Avoiding the Pitfalls of Public Speaking

“Public speaking ranks as our No. 1 fear, even outranking the fear of death, says Peter Desberg, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University,” according to www.everydayhealth.com. The website also reports Desberg, who is the author of Speaking Scared, Sounding Good: Public Speaking for the Private Person as saying, “Some people have so much anxiety about speaking in front of an audience that they turn down promotions and ruin their careers.”

I intimately understand this phobic dread, despite being a public speaker for more than 25 years. Yet the first time I presented a brief message in a public speaking class at a Columbus college, I think I actually cried.

This occurred decades ago, leaving my memory about the terrifying experience a little fuzzy. I believe I also received the award for the “most improved” student that semester. Not the “best,” rather the one who no longer dissolved into a puddle of tears making a presentation. Later, I even became part of the Intercollegiate Speech Team at Bluffton University.

Back then, I would have never imagined I would eventually become a (former) TV reporter, speak in conferences, churches, civic meetings, or teach in a university setting. But like many folks presented with a challenging opportunity, we can either close the door due to fear, or we can walk through the open door with our hearts racing with anxiety.

After all, a famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote says, “Always do what you are afraid to do,” and public speaking terrifies lots of people. With this in mind, I’ve written a list of pitfalls a public speaker can avoid. Most of these, I’ve learned the hard way.

First, “Know your audience.” Define your audience and be aware of the specific demographics, dress appropriately and tailor your message accordingly.

Secondly, “Be prepared.” Absolutely, do a run-through for technical issues at the designated venue ensuring your technology is compatible with their technology. Plus, practice, practice, practice your presentation in front of a mirror, for a willing family member, or even for your dog. Also, make sure it fits into the allotted time slot. Thirdly, “Be confident.” Your knees might be shaking, your stomach might be rumbling, and you might be perspiring from terror, but employ the classic philosophy, “Don’t let them see you sweat.” Smile and act like “I’ve got this,” even if you feel like you don’t.

Back to the second point, by being well-prepared you will have the confidence to present the subject matter with authority. If, despite your best preparation, technology fails you, proceed without it, acting in complete control, despite the fact you are churning with disappointment.

The fourth vital point is, “Engage your audience.” Avoid the trap of constantly looking down at your notes or monotonously reading from them. It frustrates the listener to hear someone with a riveting message deliver it as though the audience isn’t there. Fear might cause you to look down, but look up. Avoid making eye contact with individuals who appear bored or disapproving, and lock eyes with supportive audience members. It’s the only way you will be effective.

“Engaging your audience” holds true whether you are speaking to a civic club, delivering a sermon, reporting for TV, or instructing a college class. Envision one person in the crowd, who sincerely needs to hear what you have to say. Then speak to that fictitious individual who probably really does exist out there. That way your presentation won’t seemed staged or emotionless.

In closing, another paramount point is to watch for reliance on repetitive words throughout the presentation. Most of us who do public speaking fall into a bad habit of having “pet” words or phrases including: 1) you know, 2) okay, 3) um, 4) and the new “you know,” which is 4) “so.” Whether used when stalling for time to formulate our next thought, as a transition, or due to a bad habit of repeatedly saying the word, this can be quite distracting for the listener and negatively impact our message’s effectiveness.

There are other significant pitfalls, but not enough space to write them all. “So,” if this information isn’t helpful in combating your phobia about public speaking, “you know,” you could run from the challenge. “Um,” but that wouldn’t be a good idea. We never experience success without pushing past our fears to embrace a new opportunity. “Okay?”

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and public speaker both in the secular and Christian communities. Her new Inspirational book, “Secrets of the Pastor’s Wife: A Novel” is available at all major online outlets. Or for more information contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com

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Overcoming Fear: “Do It Afraid!”

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” This quote is commonly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but according to www.quoteinvestigator.com that might not be so. “An exact match for this quotation appeared within a June 1997 essay by Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She began her article with the statement: ‘Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out,’ and she continued by presenting a staccato sequence of items of advice aimed at young students,” reports Quote Investigator. Among those items was the phrase, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

If Roosevelt, a well-known social activist of her day, did coin this challenging saying, it was not based on a characteristically fearless nature. In her 1960 book, You Learn by Living, the late First Lady explained, “Fear has always seemed to me to be the worst stumbling block which anyone has to face. It is the great crippler. Looking back, it strikes me that my childhood and my early youth were one long battle against fear.”  Like Roosevelt, many of us have some kind of fear we must overcome to do anything worthwhile. Or else, we don’t overcome it and simply live within the confines it creates.

In a 2014 Washington Post article, “America’s top fears: public speaking, heights, and bugs,” the title includes the most obvious internal fears many of our country’s citizens possess. In a related 2016 USA Today newspaper column, “Survey reveals what Americans fear most,” more external fears were: 1) corruption of government officials, 2) terrorist attacks, 3) not having enough money for the future… [and even] 8) identity theft.

 

In his article, the “The Difference between Fear and Phobias,” Dr. Todd Farchione PhD writes, “The distress associated with the specific object or situation and the need to avoid it can become so intense that it interferes with a person’s life.” The Boston University researcher added, “It’s this interference with everyday life and ability to function normally that turns a fear into a phobia.”

What keeps you up nights worrying? For many people something like having to make a public presentation at work can be a real anxiety inducer. Personally, I have been a public speaker for 25 years this month. I’m sure I must have been beyond terrified that first time when I spoke at a storefront church. Still, due to professional training and decades of experience speaking at about any kind of venue imaginable, I rarely get excessively nervous before an upcoming event. But a very real fear that affects my everyday life is driving in heavy traffic. Being involved in a serious car accident a decade ago produced this particular anxiety.

I can’t rationalize this fear away, since distracted drivers are everywhere, texting, talking, and even overdosing on heroin on I-75. Many individuals I encounter also seem to have some sort of fear or even deep-rooted phobia they grapple with. Often, these issues cause daily anxiety and keep them from doing the very things they are called to do. For instance, I have a relative who has no problem driving in big city traffic, who would rather have a tooth drilled without Novocain than to fly on an airplane. After all, the fear of flying is another one of those activities that lots of folks dread.

Joyce Meyer knows firsthand about overcoming the fear created by a childhood filled with sexual abuse and dysfunction. Today, the national speaker who leads a worldwide ministry encourages others to “Do it afraid!” whenever she addresses the topic of fear. Whatever you want to do in your life, you might have to do “it” with your knees knocking together according to Meyer. There might be that sick anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach, too. However, when you make a decision to do whatever it is that you are afraid of doing, with some divine assistance, you can find the courage to succeed in accomplishing almost anything.

Joyce Meyer always tells others to, “Do it afraid!” Whatever fear it is that you need to overcome.

Maybe that is what this year’s graduates need to know. The world seems scary. The economy is volatile, and the job market is erratic. But follow your dreams no matter how frightening or impossible they seem. Follow them one baby step at a time, never allowing fear to stop you from achieving your goals. As Meyer says, just “Do It Afraid!” That’s what I do whenever I get behind the steering wheel of my SUV and head for the Interstate.

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.

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