Public Speaking: Oh, Why Bother?!?

Public Speaking.

As you read those words, what are you feeling? What are you thinking?

Public Speaking

The idea of public speaking can be anxiety provoking.

Most people cringe at the thought of public speaking. I’ve seen some of the most gregarious people become anxiety-ridden at thought of having to speak on a topic to a group of peers or strangers.

I cringe. You cringe. We all cringe for public speaking.

One of the most recent examples of this was when I attended an “employee retreat” (read that as: “mandatory training with sugar-coating”). I know that a lot of the people who were there have had to speak in front of large crowds, and maybe some of the physicians even did it regularly. However, no one appeared quite comfortable in their own skin when *invited (read that as: *required) to participate in an *icebreaker where we all had to answer very personal questions about our childhoods and ambitions (read that as: *overly involved, uncomfortable, and vomit-inducing impromptu speeches about our values and upbringings).

The point is, even the most seasoned of us can still be a titch nervous when speaking in front of a crowd, large or small. Some of us even avoid it at all costs.

Let’s mosey right on outside of the boring old box for a second. Let’s think about this differently. What would be the benefits of becoming a good public speaker? How would this improve how we view our work, others, and ourselves?

It is assumed that those with self-confidence and positive self-esteem make good public speakers. True, these are often qualities we see in those who often engage in public speaking, but must you have super self-confidence to give a good speech? Do you have to be an extrovert to do this well?

Not necessarily, I say!

I’m here to tell you that it can work backwards. Public speaking can improve self-confidence over time. It can help you learn the ways of the extrovert (though not necessarily change you at your core, if you are a natural-born introvert like yours truly, here).
When I was in my undergrad, and then later in graduate school, I suffered from horrible self-esteem. Oh, how I loathed myself! Who was *I* to be giving speeches and giving presentations on these topics? Surely *I* couldn’t be an expert! It is me after all. And never-mind the fact that I was a hopeless introvert. I wanted to dodge and then dodge some more, but when it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen, I decided to tackle it from a very anxiety and perfectionist-ridden perspective.

Manipulated in pixlr-o-matic for Android

Focus your attention where it needs to be- on the material. Know your stuff! The words will follow.

I over-prepared. I used my perceived anxieties and weaknesses to my benefit.

I knew my topics inside and out. I memorized. I planned for potential questions. I thought, ** “If I was watching this presentation, what would I like to see as an observer that would give it some spark?” (read that as: **”What can I do to keep this from being so mind numbingly dull that people do not accidentally smack their foreheads on their desks as they nod off in class?”)

My first few goes at it were flops. The problem was that I was treating it like a chess game. I was always trying to imagine the criticisms that were evolving in the minds of those in the crowd before they could even think. I treated it as an adversarial interaction. I was more worried about what they would think before they could think it, rather than what I was going to say before I was going to say it.

Oops.

Then suddenly, with one silly speech about online gaming, it clicked. These people aren’t out to get me. They aren’t judging me (and if they are, then WOW! What a waste of brain cells!). Truth is, they are just like me when I watch other speakers or professors. They are either zoned out, or focused on getting the material from because they needed it too.

I honestly think the biggest tool to help me adjust to these interactions was to adopt the “So what?” self-talk approach.

“Oh man, I completely stuttered there, and had to rephrase that whole point.”
“So what?”
“Oh.”

“Ugh! Did I really just forget and have to reference my note cards just then?”
“So what?”
“Ah.”

“Well, that was less than impressive in my eyes.”
“So what? What’s to be done about it now? Learn from it.”
“Ah. Okay.”

If you make a mistake, think about it in the grander scheme. If you stutter, or have to reference your cheat sheet (like virtually everyone ever has done), “So what?” Think big picture. Is it going to shake the earth to its very foundations? No. Even if the presentation doesn’t go well, chances are that life will keep on keeping on.

In the legendary words of Lady Gaga, “It’s gonna be okay.”

My presentation style suddenly became more relaxed, free-flowing, and intuitive. I had become accustomed to being in front of a crowd. I realized I was working with the crowd to help each individual achieve his or her own goals. I focused on the material rather than the mental projections I was putting out into the crowd.

Fast forward to 5 years down the road, and suddenly I’m conducting group education sessions at least 3 times a week.

My self-esteem has absolutely increased over time. With each successful presentation, my “achievement unlocked” bank grew. There is something inspiring about that. Was every presentation perfect? Oh heck no! But did I start to hone my skills, learn to read the crowd, and anticipate for setbacks? Oh yes. Problem solving followed right along.

In engaging in public speaking, I gained the following:
– more expansive knowledge about the topic.
– ability to engage my audience rather than speak at them.
– problem solving
improvisation
– quick information processing
networking skills
a greater sense of self-worth as I became recognized as an authority of sorts on the topics I was discussing
– lessened anxiety in the majority of my social interactions
– increased ability to engage in small talk (the bane of introverts, but the flourish of the networking world)
– better interviewing skills.

So, can public speaking help with self-esteem building? I think this one is a demonstrated YES, ladies and gentlemen.

Want to improve your public speaking skills? There are countless books on amazon.com to help with strategies and preparation. Another option is to start out small. Join a book club or common interest group. Attend presentations yourself to see what qualities you would like to adopt in your own presentation. Get out, and get moving! The more exposure you have to speaking in crowds, no matter how large or small, the more your confidence will build.

Another tip? Know your topic, and know it well. A little improv (deviating from the outline) can go a long way with a crowd.

One last tip? Fake it til you make it, guys and gals! I never thought I’d say that one, but here’s another cliché to accompany it- Follow your feet. You’ll get to where you are going, in the end.

Just remember when you are up there and the words are melting away: “It’s gonna be okay!”

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