Fear of Public Speaking
January 3, 2004 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Does anybody know of alternative ways to get over an extremely irrational fear of public speaking/presenting?
[more inside].

My boss told me about this presentation in May 2003 (due Feb '04) and it has consumed me ever since. I like the job, but have seriously looked for other opportunities because of this. I have given some in the past, but this fear is way over the top and sends me into a fetal ball everytime I think about it. No matter how prepared I am, I know I will shut down and sprint out of the room. Traditional ways do not seem to help. Thanks for any comments.
posted by repoman to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Ever tried this ?
posted by Masi at 8:51 AM on January 3, 2004

Look for a Toastmasters group in your area. You'll have a chance to force yourself to confront your fears in a supporting and understanding environment. I tried it once myself, and it wasn't for me, but I can see where it would help somebody with stage fright.
posted by willnot at 8:54 AM on January 3, 2004

Practice is the only way to get over it, and joining a local toastmasters would be the best way to get practice as an adult. I have friends that have done it and loved it. You start out being forced to speak and you'll be nervous and terrible at it, but your group should help you. After a while they'll have you speaking so much that it will be no big deal to you any more.

You've got lots of time to practice and improve, go for toastmasters.
posted by mathowie at 8:58 AM on January 3, 2004

What do you mean traditional: talking in front of a crowd like your friends and family first, practicing in front of a mirror???? Find a crowded area, then come up with some question that would fit that environment. Ask the strangers walking by the question which may help you conquer being timid. Also practice talking slowly in front of a mirror, nothing worse than a speedy presentation presented by a person staring at the floor. If you know your material well, you can look at the crowd with confidence.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:03 AM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Man, this sounds like my situation exactly. I was forced at gunpoint to do a presentation in front of 100+ financial advisors last month, and was absolutely terrified.

I probably could've used something like Toastmasters, but didn't have the time. Instead, I tried to compensate for my fear by overpreparing. I typed out the entire presentation, a detailed point-by-point outline of what I wanted to say, with turns-of-phrase that could be repeated verbatim in a crunch. Then I practiced it in an empty room until I knew the material so well that I could do it in my sleep. And when it came time to actually present the speech, I kept my notes handy in case I froze up.

Good luck!
posted by waxpancake at 9:45 AM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow. A self-help book, Toasmasters, and knowing your stuff. I was hoping for an ancient herbal remedy that you would consume to give you super-confidence ! If that were the case, I guess everyone would know about it. Actually, all kidding aside, thanks for the comments. At the very least, I might walk in to the Toastmaster meeting across the way this Thursday.
(If I don't barf my guts up before hand).
posted by repoman at 9:47 AM on January 3, 2004

Another vote for Toastmasters. Practicing is your best bet. Deliberately put yourself on the spot. Talk to strangers. Do some run-throughs at work.

I used to have horrible stage fright as a performer (to the point of getting the dry heaves), and it was only by repeatedly forcing myself to play in front of the audience that made me realize I truly enjoy being on stage and sharing my music with others.

You want to practice *everything* about your presentation - that includes walking out to the podium, acknowledging the audience, adjusting your setup, giving the presentation, then acknowledging the audience one more time (in my case, I practice bowing).

Think about this, too - you've already just posted to a large, public forum. You posted something personal, too, and no one has thought you silly or anything for it. I'd like to think public speaking isn't too many rungs above that.
posted by Sangre Azul at 9:53 AM on January 3, 2004

I speak often .

A couple of tips. I like to go and talk to the crowd first before I 'm supposed to speak. I just want to know who they are...where do they come from. It's like meeting people. Oh wait, it is meeting people.; It lets me know they are human beings and reminds me that they're there to hear me speak. They're not looking for you to fail.
Have a bottle of water. Sip it to slow yourself down. Smile. Don't use a podium. Use notes, but don't type out the material. Just have the general ideas of what you want to talk about.

Go to toastmasters. You're going there for practice.

