– Number one fear?

For weeks, Grace has been preparing for her animal research project, which is the culmination of the second grade curriculum. Out in the garage, with the door open, she constructed over many days a diorama that featured the elephant seals’ habitat. In the basement, on the kids’ computer, she searched Google for “elephant seals” to find what she called “quick facts.” (They are carnivores and eat skates, small sharks, and other fish, by the way.) She talked about an upcoming “oral presentation,” yet the design and rehearsal of that happened entirely at school.

Raised handOn Friday, we went to school, sat in the back of the classroom, and watched Grace and her classmates, one by one, give their presentations. The room was arranged like an auditorium, with a table as podium at the front and the desk chairs arranged in rows. There was a microphone, into which each child spoke as s/he read aloud her prepared remarks. After the formal presentation, each speaker asked, “Any questions or comments?,” and then called on raised hands. Remarkably, what happened during the Q&A is what happens during the Q&A of presentations made by many adults: The speaker relaxed, smiled, and seemed more natural and engaged.

Children have less polish and guile than we do, so there’s something very raw about the behavioral “data” they present for our scrutiny. In this instance, the eight-year-old presenters gave me an opportunity to wonder this: Why does even a practiced, rehearsed professional speaker seem stiffer, less natural, than the same person during the Q&A?

I have always been skeptical of that claim that Americans fear public speaking more than any other fear, even fear of death. This source points to a 1973 survey by the Sunday Times of London that initiated that now wildly-held belief. Of 3,000 respondents, 41% listed public speaking as their number one fear. Hmm. About 1,200 Americans — many of whom might be dead by now — have got a lock on our fears. I, for one, do not fear public speaking over fear of death, or the death of anyone I love, or my fear of woodchippers. Let’s put this survey, and its outdated data, aside and actually examine this fear. Whether it ranks first or tenth, it’s still real.

I’ll admit that I feel apprehensive when I have to make an oral presentation. And I’m not shy; I don’t mind talking to people. I don’t even mind standing in front of room full of students and teaching them (which is different from presenting). As Jimmy and I were discussing what we noticed about the second graders’ body language during their time on stage, we agreed that it seems to be the performance aspect of public speaking that rattles most people. The presentation is performance; the Q&A is, well, being one’s self.

Which is interesting, because the goal of rehearsing a presentation, as a speech coach explained to Jimmy as she worked with him on his style, is to “be yourself, on purpose.” I like that advice. If you’re funny, then practice your presentation in a way that buffs out the nervousness so the humor can shine through. If you’re serious and measured, then practice eliminating the deadly, thoughtful pauses (er, this is me) that drags down “serious” into “dull.”

Not many of us, though, can keep up a steady stream of “talk” for the 15 or 20 minutes that is the normal length of time for a conference presentation. If I talked that long at the dinner table, I would not be “being myself.” Most children and adults, too, might feel more comfortable during the Q&A because it mimics the course of human conversation, in which we do feel freer to be ourselves. And feeling freer to be ourselves depends on an interlocutor, the presence of another person, or persons, who allow us to be ourselves, and not perform ourselves.

I’m not sure how I would solve the public speaking problem, so that all of them would be as natural and engaging as the Q&A. There are rules and expectations for presentations, after all. Audiences expect the speaker to orate, to talk at them, to entertain. From my own experience, I do know that I’m better and more lively when I design my presentation to be more like a workshop: I give the audience something to do (read something, think something), and I present my remarks and frequently pause to ask them, what do you think of this?, and then coax a response. I can do the 20-minute solo talk when I have to (and, yes, I practice, and I’m “on”), but I must admit to getting tired of the sound of my own voice by Minute Eight, and it’s likely that the audience is getting tired of it, too.

Some people are great at the longer talk. These are the holder-forths, the people you invite to dinner because you know they’ll sit comfortably at the head of the table and tell long, sparkling anecdotes. Maybe, then, there should be two kinds of presentations: the workshop kind (more like a conversation) and the oratory kind (more like a performance). A speaker could decide which form would allow her to be more herself, on purpose. And we, in the audience, would feel ourselves to be more in the presence of that person, and not simply her remarks or slides.

Photograph by Jimmy.

3 thoughts on “– Number one fear?

  1. I was just looking around the internet for that elusive “proof” that public speaking is our #1 fear (so I could cite it). I’m giving a webinar called “Sexy on Stage” that abolishes the fear of public speaking. If you master the technique then you really can’t truly be nervous or afraid — if anything you should be excited about it.

    I find it ironic that our specific fears — that we will become the center of ridicule, make mistakes, fall flat, etc. — are brought into reality by the fear itself. You tend to give a flat presentation (as you point out) when you’re constricted with fear. Your throat is constricted. Your voice does not have its true fullness. You cling to your materials for dear life to the point that many people read their slides to the audience — OUCH.

    The relaxation at the Q&A is — believe it or not — because the presentation/speech/oration is over. You’re done with it. You can relax now. If you know your material, have an intrinsic passion for what you’re speaking about, you can now let the questioners lead you to what you need to say — when you write your speech/cue cards/outline/powerpoint, you’re GUESSING what they’re interested in, how high-level you need to speak of it, etc. Suddenly the pressure is off, and you can simply follow your passion again, even though you’re still on stage. Workshops are similar — since you’re actively engaged with the audience, you can shoot from the hip, you know if they’re engaged with your content, you can change course as needed (if you have the skill, know more than what you cover in your materials, and aren’t too tied to what you thought would take place).

    I want to teach people a method for side-stepping all of that. Here’s to hoping that people are able to listen and get the message and method so that they benefit.

    Thanks for the clue-in about where that statistic comes from. I’ll keep poking around for back-up proof.

  2. Rev. Criss, here’s an interesting post by another blogger that attempted to track down the original data from 1973. http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/10/14-worst-human-fears-according-to-1977.html It’s illuminating. Apparently the sample set from the original survey was 2,500 Americans, although not much about that data is published. (Was is a representative cross-sample? Did they ask professionals? What age group? So on.)

    Your remarks about fear disappearing after the presentation is over and before the Q&A begins is so insightful! It’s interesting that the speaker is not so much afraid, then, to be on stage in front of a group, it’s that the “oration” is over. Same as in workshops, you say.

    As someone who has done a lot of presenting myself, I think that a little nervousness — what I called “heightened awareness” — is to be embraced, and I tell my students this. It means you care. However, I don’t want it to get to the point of panic or dread for any of them. Practice helps — 3 or 4 times before the event. You don’t just know what you’re going to say, you know how you’re going to say it.

    One of the smartest things I ever learned about public speaking was during a workshop I took with a pro. He told us: “Speaking is a not a defensive act.” His belief was that fears are amplified by our inclination to protect ourselves during speaking, when what we really should do it go for it, and allow ourselves to be open and present to the audience. In other words, come out from behind the podium, step closer. Once I started to do this, my presentation style blossomed.

    Feel free to let me know what you come up with. This is a topic of great interest to me, my students, and colleagues.

  3. Pingback: Fear, girlfriend, and sequin tank top | leaf – stitch – word

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