Public speaking: worse than death or an opportunity to impress?

Media Training

Ray Jordan 11 Mar 2022
5 mins
Speaking to an audience

If asked to complete this sentence: “Public speaking is…” you might not be surprised to find that “worse than death” is a common response. 

For many it is the number one fear and a phobia – one by the name of glossophobia, actually – that ranks ahead of the fear of snakes or heights. 

What might surprise you however is to discover how many famous people, including politicians like Sir Winston Churchill or actors like Laurence Olivier and Nicole Kidman, hated public speaking. Fear of public speaking is not ideal for people in these positions but of course they had little choice but to deal with it, regardless. 

The physical outcome of the fear is the obvious: sweaty palms, shaking, nausea and dry mouth. All contrive to impede a public performance, be it a major speech, a presentation, or a simple impromptu request to jump up in front of an audience at the last minute. 

Horses for courses

Different people react differently. Avoidance is one response.  

I can still recall my undergraduate days and the number of times students failed to show for a university tutorial when it was their turn to present – me included. 

I once sat backstage with the Irish born Australian comedian, Jimeoin, before he went on stage at the Perth Concert Hall. He seemed relaxed as he read the morning edition of The West Australian. 

He seemed so laid back that I asked him whether he got nervous before he went on stage. I wasn’t entirely convinced when he said no, but rather that reading and occupying his mind with things other than the next 40 minutes on stage helped him prepare. 

He also offered an observation of the Scottish comedian Bill Connolly, who he said got so nervous before a performance that he often vomited. But in both cases once on stage they kicked into performance mode without any obvious signs of tension or nerves. 

On stage and on the field

Sportspeople are struck with it as well. The team running on to a court or an oval before a grand-final, a cricketer before they go out to bat, a golfer – even a weekend golfer in front of a few people – when they step on to the first tee.  

The only sportsperson I ever heard say they were not nervous was Sir Donald Bradman – perhaps because on average every third time he went to the crease he scored a century, or perhaps it wasn’t so much nerves as nervous energy and anticipation. 

You often hear that certain people are notoriously nervous and uncertain starters, but once they settle in, they are fine. It’s the same with making a speech or giving a presentation; some people are obviously nervous yet within a few minutes they are underway and seemingly in control. 

Most people are not likely to play in an AFL grand final or walk on to the court in the women’s singles final at Wimbledon, but may have to stand up in public and speak. And if you know that is what you’re faced with, it can mean sleepless nights, constant nausea and tension. 

Facing your fears

So, the question is can you overcome your nerves?  

In all likelihood, everyone will have a degree of anxiety or tension. And that’s probably a good thing as it sharpens the mind.  

But the real issue is how you deal with it, and to a degree mitigate its potentially debilitating impact. 

The reason for those nerves is pretty simple. It’s the fear of failure, or at least failing to make a good impression or deliver a good performance; the fear that you have nothing interesting to say, that you’ll stumble over your words, or that you’ll look spooked. 

You won’t be surprised to know that for most, the more you do it, the better you get. Confidence and experience are wonderous things. 

I have a confession. When I was young, I hated public speaking. I was terrified that the audience would find me uninteresting or that they would see my nerves.  

But a combination of observing how others did it and going through a simple preparation process has got me to the point where I actually enjoy public speaking. Do I get nervous? Almost invariably, yes, but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the room who knows. 

Put on the spot

Sometimes you can be asked to deliver a last-minute impromptu short speech to a group, where you have no notes or slides. My own approach is to seek a little time on my own – often no more than a few minutes – and think about how I might start, taking in the topic, the people, the event and the circumstances. It’s remarkable that once you have the start clear in your head how easily the rest follows. 

In fact, so quickly and easily does it flow, that sometimes I haven’t a clear recollection of what I said. 

So, the real issue is not so much how to eradicate nervousness, but how to manage it and channel it in the right direction.  

In short, how to look confident when nervous. Actors, politicians, and sportspeople do it, and so can you. 

Some things to work on

There are a number of steps you can take that will contribute to a better and more confident performance. And once you get rolling you might even enjoy it. 

  • Just like a sportsperson, follow a pre-game preparation before you go on – focus your thoughts, re-read your notes, find a quiet spot alone, breathe.  
  • Prepare your topic thoroughly, so you understand it and consider the likely questions. Confidence in your subject means confidence in your performance. 
  • Test all the technology and equipment so you are totally comfortable with it. 
  • Practice your presentation or speech. Make sure you know the sequence and if you’re working from a written speech, make notes of where to pause and where to emphasise. Don’t read it for the first time when you have a thousand pairs of eyes looking at you. 
  • Do some deep breathing exercises. It’s a simple but effective technique. 
  • Take in your surrounds and if appropriate ,the preceding speakers or the MC. Sometimes just a little comment on the weather, or the day, or what has happened or been said before – not strictly related to what you are about to present – but rather to let the audience know you are engaged and have been listening. It leads you gently into the presentation. 
  • Try not to focus on the audience. Strangely, many find it easier to present to huge audiences than small groups. Try to maintain a focus on your material. 
  • If you find yourself racing in the early stages, slow down and pause if necessary. Don’t be afraid of silence which can emphasise impact. It will suggest you are in control. 
How we can help

Purple conducts presentation training courses designed specifically to prepare people to face an audience. Whether it’s preparing for a specific impending engagement or part of general training, we can provide tips on how to build a presentation, how to prepare, and how to perform, in addition to giving you time to practice your presentation or speech. 

Making a speech or giving a presentation is an opportunity to make your mark. Effective preparation is the best way to ensure that when the spotlight turns to you, you’re ready to shine. 

Ray Jordan is an Account Manager a key member of Purple’s highly experienced media and presentation training team. Contact Ray.

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Ray Jordan More from author

Ray is one of Western Australia’s most highly-regarded corporate communicators and strategists, recognised for his pragmatic and creative approach to major projects across different sectors.

Before moving to corporate communications, he held executive positions in the media – including the role of Deputy Editor of The West Australian – and has a proven ability to craft messages that resonate with both journalists and readers.

Ray’s knowledge of the media and respected corporate counsel at executive and board levels have been demonstrated through his direct involvement in the sale and subsequent partial public float of BankWest, including the communications program for a Scheme of Arrangement for majority shareholder HBOS to acquire the minority shareholding in BankWest.

After a lengthy career in corporate communications and the media, Ray continues to seek challenges and avenues to vent his creativity. He has written about wine for nearly 40 years, including 22 books – the latest of which is The Way It Was, which chronicles the history of Margaret River.

If he’s not writing or tasting wine, he might be found strumming his guitar to Tom Petty or writing travel features, after his regular morning boxing sessions.

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