Many years ago, when I was a young manager at GE, the company dispatched me to India to deal with a critical supply issue. On my first day in India, the president of the local division informed me that a GE-India Supplier Conference was being held later during the week. He suggested that since I was already in the country, I should attend. I, of course, quickly agreed.
The day of the conference, they picked me up from my hotel in a chauffeured car. As the president and I lounged in the back, chatting about events, he calmly asked me, “So what’s your speech going to be about?” I am fairly confident I replied something smooth, like, “Do what now?” That was the moment I realized I wasn’t just attending the conference; I was the keynote speaker!
I spent the next 20 minutes of that ride furiously scribbling notes, trying to come up with something intelligent to say. Within a few minutes of arriving at the conference, I was at the podium, staring out over the nearly 400 attendees, as they waited to hear from GE’s representative to India.
For many people, this scenario is their ultimate nightmare. The statistics about the fear of public speaking are well known. Research has shown about 10% of Americans have a genuinely debilitating fear of public speaking; meaning, had they faced the same scenario, they would have been completely unable to speak. Many people even rank the fear speaking in public above the fear of death!
As a manager and a teacher, I have had the opportunity to help others overcome their fear of speaking in public. Some of the best advice I‘ve heard is to focus on the message. Yes, you should practice all the right speaking skills: tone, pace, articulation, volume, gestures, posture, eye contact, etc. However, once you stand up to speak, the best thing to keep in mind is that what you have to say has value.
In a Psychology Today post titled “How to Conquer the Fear of Speaking,” author Taousides (2017) says the trick is to switch your perspective from performance to communication.[i] After carefully crafting your message, remember it has real benefits for the audience. With that in mind, a speech becomes less about being judged, and more about effectively delivering a gift you have to offer to people you care about.
Recently, I had the honor of introducing our student speaker at IWU’s graduation ceremonies. Seeing those young men and women take the podium always reminds me of my experience in India, and the terror they likely feel facing the audience of thousands. However, they should know the audience is eagerly anticipating their words because what they have to offer is valuable.
So what do you have to share? You may be given the unexpected opportunity to speak up.
[i] Taousides, T. (2017, November 28). How to conquer the fear of public speaking. [Web log comment]. Retrieved https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/smashing-the-brainblocks/201711/how-conquer-the-fear-public-speaking