We were returning from dinner at a neighbor’s just a few blocks away, when the sirens started whining and lights flashed behind us. I was driving. My husband was in the passenger seat.
“Why would he be pulling me over?” I panicked out loud. “Was I swerving? I only had one glass of wine and that was with dinner.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” reassured my husband. “You weren’t doing anything wrong. Maybe you have a light out or something, just pull over.”
So, I did and rolled down the driver’s window as the policeman approached.
“License and registration, please” he requested.
“Officer, did I do something wrong?” I inquired.
For a moment he just stared at me and then said he noticed I had stopped in the middle of the road about a block back, rolled down my window and appeared to be talking someone, but he didn’t see anyone in the road.
“Oh, now it makes sense.” I stated out loud as my husband slumped in his seat and glared at me to shut up. Silently he was thinking, “No!!! Don’t tell him you were talking to the deer!”
“That was just a deer.” I explained. He was in the road, frozen by the glare of my headlights. I told him he was lucky I saw him and didn’t want him to get hit by a car, so I was warning him to move away.”
The officer said nothing. My husband slouched lower in his seat. The silence sounded deafening. So, I kept talking.
“I explained to the deer that a lot of cars cut through this road at night when it’s dark and drivers can’t always see when deer like him cross the road.”
The cop still said nothing. My husband silently communicated that I sounded like an idiot, so I stopped talking.
“Ma’am”, inquired the officer. “Where do you live?”
“Right there.” I pointed to the neighborhood on the other side of the road.
He hesitated. Then he advised me to go home, not make any stops and not talk to any animals on the way. I thanked him and drove off. My husband shook his head in disbelief, though we still laugh about it today.
For people who know me, seeing me talk to an animal is not out of the ordinary. I love animals and like any pet owner, I believe they understand us when we speak to them. However, I should have taken the advice I give clients when preparing them to speak. That simple advice, which I clearly failed to heed, is know your audience.
Fortunately, in this case, my audience was a nice guy who probably decided ticketing me for speaking to a deer wasn’t worth the trouble. But, why, when I clearly did nothing wrong, did I get nervous and not even think about how ridiculous I must have sounded?
Like a deer caught in the headlights, many of us freeze in response to fear. Researchers say freezing or standing still when scared is a natural defensive reaction. It even has an official name. Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. It comes from the Greek words: glossa, which means tongue and phobos meaning fear.
In fact, research suggests that for most people, speaking in public is greater than the fear of death.
Over the years, we have seen how this fear shows up in people. Prior to important appearances, we’ve witnessed clients throw up, start sweating, shaking, break out in rashes and a few have even had difficulty breathing. Some tell us they don’t sleep for days prior to a presentation. Others stutter or simply can’t make their words come out. To them, it can be so embarrassing that they turn down potential opportunities at work and in some cases, shy away from others.
Stress coach Jordan Friedman says, when people are stressed, it is apparent as they may not come across as the person they want others to see.
“Stress often causes others to steer clear of us and this is bad news if these people are our coworkers and companions”.
If you search the internet for “tips to overcome fear of public speaking”, you’ll generate nearly 1.4 million results. Many of these articles will offer advice like “practice in front of a mirror”, “picture your audience naked” and “look at someone’s forehead so you don’t have to look them in the eye”. None of this will help you.
I’m not sure who advised practicing in front of a mirror is the way to get rid of nerves. The idea is to observe your facial expressions, gestures and mannerisms. However, when you practice in front of a mirror, you become self-conscious and start focusing on how your eyebrows raise up when you say certain words or a shade of lipstick that you no longer like or the few pounds that have crept up on you. Your focus should be on getting your message across to your listeners. A better way would be to record yourself and play it back.
Then there’s the naked thing. Picturing your audience without clothes is supposed to calm your nerves by making you feel that they are as vulnerable as you are. That’s ridiculous. What it will do is distract you and take your focus off your presentation, not to mention that it’s kind of creepy. If you want to visualize, then envision connecting with your listeners and giving a great presentation.
Eye contact is critical to making that connection. If you are looking at someone’s forehead, you are not looking them in the eye. The belief is they will think you are looking at them, but this is not true. People can tell if you are looking directly at them. Better advice is to think of a room as a quadrant and pick a person in each quadrant. Throughout your talk look at each of these people, which will give the appearance that you are making eye contact with the entire room. The more comfortable you become, the more people you can start to look at.
As someone who coaches speakers and presents often, below are realistic tips that can help you overcome nerves and increase your confidence.
Practicing out-loud helps you internalize your presentation, so you really know it and can speak to it rather than read from a script. Practicing out-loud also helps you simplify. You’ll be able to sense if it’s organized correctly, what can be eliminated or if something is missing. When practicing, try to speak a little bit louder than normal conversational tone. If you are recording yourself, you’ll be able to tell if you are coming across as energetic and engaging, rather than monotone.
When I arrive early for a program, I can greet people as they come into the room. Shaking hands, making eye contact or having brief conversations with strangers makes them feel more familiar and less intimidating to you.
When people are nervous, they often talk too fast, which can make you more nervous and cause you to run out of breath. Learning to pause is one of the best pieces of advice I can give you. The pause allows people to process what you are saying and stay with you. If you don’t come up for air, they will miss key points. Pausing also allows you to emphasize important points.
Examples and anecdotes
Using examples and short stories to illustrate points makes information more meaningful and relevant to listeners. It will also help you speak the way you speak to friend, which is more comfortable and easier to remember than delivering a data dump.
When you do that, you are giving audiences something unique: you! Your stories and experiences can’t be found in a book or on line. These connect you to your listeners.
Hire a professional
Lastly, consider hiring a professional. Working with a coach or joining a group like Toastmasters will force you to practice and receive constructive criticism. The more you present, the better you will become.
If you come across like a deer in the headlights, not only will your nerves be evident, but you will make your audience uncomfortable. Audiences want you to be great. When you succeed, so do they.