My favourite Jerry Seinfeld joke is:
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Like most people, I always *HATED* having to speak in public. I come by it honestly: my mother tells a story where she had to give a class presentation in high school and she was so nervous she went to her family doctor and tried to get tranquilizers.
In large part BECAUSE so many people are uncomfortable speaking to a group, it can be a valuable skill in just about any occupation (it’s rare and therefore valued). My father was middle management at a factory and, within the union and within management, people who could stand in front of a group and yack for a few minutes would often be promoted far beyond their intelligence or ability should have allowed. A neighbour of ours was always willing to get up in front of a group to give an impromptu speech and despite being lazy he moved up the ranks at the post office (he went from being a letter carrier to travelling around doing training at various regional offices).
If you’re looking for a skill to develop that could help you with your career advancement, without knowing anything more about your situation I’d bet that public speaking would be a good choice (it’d be hard to go wrong with writing or sales either).
I’m not a gifted orator (by any means), but I’ve gone from being petrified at the idea of speaking to a small group to being able to give technical talks to over 100 people.
Step 1: Realize most people feel the same way you do
I think the first step in developing public speaking skills is to realize that almost everyone is very nervous speaking in public. It’s not something that you either have or you don’t, it’s a skill that most people who give talks have developed over time.
I’ve given up on learning a second language or a musical instrument. I’ve tried (and failed) repeatedly at both and I just don’t have the aptitude (or enough interest / dedication). Conversely I’ve known a large number of people who have dramatically improved in their speaking skills while I’ve known them, despite initial reservations. I’ve never known anyone who kept working at speaking in public and DIDN’T improve.
Step 2: Find a place to practice
Unfortunately this is a hands on skill. You can’t master it by reading about it. Talk in public every chance you get. Create chances to speak in public by signing up for drama (if you’re still in school) or auditioning for a play. If there’s a group in your area, join Toastmasters or the Dale Carnegie public speaking course.
By nature I’m a raging introvert. In high school I realized that being shy and unwilling to talk to groups would severely hold me back in life, so I acted in the school play one year (2 whole lines baby!) and started a school newspaper (and assembled and managed the staff). After a year of doing both of these I was more than willing to throw myself in front of a group and say something.
Step 3: Get feedback
I’m a big believer that to improve at any skill you need feedback (or the ability to accurately evaluate your own performance). Toastmasters and the Dale Carnegie course both have this feedback built in (and a good director of a play may give some useful feedback).
Step 4: Accept the nervousness
Realize that for many people (such as myself) speaking in public will always be a fairly nerve-wracking experience. When I’m presenting to a graduate course (about a dozen people) I get butterflies and have to go to the bathroom every 15 minutes beforehand. I have been complimented repeatedly on my presentations, so in spite of nervousness, it’s possible to do a good job. I get SOME satisfaction from giving a decent presentation or talk, but the nervousness doesn’t disappear. I think it’s good for us to push ourselves outside our comfort zone at times, so this doesn’t prevent me from accepting opportunities to talk in front of a group.
Step 5: Continually improve
There are always ways to improve at anything you do. If you’re the best in the world at something, you can still keep getting better at it. Sometimes you’ll be satisfied to just use the skills you’ve developed (it takes time and effort to improve), but for the things that are really important to you, it’s possible to keep getting better. The way to do this is to be reflective about your performance, consider ideas for improvement from others or generate ideas for improvement yourself and TEST them.
Are you comfortable speaking in public? How did you develop this skill if you are? What is holding you back (besides fear, you chicken 😉 ) if you aren’t?
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