And then, do something that I've done all too often before. Make an ass out of yourself in public. Once you realize you can do that and survive, speaking is easy.
posted by filmgeek at 10:06 AM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Another vote for practice. And I mean both kinds of practice: being comfortable in front of an audience (the Toastmasters thing), and knowing the material and your script backwards and forwards. The best cure for stage fright is to be on stage as many times as you can arrange it. Learning to speak, and it is a skill not just a talent, can be a hard thing to do, but is personally and professionally very rewarding.
posted by bonehead at 10:13 AM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Some months ago, I was invited to do a speech on radio. I did a lot of rehearsing and that's what saved me. And rehearsing means reading your stuff out loud. If you don't read it out loud, you will never know the rhythm of your text: what to emphasize, where to pause, and, most importantly, where to breathe. Learn when to breathe, that's the key.
posted by Termite at 10:44 AM on January 3, 2004

Gloria Steinem has written that she used to be paralysed at the thought of speaking in public or appearing on television, and she pulled so many no-shows for booked appearances that some stations blacklisted her. She wrote that the single thing that helped her most was a friend telling her, "Just pretend you're Eleanor Roosevelt and you have to do this silly thing before you can get on to something more important and interesting."
posted by orange swan at 10:48 AM on January 3, 2004

I was hoping for an ancient herbal remedy that you would consume to give you super-confidence !

Actually, isn't there a drug that some performers take that lowers the blood pressure / heart rate?
posted by gyc at 3:08 PM on January 3, 2004

I always write "slow down," "breathe," "sip water" etc. in the margins (if I'm speaking from notes instead of extemporaneously). I second the recommendations to practice everything -- read it all outloud several times (first alone, then in front of the mirror, then in front of a few people you trust and who will be nothing but supportive). You may find a few places where you tend to stumble or muddle your words -- you may have inadvertantly written in a tongue-twister, for example, or a ridiculously long run-on sentence (things I tend to do with my own writing) -- so you can smooth those places out and have the confidence ahead of time that you won't be caught unawares. Good luck!
posted by scody at 4:13 PM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

About Toastmasters, doesn't getting used to the people who attend make it less beneficial? Or is it a rotating group of strangers?

It's interesting to me how "fear of public speaking" is so prevalent in general (including in me). Why is that? I mean, is it some kind of evolved trait? A mutation of the fight-or-flight instinct, in the face of hordes?
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 4:41 PM on January 3, 2004

1. Give a lot of presentations. This probably isn't useful for you because you haven't got that much time, but anything you can do to get yourself in front of an audience before the big day will help. Grab a copy of a "best of poetry" book and go to a couple of readaround - poetry readings.

2. Practice the presentation. Give it to your friends, your family, your pets, yourself. Knowing the material inside out helps more than you'll guess.

3. Vocal exercises before going in front of people. Hide yourself away, and then physically say (in your presentation voice) "Bee baa bar bey boo bo", followed by the same sounds with different constanants. It's worth doing it in the comfort of your own home first to give you an idea of which combinations are hardest for you to say. As a vocal warm up, I'll run through the M's and P's a couple of times.

4. If you can, go in with a couple of Alcoholic drinks in you.

5. Practice your presentation voice. Always remember that any presentation you're giving is being given to the person at the back of the room.

6. I found I'd shake a lot when in front of people, so during those extra nerve-wracking times, I'd find something to lean against. If the audience can't see you shaking, then they're unlikely to know how nervous you are.

7. Have fun. Remember that somewhere, somebody is out there and they're twice as terrified as you are and they're doing alright. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT. Trust me.

Question. What sort of audience will you be talking to? and what will the environment you'll be talking in be like?
posted by seanyboy at 5:24 PM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Advice on taking drugs for public speaking, mostly pretty good. Inderal, a beta-blocker, seems to be the answer to gyc's question. (Doesn't it help just knowing that lots of famous actors have stage fright?) Myself, I'd go with a non-intoxicating relaxant such as kava kava, or get a prescription for xanax, or for more wide-ranging problems perhaps (which could conceivably include public speaking responsibilities more frequent than with 9 months' warning), a prescription for Paxil.

