Thursday, April 16, 2015

Is This Really Scarier Than Snakes or Death?

by Wilbur Pike

Dozens of studies have shown that most of us have a fear that is more frightening than snakes or even death: the fear of public speaking!

Over the years that I have been helping people increase their effectiveness at work, this obstacle has come up again and again. Surely we can count it among some of the bigger reasons for preventing us from taking the next step. Most of us are fine in planning the next step, even creating details to achieve it, but if one of those steps includes having to stand up formally in front an audience and talk we hit the freeze button on our plans.

Surely, it IS a little scary to make a presentation to an audience, even if we have been invited to do it, are fully prepared and rehearsed, feel great about our presentation materials and know the audience is on our side.  After more than 30 years in the presentations business, I will readily admit to sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate just about any time I am presenting.

So what do we do about it?  Well, there are lots of techniques that we can easily employ that will move the nervousness needle from paralyzed to functional.

The first of those is to realize that the fear concept is better understood as a point on a continuum, rather than as an on-off switch. Is President Obama nervous before the State of The Union Address? You can bet that he is, but that fear is well within manageable limits. In fact, the research shows that a little nervousness is good for us. It fully engages our brain, puts on the balls of our feet, ready for action and excitement. That sounds like a great recipe for effective presentations. So the key is not eliminating the fear, it is managing it to a level that allows us to be at our best.

Another technique is preparation. It may be hackneyed, but that’s for a good reason. When we have done our homework, created great slides or other materials, practiced in front of a mirror or better yet, a practice audience, our chances of success have gone up exponentially. I still practice my presentations in the car on the way to the event. I listen to phrases that work and ones that don’t. I try different approaches, different topic sequences, variable stories that illustrate my points, pace and volume. This is especially valuable for the first and last couple of minutes of your presentation.

For most white North Americans, eye contact is vital in the successful process of presenting information to any audience. While there are many cultural variables in the business of eye contact for most of us most of the time it is an important part of your presentation success. But, most folks without training actually use eye contact to increase nervousness, not reduce it. They scan their audience. They sweep their gaze over their audience without actually focusing on anyone specifically. Scanning produces exactly the wrong outcomes for reducing nervousness. It produces effects like “wow, look at how many there are out there”, or “they all look so stern, even angry” or “they aren't smiling, they already hate me”.  Not the stuff we need to feel confident and functional, eh? That’s because our brains need more visual data than scanning produces. What works much better is to slow the scan down to at least 5 full seconds per face. That’s just what you’d if you were one-on-one with that person. When you stay focused on that face for a full 5 second count you are only presenting to just one person and that’s so much easier than the whole gathered group. Of course, we move from face to face, staying on each for a full 5count, until we are fully into our presentation. My rule is to try to remember who smiled and return to that face whenever I need a save place in my presentation.

Lots of people have told me that they found great reassurance as presenters once they have gotten out of their own way and focused instead on the value of their message for their audience. Lots of people have told me that they found great reassurance as presenters once they have gotten out of their own way and focused instead on the value of their message for their audience.  While your heart may be racing as you move the front of the room, the audience is not thinking about your nervousness, except maybe as thankfulness that it isn't each of them up there where you are. No, instead they start on your side. Their hope is that you’ll be good, that your message will be relevant to them personally, that you’ll be captivating and fully engage their attention. They start out with positive expectations for you, your content and presentation skills.

In fact, your success as a presenter is NOT determined by how slick you slides are or whether your jokes are funny. Your success is determined by whether or not the information in your head is successfully transferred to your audience. You are up there for a reason, often by invitation, to give something of value to your audience. The degree to which that information transfer has been made or at least initiated is the only measure of your success as a presenter that matters. Bottom line: it’s not about you, it’s about your audience.

What have you found helpful in overcoming the fear of public speaking? Leave us a comment below.

About Wilber:

Wilbur Pike’s career in the field of human development spans more than 30 years. He has worked internally in the field of social services in the YMCA, in manufacturing, in finance, insurance, government and multiple other industries. As an independent consultant, his work has taken him through hundreds of assignments with companies all over the world.

Mr. Pike’s academic background includes an undergraduate degree in Secondary Education and an MA in Organizational Psychology. He has devoted much of his professional career to the study and practice of effective management behaviors as well as within the broad field of interpersonal effectiveness.

UNF Division of Continuing Education is delighted to bring Mr. Pike's expertise to your organization as part of our Customized Learning SolutionThe Customized Learning Solutions department of the UNF Division of Continuing Education brings the up-to-date knowledge and techniques right to your place of work, shaped by the objectives and culture of your organization. While all of the courses are available on the UNF campus, most can be taught at your facility to maximize time, coordinate with shifts and schedules or to dovetail with your internal training and development resources.