16-24 Fear of Public Speaking


Synopsis: Speaking in public can be a very anxiety-producing experience, but why? And how can we remove some of that anxiety and do a better job in front of an audience? Our guests discuss the fear of public speaking and offer advice on how to create, prepare for and deliver a speech with confidence.

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Larry Ventis, professor of psychology at the College of William & Mary

Michael Port, speaking coach, author of the book, Steal the Show: From speeches to job interviews to deal-closing pitches, how to guarantee a standing ovation for all the performances in your life.

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Public Speaking: Overcoming fear and putting your best voice forward

Gary Price: It’s called glossophobia – the fear of speaking in public. Most of us feel at least a little bit nervous when we’re giving a talk before a group, but some people become extremely anxious — almost to the point of immobility. Why is this? And how can we all learn to be better speakers whether we’re talking to an auditorium full of people or just co-workers in a conference room? Our guests know a thing or two about speaking in public. Larry Ventis is a psychologist and professor at the College of William and Mary. He speaks to large lecture classes every school year, so he’s used to the experience as most veteran teachers are. He says that fear of public speaking has its roots in what the audience is thinking about the speaker…

Larry Ventis: There may be different reasons for different people because fears aren’t one kind of thing, but I think basically people are concerned about how others react to them, evaluate them, what they think of them, that sort of thing. So public speaking is kind of a reflection of social anxiety and social fear, if you will.

Price: Ventis says that even teachers can feel this anxiety when they face their first classes…

Ventis: I think an awful lot of teachers, psychology teacher, when they first start are anxious about teaching, anxious about speaking and lecturing. And, basically, it’s just part of the insecurity of not being quite squared away on how best to do this. And, also again, the teacher is in the position of presenting themselves as an expert and so I think sometimes people get anxious about what if students ask questions and I don’t know how to respond, or give them wrong information? So teachers can feel vulnerable with regard to evaluation by their students. Sometimes do.

Price: Even the boss, who has all of the authority in a situation, can also have sweaty palms and a racing heart when he or she gets up to speak. Ventis says that confidence can help someone become more comfortable, as can experience speaking to larger and larger groups over time. He says that though we’re not born with the fear of public speaking, our personality has a lot to do with it…

Ventis: We do have individual differences in the way in which our nervous systems react to things. And so some people are highly responsive and become easily aroused. For people who are quite reactive in terms of their autonomic nervous system then they’re more likely to come to associate excessive arousal or fear with any of the number of situations. So I’d say we’re born more with emotional temperaments and that can make you more or less vulnerable to developing one or more irrational fears.

Price: Making people more comfortable speaking I public is Michael Ports’ mission. Port is the author of the book, Steal the Show: From speeches to job interviews to deal-closing pitches, how guarantee a standing ovation for all the performances in your life. He says that he teaches speakers to use acting techniques to create good speech performances. Performances? Isn’t that being deceptive and phony?

Michael Port: Nothing could be farther from the truth as far as I’m concerned in Steal the Show. What we’re attempting to do is be more authentic, more honest and in integrity. So we are true to ourselves and the people around us. But what we’re doing is we’re using different acting techniques. And I have reengineered acting techniques for the non-actor so they have a methodology they can use for these types of performances.

Price: Port says he takes a page from improv where the key is for the performers to keep saying yes…and. He says that you can use this in your communications to create a feeling of inclusion…

Port: We don’t say “no” at improv. Let’s say you and I are doing improv and you walk in and you say, “Oh, my God, I broke my leg! I’m in so much pain.” I say, “Nah, you didn’t, you’re fine.” That’s it, it’s done, it’s over. But if I say something like, “Oh, my God, that’s terrible, but you know what? Your hair looks fantastic!” Well, now we have somewhere to go. You might say, “I know. I was at the hair salon, they were coloring it, all the chemicals. I passed out, fell on the floor, broke my leg.” The same thing is true in different areas of our life. If we’re in a meeting at the office, do you play the devil’s advocate? Do you say, “Let me just be the devil’s advocate for a minute,” or “I’ve some constructive criticism for you.” Criticism is criticism even if it’s couched as constructive criticism, it is still criticism. What we’re looking for is saying “yes.” “That’s an interesting idea, and what about this?” “Yes, have you thought about this?” “Yes, and what about this?” So it is a principle that performers use that we can bring into our own lives as well.

