7 Steps to Overcoming Public Speaking Humiliation

 J0442332 The other day, I wrote the big reveal about public speaking.  Essentially, I wrote that fear of public speaking is not about public speaking.  It’s a fear of being humiliated.

I offered up 5 reasons why fear manifests itself.  As a speaker for the past 20 some odd years, I like to think that I've experienced it all. Maybe that's true. Until the next time, however, I guess we'll never know!

Today, I’d like to take those 5 “why we’re afraid” reasons and offer up 7 ways to cope.

 1.  In the past, you’ve been publically humiliated.  Welcome to life.We have a primordial reaction to being shunned publicly—perhaps because throughout our lives, it often meant being ostracized from our circle of friends and family. When it happens as a child, before we’ve learned to master critical thinking, the mark of humiliation can become permanent. But only if we allow it.

The famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent" certainly is relevant in this instance.  No event defines who you are unless you allow it. You can choose to let an experience define your vulnerability;  choose to allow the past define your future—but that’s a choice. You don’t have to keep yourself safe and sound anymore.  You’re an adult and furthermore, you’re a paralegal or legal professional.  Translated: you can handle anything.

2.  You are self-focused not audience-focused. Instead of concentrating on giving beneficial lessons  to the audience,  we’re focused on getting approval – as if the audience were your mother.  This desperate reach for approval leads to a strong need to be perfect.  (Working with attorneys can really massage that need.)

Here’s the irony:  if we absolutely have to be perfect, we’re going to fail because—and this is not the first time you’ve heard this— being perfect is not ever going to happen.   At what point in your life do you accept that? How do you stop having to be perfect in front of an audience?  Change your purpose from “needing  to get” to “needing to give.”

In the New Model, you are involved with your audience in such a way that the audience, not you, becomes the star.  They feel it, crave it and like it.  When you are a public speaker, you are a teacher.  By creating that shift, a significant change occurs in how you view yourself. When you’re there to give (as teachers and paralegals are), your focus on self-importance vanishes.  Self-importance fuels fear. In this moment, you are not what’s important, it’s the audience.

Here’s the hardest lesson to accept:  You’re never going to please everyone. Someone in the room is bound to not like you. The question you need to answer is:  Is that okay with you?

If not, why not?

3.  Change the paradigm. Ask: what’s the worst that can happen if I forget something—or everything? Will the entire audience boo me?  Get up en masse and walk out of the room? Hardly. In your mind, run through what might happen.  Here's the reality: If  you forget what to say, the worst thing is you won’t be asked back to speak. And what’s the worst thing that could happen from that? Your career will not be over. You’ll have to  find a new group to speak to. The worst thing from that? You’ll discover that “the worst”…isn’t.

I first learned about paradigm changes years ago from my dad long before paradigm shifts were in vogue.  I was 19 years old and urgently needed a car.  So Dad and I went down to the local Chevrolet used car lot to pick out the vehicle that was to announce my social status to the world.  We chose a 1961 white Corvair with a rich red interior (most of you have not heard of this short-lived classic) for a great price of $400.  It was a small car with the motor in the trunk and the trunk where the motor should be.

“It’s perfect,” I sighed.  I drove away, excited, fully liberated, and loving every second of my newfound independence.  Driving down the street, I suddenly spotted a car right in front of me about to make an illegal left-hand turn.  I stepped on the brakes.  Nothing much happened except that my entire life flashed before me.  Two milliseconds later, I ran smack dab into the car in front of me.  The Corvair, with the trunk in the front, motor in the back, curled up, hiccupped and died right there in the middle of the street. 

After exchanging information with the other driver, I hiked over the nearest 7-11 and called my dad. (There were no cell phones in those days.)  Sobbing into the phone, I tried to grasp how the car I owned for a total of 16-½ minutes was now a mere memory.  Nothing could console me.

“Dad,” I wailed while looking at the crumpled mess that was now attracting attention from the entire neighborhood, “I wrecked the car.  I stepped on the brakes. It…didn’t stop! I rear-ended the car in front of me.”  There was a pause on the other end of the phone as my father absorbed this information.  Finally, he said, “Honey, it’s not your fault.  She was in your way.”

He taught me a valuable lesson:  Learn to look at things differently. 

4.  Finally—if you aren’t perfect? People love when speakers acknowledge their own mistakes. Not doing so, however, allows an awkwardness to hover in the room-not exactly good energy-management. So, make a joke about yourself and move on. Your audience will feel what you feel, so the more confidently and nonchalantly you handle an embarrassing moment, the more confident they will feel about you.

5. You didn’t prepare. Practicing is common sense. But too many speakers think their improvisation makes them a better speaker, and often they don’t bother to practice at all.  But even those who fear speaking don’t realize the incredible power of knowing theirmaterial cold. The greatest fear comes from not knowing the material; that your brain will go blank. So, rehearse! Practice looking in the mirror, on the way to work in the car, doing dishes— wherever you can. You will walk on stage full of complete confidence that will be communicated to the audience.

6. You’re mimicking old school speakers: The New Model method tends to mitigate fear because it is about creating energy in the room, being empowered and expressive. Let’s discuss some old ways of public speaking that can bring about fear:

a) Opening with your name and a “thank you for coming” is a bad move.  Most likely, you've already been introduced.  Opening by stating your name puts an emphasis on you, which adds to the fear you already have, and thanking the audience for coming puts you in the weaker position of gratefulness that the audience took time out of their busy schedules just to listen to little ole you. That alone can generate fear.

b) Drowning your audience in too much information while you think they are listening attentively. This approach only emphasizes you and your requirement to get approval which increases anxiety and the necessity to get it right.

c) Believing you must present yourself as a serious intellectual, particularly to an audience in the legal field.  The thought of “having to be” anything is going to jangle your nerves but feeling you must appear important or studious is going to cause you to claw at the windows in a frantic attempt to get out of there quickly. And finally,

d) Standing behind a podium or sitting behind a table – the worst move you can make. Any physical blockade symbolizes an emotional barrier between you and the audience. The more physical and emotional distance between you and your audience, the more nervous you are going to be. Get out from behind and get closer to your audience.

7. You’re unsure about the value of your message. Little else can make us as anxious as being unsure if others want to hear what we have to say. I’m going to be straight with you: make sure you’re talking about something they want to hear. Know your audience.  Do your factual research.  Make sure that you really are giving value. Too many speakers talk above or below their audiences; provide clichés and old or boring material.  They don’t help the audience to see how the material is valuable in their lives. If you think your message is content free, you may be right.

When you know that you’re giving tremendous assistance to your audiences, your mood will soar.  This goes back to the giving vs. getting issue: If you’ve got value to give but you’re still more focused on getting approval, fear will nail you. But giving great value because you can’t wait to give it? You’ll be unstoppable.

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