The Fear of Public Speaking is Highly Overrated

by Ross Shafer

(excerpted from his book “Nobody Moved Your Cheese” Trafford Publishing)


I truly think public speaking is one of the all time fastest shortcuts to success. Speaking well in public will accelerate your career at lightning speed. Look around your plant or office. Good talkers are looked upon as leaders and are getting the top money, right?


Is speaking in public scarier than waking up next to Anna Nicole Smith?


Scarier than being trapped in an elevator with James Carville?


Scarier than your “check engine light” flashing in the middle of the Mojave Desert?


Probably not. But being afraid to speak in public can hamstring your career. If you tip toe through life scared, you flat won’t get very far. You will be passed over for promotions. Your company won’t want you to represent them at important functions. You will lose too much weight and all of your teeth and hair will fall out. (Ignore the last (3) consequences)


If you give the impression of being scared in public situations, you won’t inspire people and you’ll never be an effective leader. And, if you are terrified to stand up and speak on behalf of your beliefs, then the rest of us won’t respect you either.


Need any more reasons to get over your fear of public speaking? OK, here you go.


I usually meet the up-and-coming executives at their annual corporate conferences. Invariably, these young lions and lionesses must stand up, give a report, or address the troops. I can always tell who will wither and who will win; based on these podium performances. Just as in nature, the strong devour the weak. The weak usually are not at next year’s conference.


I’ll repeat. The fastest way to the top of your career is through your ability to speak well in large groups. You will be noticed and recognized. Furthermore, if you can “walk the talk,” (which means if you can back up your claims with action) your career has no limits. Can you do it? Yes! If I could do it, you most certainly can too.


I’m on stage for a living, now. But until my late 20’s, I was stupifyingly frozen in fear by the thought of talking to groups.


At my first job out of college, I had to give an ad campaign presentation to the large sales staff of the Yard Birds Shopping Center in Chehalis, Washington. I was the new guy and I was absolutely terrified. I tried to stall an extra week while I “gathered new data.” One of the owners, Rich Gillingham, saw right through me, “Son, the fear of public speaking is highly overrated. I’m surprised most people still believe that old crock.”


Hmm, I’d never heard it put like that before. Overrated? Haven’t we been pummeled since birth that public speaking was the #1 fear of all time? I told him I always got really nervous if I had to address a group of strangers. He said, “How do you know you’re nervous? Can you SEE your nerves under your skin?” I said, “No.” Rich shot back, “Neither can we. Now, get out there.” So I forged ahead; stammering. Amazingly, once I got started I was fine. It was the “getting started” part that pounded a hammer against my heart.


Rich was right. Nervousness is invisible to everybody but you. You are ON FIRE inside. Your heart is pounding. Your brain is muddled and your voice is quivering. Or, so you think. But from the outside, you look fine. You aren’t shaking and your voice sounds exactly the same.


I’m not kidding.


In the late 80’s, Johnny Carson had been on TV for 25 years. He played tennis several times a week and had a resting heartbeat of about 65 beats a minute. As a part of a routine physical exam, a doctor hooked Johnny up to a heart monitor; just prior to him going through that familiar Tonight Show curtain. Ed McMahon announced, “Heeerrres Johnny!” And Johnny’s heart rate jumped to 160 beats a minute! Clearly the sign of a nervous man, right? Out front, the audience saw a cool and collected Johnny Carson waltz through the curtain just as he had all of their lives. Remember, Johnny had been going through that same curtain, seeing the same staff people on the other side, performing in the same studio that had been his TV home for over two decades. And HE got nervous? Of Course! If you don’t get a little nervous, you’re dead!


The point is this. Everybody feels anxious and nervous before speaking to a group. It’s our hard-wired flight or fight response. Fight or flight is critical because it focuses your mind. If you were a caveman and a Velociraptor was about to chew on your throat, you would want to be focused. So, no matter how accomplished a speaker you become, you will always feel that adrenaline pump. That is your body telling you to get ready for your peak performance level. Embrace it. Expect it. You will be a far more aware and more passionate speaker because of it.


And while we’re being honest, admit it. Some of your “fear” is that the audience won’t like you. Believe me, they are on Your side. They want You to succeed. Some of them aren’t even thinking about liking you one way or the other. They’re thinking about how glad they are they are not YOU at this moment!


How do you win them over? Just give them what they want; information, insight, inspiration, fun, or whatever. As long as you don’t waste their time and are willing to give them something valuable for free, (information, advice, or balloons) they will love you.


