Phobias: The Curse of Stage Fright — Part Two

You’ve just been elected secretary of your senior citizens club, and in a few days you have to get up in front of everyone and give a report. But you’re scared to death. Scared? No, you’re petrified. Not to worry. You can do it. Read on.

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ last Wednesday’s post, Phobias: the Curse of Stage Fright — Part One, I’d sure recommend you do so. If you have read it, let’s proceed.

In last week’s post I talked about an elective class I taught for high school seniors called Speech for Shaky Speakers. As the name implies, it was a course for the oratorical faint of heart, which was a big chunk of the senior class.

The kids came in the first day not knowing exactly what to expect, but they found out in a hurry. The first words out of my mouth were, “Hi. This is Speech for Shaky Speakers, and at least half of you are going to talk for several minutes in front of the class today. The other half will talk tomorrow.”

For the students, this was a startling announcement. No procrastinating. Let’s get right down to tackling your public speaking nerves.

The actual title of the drill was the Press Conference aka the Gut Drill, to borrow some terminology from our football coach. There’s always someone who will volunteer to be first, and after that person came to the front of the room, I would explain the drill.

“You are all reporters,” I would say to the class, “and Jill here has just invented something. “ (Jill is not a name chosen entirely at random. Truth be told, the first volunteer was almost always a girl.)

“We’re going way back in history. Jill has just invented [exaggerated slow pronunciation] the wheel, something you know nothing about. Now you ask her questions to find out what the wheel is.“

The wheel,“ I would repeat in a the same goofy pronunciation implying they had never heard the word before. And then the questioning would begin.

“How do you spell wheel … what does it look like … what does it actually do … how big is it … are you going to sell them … where can I buy one … how much do they cost.“ Sometimes the questions got serious, which was a really good thing. “Couldn’t you get sued if this wheel thing injured someone?“

Our imaginary Jill could give any answer she wanted — it was total improv. She rarely paused or looked shaky, and after a few answers, she and just about everyone else was smiling.

This drill had two enormous benefits:

  • Speakers found out they could stand in front of people and talk without fainting.
  • As much as I could tell, every speaker gained some confidence as a speaker.

When we were finished for the day, I asked the speakers what the experience was like. Some said “That wasn’t so bad after all.“ Some said, “That was fun.“ A few, but very few, said they didn’t care for the experience.

What good does this do me? you ask. I don’t have any class to question me.

Don't fret over your speech — prepare the daylights out of it. (C) PhotoDisc

Don’t fret over your speech — prepare the daylights out of it. (C) PhotoDisc

Well what’s important isn’t the drill itself, but the principle it employed. It immediately broke down any emotional barrier between the speaker and the audience. All of a sudden the two were on speaking terms. There were no stone faces or threatening looks in the audience. It was a friendly crowd, which almost always relaxed each speaker.

You can accomplish the same thing by creating some two-way communication between you and the audience. The best example I’ve seen of this is a professional seminar giver who, ten minutes or so before his talk, mingles with the crowd and chats. When he finally gets up to speak, he makes eye contact not with a room full of strangers but with some newly found friends.

If you don’t know the people you are speaking to, have them wear ID tags so you can call them by their first name. Before the talk chat with them about yesterday’s ball scores or the weird weather you’ve been having or their commute — talk about anything except the subject of your talk. And memorize a few names if you can.

Then, in the beginning of your talk, call on a few people — by name. “Today we’re discussing (blank). Anybody have any experience with (blank). Bob, how about you?“ Nothing will relax you more than the sound of a friendly voice.

“Couldn’t I just loosen everyone up by telling a joke or two?“you might ask.

Possibly, but there’s a risk in this, particularly if you’re not experienced at public joke telling. If the punch line falls flat, you’re dead in the water.

Here are four hugely important additional rules:

Rule One: Do your homework. Your mom and dad told you this, your teachers told you this, and you know what? They were right! So be prepared. Do your research and make an outline of your talk. Your audience will love you if you know what you’re talking about. On the other hand, if you hesitate and sound unprepared, they’ll get nervous and fidgety, and so will you.

Rule Two: Spend extra time practicing your introduction. No matter how nervous you are, if you can get through the first three minutes, you can probably speak forever.

Rule Three: Rehearse out loud. This is hugely important because nothing is scarier than hearing your voice for the first time in a roomful of people. So get used to the sound of your own voice. Rehearse in a room with chairs in front of you if possible. Gesture with your arms, make “eye” contact with the chairs and even practice your pauses.

Rule Four: Never, ever violate rules one, two and three.

Just about every speaker has had a bit of the jitters. In Confesssions of a Public Speaker, Scott Berkun writes, “Winston Churchill, JFK, Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Walters, Johnny Carson, Barbara Streisand, and Ian Holm have all reported fears of public communication.“ JFK, one of the most admired public speakers of the last century, is frequently seen in the earlier of his sixty-one press conferences with his hands clutching the sides of his lectern. It has been said that he did this to keep them from shaking.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.