"Sue, let me see if I understand this. You manage 25 company branches. Every week you give a talk at each branch. it? "
"I take a Valium, Allan," she admitted, just as casually as if any of her friends might say, "I drink two cups of coffee every morning."
I slapped the side of my head, look it incredulously and confirmed what I'd hear. "You mean you take a Valium EVERY TIME before you stand up to speak?
"How on earth does your system tolerate it?"
"It's the only way I can keep my job. My whole life style depends on me communicating effectively with my employees. . "I've heard such great things about how you're able to transform 'basket cases' like me into people whose favorite activity is public speaking. I figured I'd risk it."
Sue was our first speaker of the day. Routinely, we ask each class member to get up before the group and, in no more than 60 seconds, introduce themselves. The task should be easy. The subject is one about which no one knows more than the speakers: themselves.
Wrong. Practically no one, by their own admission, succeeds at this introductory speech, in spades. Halfway through, Sue had gone stone silent. Began biting her index finger, dug her upper teeth into her lower lip, turned ashen white, sailed down the aisle, out the door and, tears streaming down her face, this 35-year-old executive thread herself into the couch against the far wall.
That's where I caught up with her.
I've taught state-of-the-art, stand-up presentation skills to more than 3,000 adults all over North America. So I've seen my share of fearful students; the effect of abject terror upon them. But, never had I witnessed such a complete breakdown and actual flight.
I imagine you have heard of the Times of London report of the survey of 3,000 Americans to learn what we are most afraid of. I can not figure why: do the Brits intend to invade us again?
Startling: 41 percent of Americans surveyed fear "speaking to a group," compared with 19 most afraid of dying and the number one fear of 18 percent is flying in a plane. A pity. Because not only do I adore helping others learn and practice the art and science of effective presentation, but also, speaking to audiences is my very favorite activity … out of bed.
Moreover, getting a group of prospects all to themselves in a private room, is the entrepreneur's most effective, most revealing, sales tool.
I applauded Sue's courage and foresight, considering the tension wracking her body. I assured her that time would prove that she had made the right choice.
"If you will pay close attention to, and follow to the letter, what we ask of you in the next exercise, then stick it in your quiver for permanent application, I promise you that your debilitating fear and paralysis will disappear forever."
I sympathized with Sue. There'd been times in my earlier life when I suffered each time I got up to speak. God knows how my impressions reacted to what turned out to be a very artificial speaker.
In 1968, I flew to Chicago for Crain Communications to give a talk to 100 visiting Japanese businessmen. No sooner had I begun speaking than a translator simultaneously began interpreting, loud, in Japanese. Disconcerting? To say the least. Had I known in advance, "forewarned is forearmed."
In 1991, I provided a workshop for students, administrators, teachers and professors at New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY. One female professor confessed, "All I need to get 'agida' is to be invited to speak to a group."
In 1983, in Indianapolis, Indiana, over a drink with my client company administrator, I described a particularly-distressing example of utter fear earlier that afternoon by one of his employees: "The poor guy stuttered, went silent, grabbed and almost shredded the outsides of both pants, paralleled. "
"Oh, that must have been, so-and-so," said my client. "He'd once been institutionalized." I pleaded that he never assign such a risk case to me … or anyone … again. "I'm not a psychiatrist," I insisted, "but I imagine another such experience might send him back … for good."
I suppose there are as many manifestations of SpeakerStress (sm) as there are scared speakers. Other than the horrible feelings one gets, physical evidence abounds. And it's anything but comforting to the victim. Or reassuring to the audience that the speaker knows his subject.
Nonetheless, these indications are but the tip of an iceberg so far as the potential negative impact upon a speaker's audience. And, THAT MOST CRITICAL element, only the rare speaker ever considers in his panic.
Next time you speak, would it behoove you to have a friend or two watch, listen and take notes of your behavior up front? Or video? Suggest they ask themselves,
(1) Does he clasp his hands in front … or behind … his back? (2) Is one or are both hands in his pocket (s)? (3) If you wear eyeglasses, does he regularly push them up on the bridge of his nose, whether or not they need it? (4) Does he brush his hair back, again, needlessly? (5) Does he fidget with his fingers? Pick or brush lint off his suit? (6) Does he rock back and forth on his feet? Or lean off on one side? Then the other? (7) Does he pace back and forth in front of the audience? And excuse it, claiming, "I'm more 'comfortable' that way." Face it: you're nervous. "And the heck with its effect upon my audience." (8) Where are his eyes? Up on the ceiling? On the floor? At his fingernails? (9) Is he whispering? Speaking too softly to be heard EVEN in the front row? Mumbling? (10) Is his voice boring? Does it lack variety? Change of pace, volume, emphases? Does his speech sound memorized? Rote?
It's odd how, when confronted, speakers reveal how oblivious they are to their seeming-compensating mannerisms … and their ignorance of the damage they do to their credibility through the audience. Especially if they're the BOSS. Please do not trust your employees to evaluate your presentations. For obvious reasons.
4 Practical solutions you can use immediately.
(1) Never. Never read your speech, use notes, memorize, nor use a Teleprompter.
Instead, when preparing your talk, identify specifically what you want to achieve by giving the speech. Pick 3, 4, 7 or 8 ideas or concepts which form a coherent, persuasive pitch and draw a picture of each that, when you again see that picture, it brings to mind the idea you had. Blow each up to fit a 36 "wide by 24" deep sheet of clean newsprint. Use pencil to sketch your ideas, then finish off with colorful, water-based magic marks.
These will SHOW, and your audience will understand, your ideas, you having told them WHAT each element IS and what it REPRESENTS. And how each ties in to your main theme.
(2) Talk to ONE PERSON at a time. What this means is: pick out one person's EYEBALL – left or right. Give that eyeball (the person) ONE THOUGHT. Then, in TOTAL SILENCE, move to another person's EYEBL. Give THAT eyeball ONE THOUGHT. Keep giving a different person's EYEBL one thought until the idea illustrated up that piece of paper is complete. IN SILENCE, flip the chart. And start speaking, ONE THOUGHT, to each of several audience members' eyesballs. Repeat the process until you've exhausted all presentation sheets.
(3) Fear, stress, tension, nervousness has a PSYCHOLOGICAL origin, yet, amazingly, the remedy is completely PHYSICAL – that is, what you DO to get rid of it. Make sure you speak to ONE EYEBALL at a time. Never say a word unless you are locked in on that EYEBALL. NEVER.
Be MORE physically- and VOCALLY-expressive than you believe appropriate. You'll be JUST ABOUT right. Your audience will LOVE YOU
(4) Position yourself center stage. Plant your feet square to the audience about as wide as your shoulders. Put your easel on which your illustrations are mounted to YOUR left, slightly angled toward the middle of the audience.
These four techniques, if you apply them routinely (video yourself!), Will not only eradicate paralysis fear and nervousness, but should eliminate all fear whateversoever. Soon, you'll actively seek opportunities to practice new skills which YOU will have discovered. They'll put you light years ahead of the pack of also-ran presenters, fearful, nervous, mired in poor behaviors.