Public Speaking: It’s Seriously Not Scarier Than Death
Public Speaking: It’s Seriously Not Scarier Than Death

Brand ambassadors have to power through their fear of public speaking to market appropriately.

“According to most studies, people's No. 1 fear is public speaking. No. 2 is death. Death is No. 2. Does that sound right? This means, to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
― Jerry Seinfeld

While hilariously put, I imagine most people reading this column would agree with the above quote. Not me, though.

From my first speech class in high school on, I’ve always enjoyed public speaking, which places me firmly in the minority. I can vividly remember my first speech – it was a demonstrative speech, and I picked a topic that resonated with an audience of other growing 15 year-olds: how to make the perfect turkey sandwich. I partnered with a good friend and we went to the grocery store and picked out top-of-the-line ingredients and absolutely rocked our speech (and ate the sandwich after).

In the years since, I’ve learned so much about the art of public speaking and draw on my past experiences regularly. I’m by no means an expert, but it’s always something that has come naturally to me. I wanted to share a few of the lessons and obstacles I’ve overcome to be comfortable speaking in front of a group.

Lesson 1: It could always be worse.
Whenever I have to speak in front of a group, I look back on the most rattled I’ve ever been before having to give a speech. My junior year in college, I was in a persuasive public speaking class and was to give a speech on abortion - a tough enough topic by itself. But that morning, as we were going into class, the room was abuzz with the news that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. At the time, we didn’t realize the severity of the situation, but we knew something really, really bad and scary had happened. Our professor wanted to get through the speeches to stay on schedule, so I got up and delivered my speech. It wasn’t easy – and looking back, it was probably the most nervous and uncomfortable I’ve ever been giving a speech. I always think back to that moment before going up to speak – and I’m instantly relaxed, knowing it could never be worse than that day.

Lesson 2: It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.
In grad school, I taught public speaking to college freshmen, which, in and of itself, really helped me get comfortable in front of a group. I assigned a persuasive speech on a topic of the student’s choice. I told them the topic could be on anything from “Why you should support gun control laws” to “Why my mom is better than your mom.” The point of this exercise was for them to back up their angle with reputable sources and focus on the mechanics of giving a speech. I’ll never forget the best speech of the entire class, given by the class clown. He chose the topic “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound.”

I was skeptical at first, but he backed up his perspective with tons of credible research by physicists and other scientists and, more importantly, spoke to the audience as his peers. He made people laugh and the audience was captivated – he absolutely deserved the “A” I gave him. I always remind myself – and any of our clients that are doing media interviews – that you’re just having a conversation. Sure, you’re in front of a group of people, which can be scary, but they’re human beings, and in most cases, know nothing about the subject matter. As long as you present it in a conversational and engaging way, they’ll believe you and what you’re saying.

Lesson 3: Don’t read to your audience. Speak to them.
A big mistake most people make before speaking in front of a group is over-preparing. I did an independent study in college where I was a professor’s assistant and I had to teach two lessons per year – to my peers. Rough. I made a really detailed outline and thought I would nail it. In reality, I read verbatim off the outline, didn’t take a breath or stop to ask a question or engage the audience at all. I was done with my “lesson” in about 10 minutes – out of a 50-minute class. It was a truly painful lesson to learn, but I’m glad it happened. It may seem like a good idea to put every single word you want to say into PowerPoint so you have it, but all it does is compel you to read every single word to the group. Now I create a simple outline, practice (either in front of a mirror or with a person) and get a sense of what I need to say beyond the bullet points. Trust me, the last thing you want is to look out at a sea of people with glazed-over eyes watching you read from a screen.

Jerry Seinfeld may be a stand-up comedian who has performed in front of literally millions of people in his career, but he was spot on about his perspective of people’s fears about public speaking. No matter the circumstance, it’s not scarier than death – unless you picture the audience in their underwear. Now, that’s scary.

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