Sit Down and Shut Up!
I am what would be classified as
the PERFECT Perfectionist! That’s not a good thing…believe me. The fear of
speaking in public began very early in my life. Every time a teacher chose me
to read aloud in class, I panicked, afraid that I would get tongue tied and be
laughed at by my classmates. That led me to always sitting in the back of the
classroom and trying to blend in so that the teacher never called on me. Those
who know me today would never believe that I was a shy, timid child at one
My biggest FEAR in life is being embarrassed in front of a bunch of people. As a young teenager I dreamed of becoming a fashion model, among other things. Who would believe that shy, timid child would put herself in a position of being front and center?
The determined teenager that I was, however, was not going to let a little fear of public opinion stand in my way. I was determined, thinking that by being thoroughly prepared I could handle anything.
I put into action my plan of attending finishing classes, etiquette classes…classes on how to walk correctly (yes, walk). My first introduction into the world of modeling was a small local pageant in which there was a talent portion.
Now it’s probably good to mention here that one of my other dreams as a teenager was becoming a singer like Barbra Streisand. So, I thought how nice it would be to combine two of my dreams into one! Wrong!
I practiced and practiced and had the song “People” by Barbra down pat. Come the day of the pageant I managed to make it through all of the portions without a hitch until the talent portion. I stood there frozen. I couldn’t remember the first words of the song. My mind was an absolute blank. So much for being prepared - I didn’t take stage fright into account. That was my first and most memorable introduction to being on stage in front of hundreds of people.
I was totally humiliated. Throughout my high school years, I retreated to two of my other dreams, art and writing. Staying out of the limelight I joined the school newspaper and yearbook staff.
My opinion is that perfectionism is what drives the fear of Public Speaking in most people. It’s not the fear of speaking…it’s the fear of not being perfect. We have been speaking since we were toddlers…the act of communicating is innate. Speaking is not what holds us back. What holds us back is the idea of having to speak in front of others and doing it wrong. What will they think of me? Will they understand? Will they agree or buy into what I’m selling?
I went to college late in my career and studied Marketing and Management Information Systems (database design for those who don’t know) at the University of Central Florida. UCF had a policy that involved incorporating real life skills required in the business world to prepare their students for life outside of academia. One of these policies involved having to work within teams on projects in every class and presenting (in a formal environment) findings, convincing both students and teachers of our position.
Being the determined Perfect Perfectionist that I was, I was determined to be prepared and enrolled myself in Toastmasters. This actually was a good thing. Toastmasters helped me get over my fear by constantly forcing me to practice and deliver. In time, public speaking began to become more natural…although never easy.
Research shows that the #1 fear in America is public speaking…beating death as #2. That’s funny to me and amazing. Perhaps it’s because once you are done speaking you’re still here to suffer the criticism and aftermath, whereas “death”, well what can I say…who gives a crap!
I want to speak to that fellow perfectionist out there. Your perfectionist mentality is what drives your anxiety with public speaking because you won’t settle for anything less than being PERFECT. Yet when you began walking, you weren’t so good and look at you now. We expect to start PERFECT, yet like walking, it is a skill you develop and then master. We perfectionists tend to set our standards so high that they are virtually impossible to reach. If we can’t start out as an “expert” we’d rather not start at all. There are two types of perfectionist.
▪ The POSITIVE Perfectionist – generally achievement oriented. These individuals focus on what went right, what can be improved and celebrate just trying.
▪ The NEGATIVE Perfectionist – generally failure oriented. These individuals are more concerned about the mistakes, about looking bad, and about what they “should” have done.
To be honest …I have struggled with both types of perfectionist tendencies. There is a quote by Anne Wilson Schaef that resonates with me, “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” My suggestion, find a happy medium.
Over the past five years I have been going through some huge transformational changes. Coming face to face with a near death experience in 2012 will do that to you. That’s a story for another time. I have come to realize that life is short, why waste it on yourself? I’ve reached a point where I’m able to tell my perfectionist self to sit down and shut up! It has taken a lot of counseling and introspection, but what I am finding is that by just letting myself feel and enjoy the moment without the anxiety of screwing up…I get things right more often than not. When I stop worrying about what others think, I can actually get my point across more clearly.
In closing I’d like to provide you are few personal lesson-learned tips on what to do and not to do when preparing for and giving a speech. These tips don’t relate to any of the tools and resources you will utilize, but rather to the mental anxiety that the perfectionist in you keeps throwing in your path.
▪ Don’t memorize your speech word for word. Just read through it several times and get familiar enough within it. You can always use your presentation bullet points to trigger your next points.
o Why: because you will be so focused on the words, the passion will be lost in the message. Plus, if you lose your place, it’s more difficult to get it back.
▪ Don’t go off script. Make sure that you continue to follow your practiced outline. For new speakers, I suggest you hold all questions until after your speech.
o Why: Once again, because it will take too much time to get back into the flow of your speech and you risk the chance of confusing your message.
▪ Don’t stand behind a podium and read a scripted speech. Get out from behind the podium; engage your audience by scanning it as you speak. Sometimes picking one or two people and talking to them will eliminate the overwhelming feeling of a larger audience.
o Why: This is the best way to measure the effectiveness of your speech. Watch the audience’s reaction.
▪ Do Practice, Practice, Practice!
o Why: The most effective way to overcome those performance anxiety jitters is to know your subject matter frontwards and backwards.
▪ Do speak only on subject matters that you are passionate about.
o Why: Because without passion and conviction, you deliver a dull, dead speech
▪ Do match your speech to your audience.
o Why: Because your reputation depends on it. If you are committed to becoming a public speaker, you want the referrals!
▪ Respect the audience’s time.
o Why: Again, your reputation as a speaker depends on it.
My final words on the matter of public speaking are to embrace the role of speaker. This means don’t rush through the speech. Engage the audience and just have fun. It’s just a conversation. What’s the worst that could happen? Nothing at all… if you don’t try. It takes courage to step out of your comfort zone. In the words of Mark Twain, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, NOT absence of fear.” The jitters never go away, they just strengthen your resolve.