There’s an old joke, often attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, which points out that most people identify public speaking as their Number One fear.
Number Two is death.
“So at any given funeral, you’re better off being the guy in the box rather than the guy giving the eulogy.”
I used to tell that story when I taught presentation skills to executives, and few people disagreed with the premise. Since I do a lot of keynote speeches, I’m often asked how I overcome nerves, stage fright, anxiety, or whatever else you want to call that shaky feeling almost everyone experiences. After years of speaking, I don’t feel it much on stage any more, but I did get a serious case of the jitters recently, which reminded me what public speaking used to feel like to me and still feels like to many.
As part of a fund-raising stunt for the Philadelphia Outward Bound School, I rappelled down the side of a thirty-one story building in the city. The event attracts crowds of on-lookers on the busy streets, not to mention the media coverage and crowds of family and friends who come out to lend support.
The hardest part is when you have to lean back into space, putting your complete trust in the equipment. After that it’s just walking backwards (for 418 feet). After I was hooked up (to two separate lines—redundancy is welcome here) and stepped over the railing and inched my heels backwards until they were hanging over the edge, I felt my knees shaking. I don’t mean a little tremor; I’m talking about movement here, probably visible to anyone who bothered to look.
That’s when I knew that everything was working as it was supposed to be. I was alert, aware of my surroundings and not the least bit surprised to be wobbling. I expected my knees to shake. There would have been cause to worry if I got to the edge and wasn’t anxious.
That’s the same message I give people who ask me about overcoming stage fright. You should be anxious; it ups your game. If you step in front of a large audience, or even a small but important audience, you want to be firing on all cylinders and ready to bring your best effort.
So how do you make sure that a healthy dose of anxiety doesn’t morph into full-scale panic?
Know your audience. What do they expect? What do they need? What must you give them to fulfill their expectations AND move them to where you want them to be?
Have an objective. Be specific. You should be able to state what you want the audience to a) feel, b) think and c) do as a result of your successful presentation.
Do not try to tell them everything you know. You must be selective. This is what frightens a lot of people who are afraid to choose what must be left out. Eventually this leads to terrible presentations that resemble brain dumps.
Rehearse. Do it a little differently each time, so you don’t get hung up on whether you just said “glad” or “happy.” Rehearse out loud, in real-time, for an audience who will give you useful feedback. If possible, rehearse in the space where you’ll actually deliver the talk.
Look people in the eye. Don’t read your notes. Refer to them if necessary, but keep your head up. Pick a friendly face in the crowd if that helps.
I’ve done this rappelling fundraiser three times, and I’m pretty sure I never looked down. I looked out to the sides to take in beautiful views of the city, but I never looked below to see how far I had to go. I tried to enjoy the moment.
With some rehearsal and work ahead of time, you can find the same moments in front of a crowd.