Personally, BFT, I think it's a common fear because we're much more of a social animal than we let on in Western culture -- and since the 19th century, we've discarded many of the social rituals that used to be effective crutches. The Japanese, for example, might have fewer problems with this (they have others that stem from social isolation, though), simply because of the overwhelming power of ritual. Americans, though, probably feel they have to prove their individual creativity, their off-the-cuff responses, their joviality. Unintuitively, it's harder to portray casualness.

For myself, public speaking has never been a problem, although I know I rely on crutches sometimes, such as a put-on breeziness or catch-phrases. (People who know me well see this as a false front.) It's closer personal interaction that's a much bigger problem for me. But then, I grew up watching my dad, with some of the same personality quirks, give slide shows and bus tours with ease (and telling interminable stories seems to be genetic trait passed on from my grandfather -- ask my mother).
posted by dhartung at 5:28 PM on January 3, 2004

ExposureExposureExposure. Toastmasters, open mic nights, standing in the street and talking about God, whatever. Build up and keep going.

Surely, we don't need drugs for this?
posted by armoured-ant at 5:49 PM on January 3, 2004

Also, I'd like to add: I don't know if this is weird, but my best public speaking has been done when I'm acting or doing something where I feel like I'm not exactly myself. I don't know if this is a bad method fo being a good speaker though (perhaps you could act as a "good public speaker"?), as it divorces you from being yourself, but I thought I'd mention it.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 6:01 PM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

I think one of my best presentations was the day after I got horribly sick due to food poisioning. I just didn't give a shit anymore. I was very tired of it all.

One thing to remember, though. Never say you're nervous to the audience. Because they can't tell, unless you tell them. They're just like you would be, if you weren't presenting, bored and wishing they were elsewhere.
posted by stoneegg21 at 6:20 PM on January 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

practise till you know it backwards without any notes and i mean backwards without any notes.
posted by sgt.serenity at 7:39 PM on January 3, 2004

I too get physically ill before doing anything in a group of more than a few people. I've given quite a few presentations and speeches, but I still get ill previous to the engagement. What I always do:
1. Learn the material well, but not too well. Over-preparation is just as bad as under-preparation. Make notes and feel free to elaborate on them.
2. Realize that your worst enemy is yourself. What you're feeling is self-doubt. Self-doubt is a sign of high intelligence. Concentrate and practice on making yourself dumb and numb. You've psyched yourself out by imagining only negative scenarios.
3. Visualize. Ask almost any pro athelete what their most valuable pre-performance strategy is. Visualization. Visualize what will satisfy you. Once you have a mental image of success it's very easy to achieve.
4. Imagine that you are addressing a single person. This person is an empty vessel. You will not have the command of the audience unless you believe that you do.
5. Realize what you want to express before you express it. Do not practice the day of the event. Keep it light. The difference between a stale and fresh presentation depends on how you practice. Know the material in advance. Keep it fresh.
6. If all else fails, embarass yourself. Everyone gets nervous in this situation. It's not just you. The best speech I ever gave began poorly. I walked onto stage and promptly knocked the mic stand over. It was embarassing but good. It made me realize that the audience was'nt going to stone me to death over every mistake I made, or even care. The nervousness died quickly and I immediately felt comfortable. If you're really that nervous, don't be afraid to go out there and tell a bomb of a joke. I believe that every rookie pitcher in major league baseball will tell you that the most relieving single act they performed was pitching a ball that got hit out of the park. If the audience didn't lynch you after that, they never will.
7. As a last resort- frozen ice-ball theory. I'm probably paraphrasing here extremely loosely, but as I remember the story a reporter approached former MLB pitcher Tug McGraw after a bad game and asked him how he felt after such a horrendous performance. McGraw replied that he referred to the frozen ice-ball theory. The reporter seemed puzzled by this and asked McGraw what he meant by the 'frozen ice-ball' theory. McGraw replied that "in a few thousand years when the earth in one giant ball of ice, no one will give a damn what one man did with a little white ball in the 20th century".

I don't know if that advice helps at all, but I know that you have the potential to do much better than you currently think you do. Knock 'em dead.
posted by ttrendel at 1:40 AM on January 5, 2004 [1 favorite]

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