Friday, 28 March 2014

Public Speaking retains high position in YouGov's Phobias poll; but a few steps can turn fear into fun

So another poll has highlighted just how much people fear the idea of public speaking.  A survey by YouGov, no less, places the Public Speaking just behind Heights and Snakes in the rankings of our greatest phobias and it takes number two position if you combine ‘very afraid’ respondents with those who are ‘a little afraid’.

Full details of the survey can be found by clicking on the graphic, but we have heard this many times before – much more than we ever hear about solutions. The fact is that there are no direct cures or even answers, but here are a couple of pointers to bringing the scary side of public speaking under control.

First, the biggest cause of ‘stage fright’ is the fear of the unfamiliar. Much can be achieved, therefore, simply by making the situation familiar to yourself. I always urge those I am coaching in presentation skills to visit the venue in advance of their presentation. They can check out the logistics, but above all they can get a feel for the environment in which they will be working on the day. Then, as they prepare they can both replicate the situation and – even more importantly – visualise how it will be. If they cannot visualise the situation they will have a series of unanswered questions churning through their minds – and that it what sets the nerves alight.

I have proved this principle on a number of occasions. In the few instances that I have not
The Magic Circle HQ
been able to visit the venue in advance – such as when the conference cruise ship was in the South Atlantic – I felt noticeably uneasy. By contrast, when I was preparing to take my entrance exam for The Magic Circle I had the good fortune to be coached by Jack Delvin who is now the President. In view of the fact that I would be performing at the world’s most prestigious magic society, in front of the members, all of whom know exactly how the tricks are done, and many of whom are very eminent if not quite famous, Jack suggested I had a run through in the exact position within The Magic Circle HQ that I would be performing for my exam. I would be able to feel the atmosphere, get used to the lighting and check the sight lines. So I set myself up and waited for Jack to give me the nod. To my horror he made an announcement to the membership at large: “Anyone who wants to see a magic show come to the Devant Room now”. Suddenly I was faced with a substantial audience of magicians – and it was a horrible experience. But I got through it and when I came to do it for real the following week it was a lot less horrible because I had done it before – the situation was familiar. And I passed the exam.

Second, when anyone tells me they are fearful or nervous of presenting I ask them for reasons – specific reasons – and I labour the point by going to the flipchart and waiting for them to dictate some suggestions. Typically they struggle to come up with actual reasons but may suggest: I have a lot of material to learn; I might freeze; they may ask difficult questions etc. I point out that rehearsal and planning can reduce or even eliminate all these fears and more, but the real issue is that we are afraid of being afraid. Malcolm Gladwell covers this in his latest book David & Goliath - the concept is called ‘Affective Forecasting’ and the prime example he describes is the bombing of our cities in World War 2.  The government forecast a complete break down in law and order as people fled from cities in fear of the bombs.  In fact, after some initial, orderly evacuation few people left the cities. They got used to the bombs, even when they lost their homes, the ‘spirit of the blitz’ took hold and some even went so far as to say: “I’m not leaving now, this is scary, but it’s also the most exciting thing that is ever going to happen to me”.

When coaching anyone in presentation skills for the first time I make a point of asking how they feel about presenting. In line with all the survey findings, many express a degree of fear. I make a promise that they are going to start to enjoy presenting – usually to a look of disbelief. Later in the process, but often on the same day I can see a little smile flicker on their faces as they achieve marked improvements. It’s a sign for me to suggest that they are starting to enjoy the process. Usually they become a little coy at this point but the fact that they are not denying my suggestion is good enough for me and we both go home happy people.

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