What are we afraid of? Why do we tighten up at the thought of getting in front of people and speaking? I had someone tell me once that it was because of “all of those eyeballs” just staring at you. That is kind of weird when you really think about it, but it goes deeper than that.
Maybe it’s a fear of failure. That seems to make sense. Our society praises the winners and forgets the also-rans. John McCain and the Cardinals share more than the home state of Arizona; they will share the special distinction of being forgotten for almost making it to the top. And, maybe that’s a blessing.
The Root of Fear
While failure certainly hurts, I don’t know that it is the driving force of our fear. How often have we quietly failed as we learn new skills? Ever notice how a toddler learning to stand and walk will fall repeatedly without incident? It’s only when the child notices you watching that tears and screams of pain result. How could a dozen spills without tears suddenly change when someone notices? I doubt the fall hurt any worse than the others. Something else is at play- the perceived judgment coming from others.
Failure, then, is not something we fear; it’s failing in front of others that makes us quake. No one wants to look or feel stupid.
Judge Not (Yourself or Others)
Here’s the part that really stings: it’s not coming from others. It’s coming from you. As mentioned earlier, you can never really know what others truly think or feel. However, you can know how you feel.
And how do you feel?
If I had to guess, I’d say you feel that being successful is very important. Looking stupid (i.e. failing in front of others) is intolerable. And, if you think this way, others must surely think this way, too.
In effect, you are now faced with an impossible situation. Which is more important: succeeding or not failing? Is it worth the risk of looking like an idiot for the possibility of looking good? Most people think not.
But, it comes down to the idea that you created this situation. Other people are just sitting there looking at you. Some of them are hoping for an entertaining or useful presentation. Others are wondering what they are going to eat for dinner tonight. Others are text messaging their friends about the weekend. However, you assume they are sitting there judging you. Why?
I think it comes back to the idea of not judging others (Judge not, lest you be judged). This is a powerful statement. It means that judging others leads to reactive judgment from others. Call me stupid? You’re stupid! But, less understood is the idea that if you make a judgment, it will actually limit your potential. Let’s say, for example that you say that people from the 1970s wearing bell-bottom jeans looked foolish. Your judgment now makes it impossible for you to wear bell-bottoms (and they seem to make comebacks every 10 years or so) without others saying, “Hey! I thought you said it was foolish-looking? Why are you wearing them?”
Now you have to eat your words.
Now, take that into the world of public speaking. Someone gets up and speaks and is red-faced and stuttering and you laugh a little and think, “What a fool! Glad I’m not him!” But, then it’s your turn, and suddenly, you’ve made it unacceptable to feel flushed and to stutter.
It’s a World You Create
If you think the world sits in judgment of others, it’s probably because you do it. So, if you stop thinking harshly about other people’s mistakes, yours become a little easier to forgive. You don’t have to worry about what others think, and you don’t have to worry about what you think. You don’t have to hold yourself up to standards that are impossible to achieve. Believe me; you aren’t perfect. I’ll save you the trouble of trying to figure that out. You will make mistakes. So will everyone else.
Realizing that we aren’t perfect, maybe we can focus on the important things instead of all the little mistakes we made, make, or will make. Maybe if you choose to believe that it’s okay, you can get to the business of succeeding instead of not failing. When you measure success in the positive impact your message has on others and not on your ability to minimize your apparent foolishness, then you will begin the process of overcoming your fear of public speaking.