Thursday, August 19, 2010

Psychology experts analyze their public speaking fears, lessons

As a speaker and presenter, and as a public-speaking coach, I find psychology among the most useful tools for understanding audiences, how groups work, and how I interact with them.  Now two women, a psychologist and a psychoanalyst, have shared their own public speaking fears--and the lessons they've gleaned from them.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You're Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate,writes in Psychology today about seven life lessons from my public speaking career that you can apply to personal, one-on-one communication, from resisting the urge to get people to agree with you to treating your listeners with respect.  She sums up her learning this way:

Public speaking sure did teach me a thing or two. I learned that I'm never going to transcend fear, but I needn't let it stop me. I learned that survival is a perfectly reasonable goal to set for myself the first dozen or so times I face a dreaded situation. I learned to observe my worst mistakes in a curious, self-loving way. I learned to hang on to the life raft that is my sense of humor. I learned that I must show up. Good lessons for all of life.
Helen Davey, a psychoanalyst and marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, writes Confessions of a Psychoanalyst: Performance Anxiety and the Dread of Shame on The Huffington Post.  And for readers of this blog, it couldn't have a more appealing beginning:
This blog started out as a speech. To improve my skills as a public speaker, I joined Toastmasters International, an organization where members cultivate public speaking skills by studying manuals, practicing and helping one another. Soon after joining I was called upon to give my first speech. As I expected, all my old fears and insecurities emerged. Since that experience, I've given a number of speeches at Toastmasters, and yet continue to struggle with those same issues of performance anxiety. Realizing that I'm not alone with these feelings, I wanted to share my experiences with you.
She starts by remembering her childhood and its impact on her fear of public speaking:
Rules for girls were different than for my brother. Girls were to be ladies at all times, no matter what. To call attention to oneself or to express opinions that differ from others was not okay. It was important to always let other people think they're smarter, and a girl was always, always supposed to be modest in every way. Bragging was completely unacceptable, as was any display of negative emotions.
She notes that her speaking challenges go beyond fear, calling it "a deeper underlying issue for me than anxiety and that is dread of shame over exposing my anxiety."  (That's despite the fact that most audiences can't tell you're anxious, which is why I advise you to fake it until you make it, confidence-wise.)

While both women make clear the barriers they see, they also express a lot of resilience in tackling them. What are your takeaways from their lessons? Do you see something similar in your own speaking? Share your own lessons in the comments.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was always quite shy as a boy, and I'm still fairly reticent when meeting new people. However, I'm a successful public speaker and presentation coach. How do you explain that?

Quite simply, I learned two very key lessons at a young age.

1. When you're on stage, the audience rarely talks back unless you invite them to do so.

Therefore my fear of being interrupted, ridiculed or ignored, which often afflicted me in small groups, disappeared when I took the stage. It's odd because that's exactly the kind of fear which is felt by many reluctant public speakers.

I just feel far more at ease speaking to a hundred people than to one person. I should point out that I don't just broadcast - I do all the usual good things with plenty of eye-contact and audience participation. But I know that it's only a very rare participant who will challenge me aggressively, and if you're doing well and have made a good connection with the audience, usually they will end up taking your defence.

Which leads me to the second thing I learnt young:

2. The audience wants you to succeed.

Many people who have a fear of public speaking seem to expect that the audience is looking to catch them out. In fact, they would much rather enjoy your talk and find it fascinating. They also would much rather it's you than them standing up there, so they will usually give you more sympathy and leeway than you might expect.

Thanks Denise for an interesting post. I hope this is a useful addition to it.