Fear of public speaking can be overcome, not with super-slick presentation, but by learning to be yourself, says Jeremy Higham of Higham & Company
There is a fear that dogs some of the most senior leaders in the country. They may keep it hidden but it leaks out from time to time in shaking hands, a trembling voice, an obsessive attention to detail in their Powerpoint deck or a contrived joke at the start of their talk to break the ice.
It’s the fear of public speaking.
They can do it, but they don’t enjoy it and you can tell that when you’re listening to them. The very things that would make them most compelling as people are the things that get hi-jacked by the fear – spontaneity, humour, little fluffs, an irrelevant if funny personal anecdote.
In my late twenties, even though I was working at a high level in broadcast television, I was so afraid of public speaking I actually dreaded getting married because I knew I’d tremble violently during my wedding speech. I had developed a technique of wrapping the microphone cord round my left hand and pulling it down to hold my right hand as still as possible – honestly.
Then, out of the blue, aged 35, I had an experience I can only share privately. As a result, I lost my fear completely – so completely that I overcame my fear of public speaking and it became a complete pleasure to me. In fact it’s now one of the things I enjoy most in life and the bigger the audience and the less time I have to prepare the better.
Vulnerability is vital. If you feel nervous, shake, admit it; if you’ve run dry just stop and wait; if you say something that’s off track, just apologise and carry on. Why? Because in our weakness we reveal our true humanity, we admit that we are like everyone else and that creates the vital ingredient – connection.
Without connection at a deep level, the audience is only half listening: they’re assessing you, they’re comparing, they’re feeling cynical, they’re thinking about other things. But if up there round the cliff edge with no safety net they’re just with you, wondering what on earth is going to happen next. And that’s compelling because it’s just so live.
Once you’ve found your wings up there, you’ll stop trembling, your head will calm down and you’ll find your flow. How do I know? Because I’ve done it and helped others to do it. You’ll settle because you’re actually being yourself now and you’re good at that, you just need to get used to being you in front of 400 people.
With my new-found freedom I longed to help others conquer their fear of public speaking, but it took a while to find people willing to give it try. They were so insistent they’d never be able to do it. But some did…
Off the top of my head, I can remember a Baptist minister, two senior police officers and the head of an association of Indian restaurants. All four experiences were startlingly revealing and effective.
All had the same gift – hidden even from themselves – they were all natural and engaging communicators once they got going. They all had unique wisdom to share that I’d never heard before; all moved me emotionally, some even to tears. The thing they also had in common was they had created safety nets for themselves so they’d stayed on the ground and never really learned to fly.
For my day job I help chief executives, company founders and directors communicate naturally on camera. But as a sideline I love to help people face an audience of any kind in their own unique and natural way. So if anyone reading this is thinking, “I could never do that”, then get in touch – you’re probably a brilliant communicator just waiting to be released from your fear.
Three tips to overcome fear of public speaking
First – practise speaking about your passion. Something you don’t have to swot up on because you already have all your expertise pre-loaded. Chickens, privet hedges and birdwatching all become absolutely riveting topics of conversation when exhorted by a passionate amateur.
Then – throw away your notes and bullet points. You can remember the three most important things you need to communicate – gear everything to those and even if you forget them, you’ll find a fresh one comes to you while you’re up there.
Finally – if you really want to be good at this, just let yourself be vulnerable, go naked (metaphorically). Pauses, mistakes, gags and tears are all part of being human and, rather than being mistakes, are actually foundational to compelling and memorable communication.