Help! I’m Dying Up Here!

The number one fear among a large percentage of human beings  on this planet is not the fear of death … it’s the fear of having to speak in public. 

This is not an exaggeration.  It’s been proven over and over again through survey after survey.   While I find myself somewhat outside that statistical group that prefers to die before they rise to speak, I’ve never been very far removed.

It was with some trepidation that I chose to enroll in my very first public speaking class this past week.   They say it’s never too late.  I don’t know.  By trying to become an effective  public speaker at age 60, I may severely test that theory.

One thing was made abundantly clear through this experience.  While I have a lot to say and I have very little trouble putting it down in writing, I am a terrible public speaker! 

I already knew I was bad.  That’s why I decided to go through the class.  Sadly, the only thing that has changed is that I now know exactly how bad I really am!

Seriously though, I learned a lot in the class.  For instance, I learned that content means nothing compared to delivery.   Delivery … like “image” … is everything.  Politicians prove this all the time, don’t they?

Because delivery is so critical, our  instructor worked hard to at least make us aware of the long list of bad habits you have to overcome in order to achieve an effective delivery.

We learned, for instance that it is imperative that we completely eliminate all “non-words”.  These are those comforting little utterances like “uh”, “um”, “ah”, and “er”.  Those things you say when you are trying to think of what you really want to say. 

Everybody knows that “non-words” are a no-no, but most people don’t even realize it when they use a “non-word” and so they don’t make a concerted effort to eliminate them. 

Fortunately, I was fairly successful in ridding myself of “non-words” almost from the beginning of the class.   I already knew that those guttural sounds were not conducive to effective speaking, and through measured cadence and conscious effort, I was able to avoid them.  Good for me!

I was far less successful with making and maintaining eye contact with the audience and trying to figure out what to do with my hands when I wasn’t making a supporting gesture.  Eye contact, I was told … is crucial.  Gestures while also essential, must have a purpose and must only be used to make a point before returning to the neutral posture.

My natural tendency when speaking to a group is to do just that … speak to the group.  I would never really make eye contact with a specific individual.  Instead, I would “spray” the room with eye contact, never taking the time … never feeling the confidence … to actually engage an individual for any length of time. 

Once again, with a great deal of effort and no small degree of discomfort, I was able to engage individuals in my audience with eye contact.  It felt unnatural, it felt intrusive, but I was assured not only by the instructor, but by my fellow students that it was highly effective.  I suppose they have no reason to lie.

Then I found out that I have absolutely no idea what to do with my hands when I’m speaking.  I also learned that my hands have an annoying habit of trembling when I want them to stay still. 

Nerves?  Of course.  But, over and over again, I consciously attempted to do absolutely nothing with my hands, but my hands would not cooperate! While I had eliminated the “non-words” and through concentrated effort, I had engaged the eyes of individuals in the audience, I found I still had absolutely no control over my nervous hands.  None!  In fact, I didn’t even realize I was doing it, so it was hard to recognize it and control it.  My hands apparently have a mind of their own.

Naturally with my nervous hands, wandering eyes and non-word vocabulary, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve gone most of my entire life without putting myself in a position of having to speak extemporaneously.  If I spoke in public at all, it was after a great deal of preparation and a great deal of anxiety.

Now, in the space of two days, I was forced to speak off-the-cuff five separate times with absolutely no preparation!  Yikes!

And, the results were BRUTAL!  Sadly, I have the tape recordings to prove it!!

My only defense … my only hope in fact, is that I sincerely believe that taking a public speaking class is a lot like taking a golf lesson.  You are given a dozen bad habits to break and a dozen good habits to develop.  You leave knowing exactly what you need to do.  You just have to do it.

I will not break a lifetime of bad habits nor will I develop the necessary good habits during the lesson.  During the lesson, everything I did seemed uncomfortable, contrived and mechanical because I was thinking about it rather than doing things instinctively.

But, just as your golf game will improve with hours spent on the driving range followed by multiple actual rounds on the links, you can improve your ability to speak effectively by always considering yourself “on” when speaking no matter what the circumstances … in public, on the phone, one-on-one with your spouse.   By constantly practicing the good habits, while consciously working to get rid of the bad habits, you will get better.

How much better will be a function of how hard you try. 

Trying to overcome a lifetime of bad habits to become a really effective public speaker at 60 may be a lot like trying to learn to play golf well enough to join the PGA Tour at my age.  It may be too much to expect. 

But, it’s not too much to expect measurable improvement, because I now know what I’m doing wrong and I know what I need to do to improve. 

For me, getting up to speak in front of a group of people is always going to be like teeing off in front of a group of spectators. 

Great golfers and great public speakers do it with no problem.  They overcome their fears and improve their games through practice and when the time comes to perform, they do it instinctively and with confidence.

At my age, I’m not going to become a great golfer.  And I’m not going to become a great public speaker.  But I am going to improve.

No … really, I am

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About Judson

Late bloomer ... aspiring writer and musician.
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3 Responses to Help! I’m Dying Up Here!

  1. territerri says:

    Ah! I wish I had read this prior to my speaking experience yesterday! It really might have calmed my nerves to remember that the reason for what I was doing was to feel the pain and improve upon it… IN THE FUTURE! But I also firmly believe that public speaking might be easier when you are doing it just for the sake of speaking. Being under the microscope in a class or training seminar makes it so much more difficult.

    I don’t think you should feel bad about gesturing with your hands. The man who led our training seminar gestured constantly and he encouraged us to use our hands as well. Hands opened and palms up equals welcoming. Palms down equals closed off.

    I’m going to adopt your attitude. I’ll never be too old to learn something new, so I’ll keep working on my ability to speak in front of a group.

    I enjoyed this post. Glad you stopped by my blog today. I’m adding you to my reader and will be back!

  2. Lisa says:

    What a great post! You have described your experience so well that I find myself taking an emotional roller coaster ride right along with you.

    When I first started teaching over twenty years ago, getting rid of my “non-words” was a big hurdle for me (an adult student in an evening class I was teaching actually pointed out my “ums” to me one night–yikes!). It is true that practice helps a lot, as does the greater confidence that comes with that practice.

    Something else I’ve found is that some of those rules can be broken (although perhaps more so in some settings than in others). Some of my favorite speakers have quirks in their speech or with the way they use their hands that make them both distinctive and interesting.

    Best of luck! I hope the experience becomes more enjoyable with time. 🙂

  3. huffygirl says:

    Good for you for trying. That’s what counts. I’m afraid of public speaking too, but fotunately have not been in any demand to do so. If I had a position where I was expected to be good at it, I guess I’d be back here reading this again!

    I’ve been working at conquering my fear of heights by climbing the rock wall at my gym. I’ve had great help from the climbing wall assistant who patiently helps me each week make baby step progress.

    Keep working at it – I’m sure you’ve gotten better by now!

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