Fear of public speaking is #1

Tonight the cast of the musical ‘Hamilton’ will officially ‘open’ on Broadway and ten Republican candidates competing for the U.S. presidency will debate on a stage in Cleveland, Ohio. Across the globe thousands of professionals in their respective fields will stand in front of an audience and present their expertise. What do all these folks have in common? Stagefright.

Joan Acocella, the dance critic for The New Yorker magazine wrote about stagefight in this week’s issue.

“Stagefright has not been heavily studied, which is strange because, as Solovitch tells us, it is common not only among those who make their living on the stage but among the rest of us, too. In 2012, two researchers at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Karen Dwyer and Marlina Davidson, administered a survey to eight hundred and fifteen college students, asking them to select their three greatest fears from a list that included, among other things, heights, flying, financial problems, deep water, death, and “speaking before a group.” Speaking before a group beat out all the others, even death.”

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld‘s joke about public speaking echoes the research.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

There are famous examples which Ms. Acocella cites in her article.

“…Barbra Streisand, singing in front of more than a hundred thousand people in Central Park, one night in 1967, repeatedly forgot her lyrics. For twenty-seven years thereafter, she refused to perform live except at charity concerts.”

“Two years ago, before undertaking a one-woman show on Broadway, Bette Midler told Patrick Healy, of the Times, that she had wanted to be a serious dramatic actress but had faltered for lack of courage. “I have that terror,” she said. “Will people like you? Will they ask you back? Did I make the cut? That’s always on my mind.” To hear the brash, funny, commanding (as far as we knew) Midler tell of worrying whether people would like her is painful. But, in every group of artists, the insiders can tell you who, among them, should have had a bigger career but, for some reason, was held back.”

For most of us, our career depends on our ability to convey our ideas credibly in a variety of public venues. It’s great to know we have something in common with Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler, but what we don’t have is an alternative to make a living.

How do you transform the fear into confidence?

Before you step up to a podium, stand in front of your local school board, or pitch an idea to a potential investor, do your research. If you know what you’re talking about, you are halfway there.

One technique that has always worked for me is to come up with three things I want people to remember when they leave the room. Structure your presentation to start with these three things, elaborate on each one and summarize the three at the end.

Avoid too many visuals. If they don’t complement your points, you create a distraction.

Rehearse, but don’t practice you personality out of your pitch. Your audience is there for you and your expertise.

Seek out opportunities to present. Public speaking is a talent that requires nurturing. Your comfort level and confidence will increase in proportion to the frequency of your speeches.

None of these suggestions eliminate the initial terror of being in the spotlight in front of strangers. Just remind yourself why you are there and what you want to accomplish before you leave the stage.

Ms. Acocella found that the fear is not always viewed as a negative.  “Sometimes, when performers speak of stagefright, one senses that they do not actually wish it gone—that, for them, it is almost a badge of honor, or, at least, proof that they’re serious about their work.”

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