Many people mistakenly assume that confidence in public speaking derives from a strong technical skill set—the ability to choose eloquent words, to memorize extensive material and deliver it seemingly effortlessly, to manipulate the voice expressively, and to carry the body with poise. Sure, these skills come in handy, and dedicated speakers will continue to hone such skills to strengthen their performance. But something far more important than technical skills determines whether or not we will courageously choose to speak, whether or not we will experience the speaking moment positively, and whether or not we will inspire our listeners. What is this indispensable commodity? A powerful frame of mind.
Those who experience significant anxiety around public speaking (i.e. most people) share a quality in common: they approach public speaking as an experience to be survived. Like contestants on the reality game show “Survivor” dropped into some remote and treacherous wilderness with competitor amateur survivalists, “survivor speakers” view their audience as an adversary and the act of speaking as a hazardous encounter—one which requires rain gear and a machete to come out the other side unscathed. The audience is full of poisonous snakes, wild jungle cats, and unpredictable white rapids that could take them down at any minute. Worse, the humans among them are there as the jury—competitors scheming to observe any weakness the speaker exhibits in order to justify voting her off the island. Entering the moment with a defensive posture, “survivor speakers” are consumed by concerns about their safety, doubt about their sanity for getting into such a mess, and dread about the inevitable encounter with the elements that awaits. Their best case scenario? Come out the other end alive.
The “survivor” mindset when entering a speaking situation can be debilitating. Thoughts such as “I hope this turns out okay,” “I hope I don’t mess up and make a fool of myself,” “I hope I don’t get found out as a fraud,” “I can’t wait to get this over with,” “I hope they don’t laugh at me,” and “How did I get myself into this situation?” position the speaker on the defensive and make for a miserable experience. This mindset triggers our nervous system into a panicked, fight-or-flight response: our hearts pound furiously, we breathe heavily, we sweat profusely, our stomachs grow queasy, and we become light-headed. Who would want to speak in such conditions?
Instead of approaching your speaking moment in survival mode, consider instead a more accurate and empowering interpretation of what it means to speak. As speakers, we are gift-givers. We give the gift of our time, of our attention, of our energy. We give the gift of our experiences, our perspectives, and our views. We give the gift of our insights, our creativity, and our ideas. We give the gift of our questions, our challenges, and hopes. When we take the risk to speak despite our fears we give the gift of inspiration to our listeners. When we open up our heart space and show our vulnerability we give the gift of authenticity and the possibility of transformation to our audiences. When we speak our minds without guarantee of the outcome we give the gift to others of implicitly affirming the need for everyone’s voice to be heard. In short, when you speak, you give the gift of you to the world. You need not be the most profound speaker, or the most eloquent speaker, or the most experienced speaker, though you might! Simply by being present and giving voice to what’s in you, you offer the gift of something new and something valuable to the rest of us.
To get yourself in a gift-giving frame of mind, imagine that you are Oprah Winfrey on the set of her famed “Favorite Things” episodes. Surprising her unsuspecting audiences with a holiday gift-giving extravaganza, Oprah would present a remarkable and seemingly endless collection of gifts for each audience member to take home. “You’re all going home with a new car! A new kitchen makeover! Cashmere sweaters in five different colors! Diamond earrings! A year supply of my favorite chocolate covered marshmallows! Plane tickets for you and a friend to Tahiti! My new favorite shampoo! A computer! An expensive, imported whozeewhatsit!…” Part of the appeal of the show is the vicarious feeling the viewer shares with the audience member—how wonderful it would be to also receive such a wealth of gifts! However, even more powerful is the vicarious experience we share with Oprah—how magnificent it must feel to be in the role of gift-giver and witness the thrill and appreciation of the recipients of those gifts!
As speakers, when a generous spirit is invoked, we find ourselves immersed in feelings of calm, connection, empathy, and love—feelings which trigger our bodies into a comparable state of well-being. We might still feel a few nervous butterflies (that’s normal), but the majority of our energy can be spent on productive thoughts that allow us to engage meaningfully with the words we are sharing and the people with whom we are connecting. Such generous thoughts might include, “I look forward to sharing a perspective today that my listeners may not have heard before,” “I look forward to providing relief to the audience as they hear that I too have unanswered questions,” “I look forward to inspiring other nervous speakers,” “I look forward to setting the stage for new relationships,” “I look forward to teaching something new,” “I look forward to entertaining my listeners,” “I look forward to making my audience feel cared for today.”
Such thoughts do not make you unnecessarily vulnerable to the jungle animals that await. The reality is that most audiences, even those who vehemently oppose your views, wish you well. They are not in fact the jungle animals we imagine them to be. No one goes to a speech hoping to have their time wasted. No one wants to be bored, uninspired, and disengaged! At the very least, they are hoping to be entertained and are routing for you to do well, and they have a good deal of confidence that you will since they made the choice to show up! Think about when you are in an audience—do you spend your time immersed in judgment hoping to take the speaker down, or do you listen with curiosity hoping to learn something new?
So the next time you prepare to step up to the podium or enter a meeting, mentally lay down your shield and arms at the door. Pick up the beautiful golden-wrapped box with the red satin bow tied across the top, conjure up your inner Oprah, and enter the space knowing that your words are a gift that an appreciative audience is awaiting with love.