and Presence” is for professionals who make client presentations, speak in public, lead team meetings and groups, and want to sharpen their communication skills. While the end result is more effective speaking and presenting, “Communicating with Power and Presence” goes far beyond these areas. For more information contact: