The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

Having now performed at two New York comedy clubs, I have a much deeper understanding of, and Fdr appreciation for, the stresses that go along with public speaking (or performing).

A recent Gallup poll, for example, showed that 40 percent of U.S. respondents fear speaking in front of an audience (in fact, public speaking ranked second overall in the survey, topped only by ‘encountering a snake.’).

Respondents cited such psychological side effects as sweating, shaking knees and hands, quivering voice, flushing, rapid heartbeat and nausea. (Note: I think I had ALL of those symptoms in the seconds before I took the stage for the very first time). A different survey said Americans actually fear public speaking more than death (which prompted Jerry Seinfeld to quip: ‘That means if you’re at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.’).

Closer to home, Peppercom’s Catherine Carlson equates public speaking to having root canal surgery, and says she’s learned to cope with the stress via a combination of techniques, including making eye contact with the audience.

There are many lists of tips and techniques for overcoming the fear of public speaking. And, while they all help, I did learn a few new ‘tricks’ at the five-day American Comedy Institute course that prepped me for my stand-up debut. Above and beyond the typical deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques, the ACI comics/instructors taught me about timing, delivery and pacing. They also shared the best ways to avoid ‘nerves,’ including:

1.) Totally mastering your material. Too many busines people rely on powerpoint slides and don’t take the time to memorize and rehearse a presentation in advance. You should. It makes a HUGE difference in terms of confidence.

2.) Visualize one person who always laughs at your remarks as you’re heading to the stage. This will put you in a positive, upbeat frame of mind. The business equivalent to this would be to visualize a past speech/new biz presentation that was particularly well received and lock onto that image just before you begin.

3.) Don’t get angry at yourself or your audience. This is huge. I’ve seen countless new business presentations and speeches get derailed because a member of the presentation team forgot his or her comments and directed the angst inward or, worse, became agitated by a question or comment made by a prospect or audience member. Anger destroys chemistry.

4.) Have fun. It seems like an absurd thought in such a stressful situation. But viewing speeches or performances as character-building moments in one’s life can make them seem more like opportunities than obstacles.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ That is so true in terms of public speaking. The anticipation is almost always worse than the actual experience. Mastering public speaking is critical to an individual’s image and reputation and, if not nurtured and mastered, can derail an otherwise promising trajectory. So, memorize, practice, visualize, keep cool and, oh yeah, have fun.

Thanks to Catherine Carlson for the idea.

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