The fear of speaking in public is actually the fear of being judged by others

Bashfulness is an ornament to youth, but a reproach to old age (Aristotle)

Why did Aristotle (384 ~ 322 BC) say, “Bashfulness is an ornament to youth, but a reproach to old age”? Because in the young, bashfulness appears to be ‘cute’ and an expression of innocence. Yet, as we grow older, we find that shyness inhibits our growth and may prevent us from doing what we would like to.

Shyness can be selective. That is, we can be competent in most areas of life, yet find one or two situations cause us great apprehension. Public speaking is a good example. Just the thought of speaking before a large group is enough to cause the stomach to churn in most people.

One of our readers finds herself in that position. She writes, “One thing that has troubled me all my adult life really, is the thought of speaking in front of a group of people. My brother is getting married and has asked me to read a poem for him in church. I must be improving slightly, since in the past, I would have automatically stayed within my comfort zone and said no. But I’m so frustrated with my fear, I want to do it, so naturally I said yes. I am now in two minds: fear of failure and the thought of never improving my situation pushes me to say yes, but the old fear is still there. Could you please give me some guidance, I will only be doing a reading, but I’m still nervous.”

I congratulate our reader on accepting the challenge. Always welcome fear and seek it out. For it is a doorway to courage and endless growth. Generally, as we repeatedly do what we are afraid to do, we overcome fear or loosen its tight grip on us.

Occasionally, however, no matter what we do, we won’t be able to overcome our shyness or feeling of inadequacy COMPLETELY. But this is often a blessing in disguise. For it is just such feelings that drive us to compensate by EXCELLING in some areas. For instance, many super stars have reached the top because of their battles with shyness. Here are just a few examples: Bob Dylan, Cher, David Bowie, David Letterman, Henry Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Johnny Carson, and Barbra Streisand.

Now, returning to the specific problem of our reader, the fear of speaking in public is actually the fear of being judged by others. It is the fear of ridicule, the fear of being thought of as inept, inadequate, or boring. It is the fear of appearing as a fool in public.

So, the first thing I wish to say to our reader is: change your focus. Instead of thinking about you, think about your brother and the guests. The wedding is not about you. There is no need for you to appear brilliant. You are not there to show how bright you are, but there to honor your brother and share a poem with the guests. In fact, the less you shine the more your brother and his wife will. Simply understanding that there is no need for you to appear talented can relieve a great deal of pressure.

If you focus your attention on yourself, you will be nervous, but if you focus your attention on how to best serve your brother, his wife, and the guests, your nervousness will subside. How can you best serve them? That’s easy. All you have to do is speak loud enough to be heard, slow enough to be understood, and pause long enough for the lines of the poem to sink in. To help you do just that, follow these steps.

1. Write out the poem double spacing after each line. Alternatively, you can write each line of the poem on individual cards. But if you do so, be sure to number the cards at the bottom so you can keep them in order.

Here is an example made from a poem by Jalal Al-Din Rumi (1207 ~ 1273):

“Love makes bitter things sweet;
(space or new card)
“love converts base copper to gold.
(space or new card)
“By love dregs become clear;
(space or new card)
“by love pains become healing.
(space or new card)
“By love the dead are brought to life;
(space or new card)
by love a king is made a slave.”

The space is your signal to pause. The pause gives the audience time for the message to sink in and gives you a chance to glance at the audience. By looking at them, you make them feel engaged in the reading.

2. Study the meaning of the poem. Make its message become part of you, so you can use it to express your feelings. When the reading is done with sincerity, it will move you, your brother and his wife, and all the guests.

3. Practice in front of a mirror 10 ~ 15 minutes, 2 or 3X a day, until the event. Practice speaking at the right volume, not overpowering or too faint to be heard. Practice speaking slowly and clearly. After reading a line, pause and look in the mirror, pretending you are looking at the audience; pause a second, then return to the poem and repeat. THERE IS NOTHING LIKE PRACTICE AND PREPARATION TO ELIMINATE OR REDUCE FEAR.

Here are other points to keep in mind:

1. Realize that you are among family and friends. No one is there to judge you. Everyone supports you in your role of honoring your brother and new sister-in-law. So, relax.

2. Your fear is a paper tiger, the difficulty of the task facing you is blown way out of proportion by your imagination. Rather than using your imagination to worry you, use it to visualize your success. That is, sit in a comfortable chair; close your eyes, and see yourself in church reading the poem slowly and clearly, pausing and glancing at the guests. Do this for five minutes, 2 or 3X a day, until the event. This powerful technique is practiced by professional athletes and will help you to accomplish your goal automatically.

3. What should you do if, despite all the preparation, you make a mistake? If you stumble, there is a chance to recover. Simply excuse yourself and repeat the line, doing it correctly. If you were to ignore the error, the reading will appear faulty, but if you were to correct it, the overall impression will be that it was flawlessly done.

4. How do the participants on the TV show “American (British, Australian) Idol” get the courage to sing before large groups? They are examples how passion and enthusiasm push fear to the side. When you want to do something badly enough, you’ll do whatever it takes, including speaking or singing in public. And once you do so, you will discover it was far easier to do than you had imagined.

5. Public speaking is a great way to empower yourself. Why not think about joining a Toastmasters International club or take public speaking classes? Toastmasters will provide you with experience, knowledge, and discipline, which will give you great boost in confidence, not to mention the fun you will have and the new friends you will make.

Finally, you may discover you don’t have to live with fear, if you seek the help of a phobia clinic. If there are none in your area, take a look at the Internet. You may find this course helpful: “VANQUISH FEAR & ANXIETY in just 24 Hours, Guaranteed!”

I wish you great success in your new life as a public speaker!