Public speaking is one of the highest rated fears people have. We hold public speaking as the pinnacle fear, as one of the worst things that can possibly happen to us. We are afraid of it. But why is this, and where did this mentality about public speaking come from? Public Speaking is not inherently dangerous to us compared to other fears. People attain a fear of something by caution of being hurt from it. By being in danger of being killed by it. A book published in 1977 titled ‘The Book Of Lists’ by David Wallechinksy lists people’s top fears. The number one fear was public speaking followed by flying, spiders, deep water, sickness, heights etc.
From the list in the book, 10 of the top 14 fears people had were dangerous. Public speaking rated #1, while Death rated #7. People are more afraid of speaking in a public group than they are of dying. Why do we maintain the idea of public speaking as a terrifying experience, when it is not in any way dangerous? Sure, it feels completely unnatural standing alone in front of many people looking at you in silence waiting for you to speak. But what harm can come from you by doing this, if only damage to your ego if you do a bad job?
Author, Scott Berkun points out in his book ‘Confessions Of A Public Speaker’, “Our brains are wired to […] identify the following for things as very bad for survival: Standing alone, In open territory with no place to hide, Without a weapon, In front of a large crowd of creatures staring at you”. Scott debunks the myth about this list of fears that was popularised by this book in 1977 by explaining that the survey of lists was carried out by a team market researchers who asked 3,000 people what they were afraid of, but the survey allowed them to write down as many as they want, which Scott attests that this is not clear, scientific proof, and with no way of knowing if these people were representative of the rest of us. It begs the questions, how much faith can you put in survey-based research.
With the #1 public speaking fear debunked, it’s not to say that it isn’t a scary prospect, that makes us nervous. You’re explaining your ideas and practices to strangers, people who may or may not have heard of you before depending on where your speaking. You could be talking in front of your colleges in your office, you may be joined by colleagues you have not met before who are joining your talk, it may be presenting your work to a business or a conference. Not matter where it is, it will be frightening before you start and just before you go up to speak, you will feel the butterflies and sweaty palms at their most intense. We know this feeling, so how do you combat this?
Confidence and knowledge. These are the 2 points from which you will succeed at public speaking, and the one thing that melds the 2 is practice. You have to know your material, and know it well, so well that it makes you confident to talk about it. Even if your topics are debatable, don’t be afraid to share them, take a strong stance about your topics and values, make your case for your ideas, be confident about them. Confidence and knowledge go hand in hand. When you know your topic, it gives you the confidence to uphold and speak about them passionately.
But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Just because you have knowledge of a particular area doesn’t mean you are a going to be a good public speaker, you need confidence to help you. Likewise, if you are confident, but don’t know your material, doesn’t make a you a good speaker, you will need the deep understanding knowledge of your material to help you.
This said though, confidence is key. People are more willing to listen to a confident person who knows nothing about their subject than a knowledgeable person who doesn’t speak confidently. For example, your party is lost in the woods, the most confident member in the party (who doesn’t know the direct to go in) says loudly, confidently and in control, “it’s this way, definitely, I know that it’s this way”. People listen to them because they are saying it with conviction and confidence, in a way that nobody wouldn’t be able to deny because he is so passionate about it. “He must know the way, he is so confident about it”, your party thinks.
But someone else who is in your party actually knows the way, but they are unable to sway the crowd because they are bumbling and stumbling over their words, “Eh, I think, you know, it’s actually this way, if you want to go with me, you, umm, can come”. That’s not going to persuade anyone to follow you. Make a conviction, and be confident about it. Even if you are wrong, you can later say that you made a mistake.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, people make mistakes all the time. On a daily basis. If you made a conviction to something that you later changed you mind on or discovered it was wrong, don’t try to hide it. Go back and explain to people, your followers, people listening to you speak, even your friends, why you were wrong and that you made a mistake that you have now.
They key to speaking in any scenario, whether it be to a small informal group, a medium gathering at a book signing or office meeting, or to a large crowd at a conference, is confidence and knowledge. Be confident about your ability, skills and knowledge of your subject area. Don’t be modest, treat it as though you are the authority, because in actually fact you will know much more about your own subject area then 95%+ of the people in attendance.
Public speaking is a mindset, put on a face, even if it’s a fake confidence. When you speak with conviction and passion about something, people will listen to what you have to say. Couple this is with your knowledge, then you will be teaching people your ideas, instead of telling people about them.
While speaking, if you have knowledge about something, you’re teaching people about it. If you don’t have knowledge, you’re only telling them about it.