Sunday, September 16, 2007

Public Speaking: The Greatest Fear of All

On Words

Public Speaking: The Greatest Fear of All


JakartaI have a confession to make. For years I could not speak.

Sure, when sitting around a table with friends or standing in front of my students I was cool, coherent and as charming as a Pomeranian kissing a Hollywood starlet. But, when it came time for me to slip out of my comfort zone and speak to groups or strangers, I fell apart time and time again.

Public speaking was my greatest fear.

I did not tremble alone. Many western studies have found the fear of public speaking to be the most dreaded of them all, greater even than the fear of death itself. Monica Sugiarto, Vice President Membership, Kebayoran Toastmasters, says that although she has not seen any statistics on the subject she believes it to be the top fear in Indonesia too, saying it is “the same all over the world.”

For me, the pain would start as soon as I found out I was to speak. Right away, my mind would begin to play over and over the upcoming task and visualize all that could and surely would go wrong. As the days passed, the anxiety would fold up upon itself filling my days with worry, my sleep with nightmares.

I did not know how to prepare for a presentation. I used to write out my speech in full and then practice it over and over, memorizing each comma, full stop, letter, word.

When the time came to deliver, I’d stand there, my hands clenched into balls of fear, vomiting out my message as quickly as possible. I only had one goal: get out of there! With adrenalin pumping through my body and mind I was purely in 'fight or flight' mode. The emphasis, squarely on the later.

I honestly did not care how effective I was or what my audience got out of it. As far as I was concerned, once the words left my mouth, they were no longer my responsibility. It was up to the audience to dig through the quick-speak, mumbled message. I had done my part.

And this is the state my skills would still fester in if I were not a teacher. Just over a decade ago, I began to learn the secrets about how to speak effectively by having to critique others when I was given a class of business executives who wished to sharpen their presentation skills. At that early point I was living the old axiom,those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.”

However, my students’ blossoming abilities drove me to study the subject more deeply. It turned out that public speaking consisted of a skills set that could be learned the same as cooking or drawing. True, not everyone will become an Obama, but by learning how to properly prepare for, practice and give presentations even the most leaden-tongued of us can come to approach these tasks with confidence.

As I acquired more knowledge, my confidence grew and I began to give presentations to prospective clients and lead training workshops at my school. Although I still did not genuinely enjoy public speaking, I was at least able do the job when need be.

Learning these skills will enrich your life both personally and professionally. Sugiarto says, “We get more confident by overcoming fear. Since we do this ourselves, with no teachers, we give giveback. This improves our listening and communication skills along with showing us how to look at things from different points of views… We become better parents and teachers.”

In the next OnWords, with Sugiarto’s help, we will go over some public speaking techniques and learn how to practice them. Hopefully, with time, they will become some of the most-frequently-used tools in your language skills toolbox.

Good presenting,


This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post.

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