How do you start talking? First, demand a proper introduction. Have someone introduce you or do it yourself. Have them brag about your credentials. A strong introduction gives you credibility and will give the audience a reason to listen to you.


What about jokes?


You don’t have to “open with a good joke.” That’s a fallacy. I have heard so many speakers open with bad jokes – only to see them bury themselves. Unless you have a killer joke that works every time, don’t tell it. A bad joke is almost unrecoverable.


And, don’t tell a joke that is totally inappropriate for the occasion.


I was at a big nurse anesthetist’s convention. No, they weren’t big nurses. There were just a lot of them. Anyway, the speaker ahead of me said, “I just started dating a homeless woman. It’s great because when the date was over, I could just drop her off anywhere.” I secretly howled at the joke but it was the wrong crowd for the gag. These nurses treat homeless people every day and they hated this guy.


Above all, be yourself. Don’t try to be a “speaker.” Be YOU. Don’t try to read big, fancy, powerful words from 3X5 cards. I’m talking about words that you would never use in your everyday life. I promise you, you won’t remember these new words. And, because those words don’t belong in your regular vocabulary your audience will smell it and eat you alive. Worse, they won’t believe you and your credibility will be shot.


Here is a great story about just being you.


Five years ago, a major telephone company was changing CEO’s and I was hired to do some executive speech coaching. The new CEO was a 45 year-old woman who wanted specifically to be, “more presidential.” To her, this meant being more commanding, more in control, more dynamic. So, I watched some tapes of her previous speeches to get a sense of her style. I found her to be charming, real, engaging, and very warmly received. I encouraged her to capitalize on the attributes that already worked, tell more personal stories, and rally the troops by her own example. I reminded her that she already had the job! She didn’t need to pretend to be anybody else. It worked. She is beloved to this day.


What about using notes? Avoid notes as if they are tainted with poison. Speak from your heart – not the page. You will move people if you can speak from your passions and true beliefs. Your true point of view will always be convincing. If you have to use notes, just write down a few words that will jog your memory. Whatever you do, don’t type out your speech verbatim. That will tempt you to read it and you will put us into a coma.


I have done a fair amount of public speaker coaching at Microsoft. The same folks who brought you the amazing Power Point computer slide program. Invariably my first task is to wean them from their own product. While Microsoft has revolutionized (and beautified) slide show presentations, many speakers rely too heavily on this electronic crutch. A popular complaint I’ve heard from hard-to-please meeting planners about speakers is this: “I like you because you were funny without notes. I’m tired of paying big bucks for a speaker who just stands up there and reads his Power Point program.” The same goes for using slides or other visual aids. If you must use them, make them short and to the point. Then elaborate by speaking from your heart. Also, pictures and video are always better than lots of small words on a screen. Statistics confuse most people and have been known to induce labor. If you have to give figures, use “ALMOST HALF” instead of 48.67%. Say “ONE THIRD” instead of 33.3%.


The audience is thinking, “C’mon, we’ve just eaten a huge lunch, don’t make us calculate!”


Ok, you’ve given your speech, talk, or presentation. How do you stop talking? How do you end it? Above all, DON’T end your speech by asking, “Does anybody have any “questions?” There is nothing worse than watching a speaker dribble out the words, “I guess if there aren’t any questions, I should…uh…leave. Yeah, I guess I’m done. I’m sorry. Good bye.” You cannot predict how good the audience questions will be (if there are any) or how good your answer will be. There are too many variables. Instead, write some strong closing remarks and memorize them. Deliver memorable visual or emotional images that will make your audience think. Be profound so they might be prompted to quote you later. Call them to action. Make them laugh. Show videotape. At the very least say, “Thank you for having me here.” Whatever you do, make sure they know you are done. They will clap and you will be victorious.


ROSS SHAFER is a 6-time Emmy Award winning comedian, writer and Training Film producer. You may recognize him from the late night talk shows or as the host of The Late Show on Fox, Match Game on ABC, or Days End on ABC. Ross is a frequent after dinner entertainer and motivational speaker. He also an executive Public Speaking Coach. But he is most proud of his best selling cookbook, COOK LIKE A STUD (38 recipes men can prepare in the garage with their own tools. His new book, NOBODY MOVED YOUR CHEESE (How to ignore the experts and trust your own gut) will be released in January 2003.


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