WHEN I WAS LEARNING to speak in public,
both the Dale Carnegie Course and Toastmaster Clubs emphasized
the idea that speaking without notes is the best way to do it.
Notes are amateurish, they said. I didn't want to appear amateurish,
so I didn't use notes.
But a couple of times during a speech I
forgot what I was going to say next. Those were terrible moments
for me. The silence. The inability to think. Everybody waiting
for me to talk. Time seemed to stand still. I probably paused
for only a few seconds, but to me it felt like a long time.
It's a natural thing to happen. After all,
it's distracting talking to a group when you're not used to being
up there. You're not accustomed to looking at so many faces at
once (trying to look at everybody and not just talking to one
person). And standing up there, you wonder if you should move
around more or are you moving too much? And what should you do
with your hands? People are looking at you, so you're aware of
all these things that you normally have no attention on and the
thoughts are distracting.
It is also disconcerting to have so little
response from people when you're talking. When you speak to one
person, you get nods and smiles and sounds. The people in an
audience just look at you for the most part, like they're watching
TV. It is unnerving until you get used to it.
So with all these things throwing me off,
of course once in awhile I was bound to forget what I was going
to say. And when I did, it was very stressful for me. What made
it even more stressful was seeing the audience feeling uncomfortable.
They could see I was uncomfortable and it made them uncomfortable.
And with such an overload of adrenaline, it was even more difficult
to remember what I was going to say.
I began to be afraid it would happen again.
This made me even more anxious about speaking. So to prevent
myself from having a cardiac arrest, I decided to eliminate what
worries I could. My goal was to reduce the number of distractions,
and it worked better than I'd hoped.
I bought a tall barstool to sit on while
I spoke. I no longer had any brainpower devoted to wondering
how to stand or how much to move or what to do with my hands.
I bought a music stand so I could keep
an easy-to-see outline of my talk handy and if there were special
facts or something I thought I might forget, I had those on the
music stand too. Now I was no longer worried I would forget what
I was going to say.
This got rid of some sources of extra adrenaline
I didn't need. I still felt some nervousness about speaking,
but rather than a seven or eight on a ten-point scale, it was
more like a three or a four. Much easier to deal with.
My speaking improved right away and I never
again forgot what I was going to say. I also became more comfortable
just from experience. I became so comfortable, in fact, that
a few times it wasn't convenient to bring in my barstool or music
stand and I did the talk standing up and without notes and had
no problem at all. I'd gotten used to the strange situation.
I wasn't as distracted by the circumstances and could relax and
talk to the audience without extra worries to deal with.
I learned that when managing anxiety, it
makes a difference to eliminate even small things. It can have
a cumulative effect.
Another way to look at this is that you're
lowering the challenge until it is something you feel you can
do well. Then get used to that and increase the challenge a little
more until you get used to that, etc. Jerilyn Ross, the
author of Triumph Over Fear, said she had a client
who wanted to get over his fear of speaking in public. In their
first session together, Ross asked him to read a paragraph aloud
"No," he said, "I can't
do that. I'd be too embarrassed."
"Okay," she responded, "how
about reading one sentence?"
He thought that was silly. Of course
he could read her one sentence, but what possible good would
After he read the sentence, she asked him
to read one more sentence. And so on. She lowered the challenge
to a level he could do so he could get used to it. That became
something easy, and a higher challenge became possible.
The lesson here is to look at the situation
making you nervous and try to find some sources of worry you
can eliminate or reduce, no matter how minor. In the realm of
anxiety, every little bit counts.
Eliminate small things that
will reduce your anxiety,
even if only a little.