What is the most terrifying experience for most people? Is it drowning? Is it falling from a high place to their death? Is it being attacked by wild dogs? Though these experiences would certainly frighten most people, according to a recent poll, most people fear standing on a stage in front of a group of people to deliver a speech more than anything else, including the above life-threatening scenarios! What is going on here? Why is public speaking so menacing to most people?
Coaches of public speaking are fond of noting that public speaking "is an unnatural act." This is a tongue-in-cheek definition. Though people usually think of kinky sex as an "unnatural act," public speaking is in one important way unnatural. Human communication is inseparable from the human condition; that is, we actually spend more time in communicating with others (including listening to prerecorded spoken information) than we do anything else except breathing. There is, in other words, nothing unnatural in communicating. Standing on a stage in front of a group of people to deliver a speech, however, is certainly unnatural. In no other situation do so many humans have to keep quiet, watch the speaker attentively, and keep their minds on the message without an opportunity to respond. In no other situation can one speaker command the silence of an entire group of people. The responsibility on both sides is taxing; hence, the very act of speaking in public breaks the natural rules of human discourse and is thus unnatural.
The result of this unnatural act is to make both the speaker and the audience somewhat nervous in their new roles as dominant speaker and submissive audience. Most people do not understand the mechanics of crowd control or public speaking and are terrified by even the notion of appearing alone in front of what many perceive as a hostile group of people. Actually, the audience should be pitied, not the speaker. Who wants to sit through a long, boring speech? Who wants to sit and have to listen, without the chance to respond to the speaker? Accomplished public speakers learn to accept the tension between the audience and the stage and work with it. These savvy speakers have some tips for novice speakers.
An obvious suggestion is to be well prepared. Though it is not a good idea to write out a speech and memorize it (this is a recitation, not a speech), preparing an outline of the main ideas of the topic in logical order is. Further, practicing the speech out loud will help the speaker identify the strong and weak parts of the speech.
Another good idea is to face the audience. The audience, after all, is the object of the endeavor. By noting their expressions, a speaker can often monitor whether he is speaking loudly enough, too quickly or slowly, at too difficult a level, etc. "Sweeping" the audience with one's attention —— looking at all sections of the audience at one time or another and regularly —— helps the audience keep its attention focused on the speaker.
The most important of these suggestions, however, is simply to be sincere. The 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time. You can fool all of the people some of the time. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time." These profound words are applicable to speakers in public. Since the audience is observing and listening to the speaker closely, it is virtually impossible for a speaker to fake sounding confident if he is not, nor is it possible for the speaker to convince an audience of his conviction if he himself is not convinced.
Following the simple tips listed above will improve a speaker's performance in public. Like any other skill or art, the more one practices, the better he is likely to become. Public speaking is not only for speech contests; all professionals must present themselves in public sooner or later. Rather than shirking the opportunity to speak, seize it and make the most of it the next time fortune knocks.