Price: Another technique Port says is crucial is preparation. Can you imagine an acting troupe going on stage to perform Macbeth without ever rehearsing the play?

Port: When it comes to public speaking, or the kinds of performances we’re talking about today – job interviews, negotiations, sales pitches – very rarely do people do much rehearsal. And of course they wouldn’t because they don’t know how to rehearse, nobody taught them. I mean, I went to the graduate acting program at NYU and I got a Master’s in acting, so of course, I was taught how to rehearse. But most people don’t know that, so what I’ve done in Steal the Show is demonstrate and articulate and put together a plan for rehearsal for these different types of situations. And one of those things that people often ask is, “How do I overcome the fear of actually standing up and performing in front of others?” And the easiest way to do that is to know what you’re doing when you get up there. So if you are well prepared then you can be improvisational.

Price: But if you rehearse, don’t you run the risk of coming off as stiff and mechanical?

Port: The reason they may have felt stiff is because when they were performing they were trying to recall what they had rehearsed, which means they only rehearsed a little bit. Not enough to know the material so well that they could be improvisational inside of it, yet always come back to what they intended to say if they got off track, or if they needed to address something else that wasn’t initially part of their plan.

Price: As a speaker, you have to think of the audience as well as the message you want to get across. He says there has to be one “big idea” in a speech to make it memorable, and you have to make sure that it’s true to you. In other words, the message and the messenger have to be aligned. Port says Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is a good example. Second, you have to have a promise…

Port: What is the promise of your presentation? What are they taking away from it, very specifically? And the, we want to make sure that we can demonstrate that we know how the world looks to the people in our audience, because they need to know that we know how the world looks to them. Because, when we’re asking people to think differently, to feel differently, to do something differently it may be confronting. If you don’t know that I know the way the world looks to you, it’s easy to resist ‘cause you can say, “Oh no, no, no. We’re different. I understand how you can feel that way but we’re different.” So we’re attempting to make sure that the people we serve know that we know the way the world looks to them.

Price: Next, you have to be able to show the audience the consequences of not adopting your big idea…

Port: And these consequences are usually pretty painful because people often move from pain faster than they’ll move toward the reward, which is number five. We need to be able to articulate, demonstrate those rewards but the pain is even more important initially because the rewards may seem so far off that they may not seem possible.

Price: Port says that there are some definite “don’ts” to keep in mind when you give a speech…

Port: Wandering. Wandering is one of the biggest mistakes that people make. It is one of the most common mistakes that you see. Someone will wander back and forth on stage because they don’t know what to do their body or where to go and it’s also a demonstration that they are not well rehearsed. The other thing that people do is they will often look down in order to remember the next thing they’re going to say. So next time you watch a speech, watch for this. Do they look down when they get to the end of a sentence or the end of an idea to try to find the next one? But each time you look down you disconnect from the audience. Additionally, when we start a speech we want to avoid filler. Just cut, cut, cut. Get to the point, get to the chase. You don’t need to start off with a big story or a joke – be very careful about starting with a joke unless you are a comedian and that’s your job – but cut to the chase. We also want to avoid saying, “Okay, let’s get started,” because, usually, that’s said about five minutes into the filler of the presentation – and it started when you walked on stage. It started way before that moment so what it suggests is that last five minutes was a waste of time. Additionally, at the end of a presentation you want to be careful not to say things like, “If you take away one thing from this presentation, take this,” because what that’s suggesting is that, let’s say it was a 60-minute presentation, you really only needed about five minutes out of the 60 minutes. Those 55 minutes they could have done something else like had a piña colada and gone swimming. So stay away from that because, ideally, all the different things you’re introducing are equally as important.

Price: Finally, Port says that if you’re giving your speech and you start to tremble or sweat a bit, don’t worry. The audience doesn’t care as much about it as you do. If you feel like you must do something, then acknowledge it, say you’re a bit nervous and then move on. You can learn more techniques and strategies for speaking in public in Michael Port’s book, Steal the Show, available in stores and online at Stealtheshow.com. To find out more about Professor Larry Ventis, you can log onto the College of William and Mary’s site at WM.edu. To learn more about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.