Most University students will have experienced public speaking. It’s Pretty Daunting right? But why are we afraid of it, and more importantly, how do we overcome this fear?
Your legs are restless and your palms are sweating. Your heart is thumping quicker and quicker as you step onto the podium. You wipe your hands on your trousers. What should be a straight-forward, two-minute speech suddenly feels like a life-defining moment.
You’re prepared. You know you are, you have the notes in front of you. It’s all bullet pointed, clear and concise, yet as you place your sheet of A4 on the lectern your hands are quivering. The words appear to fall from the page, one by one.
Why is public speaking so darn scary?
Conversations are an integral part of everyday life, it’s how we relay our emotions and thoughts to other people, how we ask for information and how we interact on a basic social level.
Yet as soon as you magnify your audience tenfold, sometimes even less, it feels like a mammoth task. It’s one of the largest social phobias, with 6% of Americans reportedly having a speech anxiety problem.
For most university students, the phrase ‘We’re presenting next week’ sends shockwaves. It’s bad enough when there’s nothing riding on your public speaking skills, it’s even worse when, as many university students will know, presentations amount to a big percentage of your grade. The days of simply reading off a PowerPoint are long gone.
Perhaps in a university environment, the fear surrounding public speaking is borne out of your doubt that no one actually gives a damn about what you’re saying. Your coursemates may be bored which makes the presenter feel daft if they’re engrossed in their subject and are reeling fact after fact.
It’s a sad reality but, unfortunately, it’s what it often feels like. Who honestly wants to put themselves in a situation where they know people won’t really pay attention? Find me one, I dare you. It also doesn’t help when you have to follow someone that does a bloody Prezi presentation.
At my secondary school in Essex I was Head Boy, so public speaking was commonplace. I wouldn’t say that I have a fear of public speaking, or ‘glossophobia’ to give it its official name, but you certainly can’t wing it.
Trust me. I know from first-hand experience. A Christmas speech delivered to a group of around 200 15-year-olds. No big deal, right? Easy. Just say a few words at the end of term. No one will really give a tuppence about what I have to say because they don’t want to be here. That all may be true, but that doesn’t mean that preparation can be given the boot.
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, would practice for weeks on end before delivering a 90-minute presentation about his new product launch. There’s no substitute for that and, when I got up to stand in front of the hall, I faltered.
Words wouldn’t flow. I hadn’t yet decided what the hell I was going to talk about. Come to think of it, what was I doing? I started rambling, trying to remember what charity events had occurred throughout the year, how much money was raised, and what other events were coming up in the calendar.
No one really knew if what I was saying was true or otherwise, yet my lack of conviction made it a recipe for disaster. I had made a similar error a couple months previously at an awards night held at Anglia Ruskin University.
I was scribbling extra notes on a postcard-sized piece of paper as I was being invited to the stage. Do you think I could read what I’d written as the spotlight shone from the back of a room that was littered with students and parents? Of course not.
There weren’t as many ‘erms’ and ‘umms’ in that speech as there was in the Christmas catastrophe. But I was suitably informed shortly afterwards that I was waving my hands about far too much. I don’t remember that, but that’s because I was so focused on remembering the contents of my speech. My hand gestures and body language had a mind of their own.
Overcompensating is a natural defence mechanism, trying to shunt the focus away from what I was saying and instead place all eyes on my physical presence. It didn’t work. Don’t try it. Preparation certainly makes presentations more engaging, though, and I believe my speeches that followed were improved. Slightly.
I have, however, gained a newfound respect for university lecturers since arriving in Sheffield last September. While some indeed may just read off PowerPoint and be unable to enlarge the screen on YouTube, they will not be thrown off by a hungover fresher stumbling in 20-minutes late and fiddling about with the zip on their coat.
No, they steam through as if nothing ever happened, undeterred by the interruption. That takes a certain degree of focus and knowing your content inside out. Preparation makes speaking in front of people easier because you naturally forget facts if you lack familiarity with them and fail to have an understanding of the wider context and why what you’re saying is relevant.
Preparation can only take you so far though. For some people those pre-match nerves may never fully be overcome. Yet experiencing how the talk will go will stand you in good stead for the most part. It’s surprising how much easier that makes it.
Familiarity, after all, is what most people seek. How many of you have photos from home pinned up in your uni rooms, or kept particular notes from significant others or even have a favourite top you wear? It makes you feel like you’ve been there and done it before and that comfort-zone, no matter how little it may seem to someone else, can be a real game changer.
Of course, if you drill it into your brain that you’ll be wearing certain clothes only to spill your pre-speech coffee over you, or you’re asked to stand in a slightly different spot because of a crowded stage, it can throw you majorly. Both have happened to me. It does, however, show how integral the concept of familiarity can be.
Being centre of attention in that environment is an uncomfortable prospect for many.
While you may never feel completely comfortable speaking in crowds or in front of university seminar groups, don’t be the one to duck under the table as soon as your lecturer asks “So who wants to go first?”
Public speaking can actually be (sort of) enjoyable. It’s extraordinarily rewarding once you finish your presentation, provided you’re proud of your masterpiece monologue. Tackle it head on, know your subject area, try and prepare for the unexpected and believe that people are interested in what you have to say, and you may surprise yourself.