“Better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”–why we fear public speaking, and what you can do about it

Jerry knows a thing or two about public speaking. "Jerry Seinfeld" by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Jerry Seinfeld once said this about the degree to which most people fear public speaking:

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.

Absurd, isn’t it? What Seinfeld says is fairly common, however–and fear holds many people back when it comes to making the most of the opportunities that come with being a standout speaker.

It’s important to make a distinction between true fear–paralyzing, cold sweat, run-screaming-from-the-room fear–and discomfort/aversion. The former likely can’t be resolved by reading a blog post and may require serious intervention. When most of us talk about the “fear” of public speaking, however, we really mean the latter–discomfort/aversion. In other words, when we say we “fear” public speaking, we mean it’s something we’d rather not do if given the choice.

If that sounds like you, there’s a good reason to work toward becoming more comfortable with public speaking. The truth is, presenting is a tremendous opportunity, not a burden. It positions you as an authority and provides an unparalleled way to meet new people and be seen as a thought leader in your field. Most importantly, there’s a good chance that you’re as smart or even smarter than most of the people who present on your topic. What’s the difference between them and you? They’ve made presenting a priority. You haven’t.

So, how do you change that? The first step is understanding that being nervous is natural and that everyone is a little nervous when they’re in front of a crowd. In fact, it’s built into our DNA: our instinct is to hide in the back of the room where we’re safe and protected. Being at the front of the room, however, makes us feel vulnerable and exposed.

Knowing it’s natural to be nervous is the first step toward becoming a more confident speaker. Cut yourself some slack, and know you’re not alone, then channel that energy into something positive. Finally, understand that the single best thing you can do to overcome your anxiety is to prepare as thoroughly as you can–and tomorrow, I’ll provide a few tips for doing just that.

Want to learn more about overcoming your aversion to public speaking? Join me and Jon Swerens  for “How to Create and Deliver a Great Presentation” at the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce next Wed., May 2, from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

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