There are some fears that seem to be incredibly common. Things like snakes, spiders, heights, clowns, (we must never forget how scary clowns are) and of course public speaking. Now, I’m no psychologist, so most of these I can’t help you with. I don’t know how to overcome your fear of snakes, probably because I actually like these guys, or spiders, which my wife makes me kill even though they eat mosquitos (come on babe, be reasonable) but, there is one thing on this list that I can help you with, and that is public speaking.
I’ve been speaking in front of people for a long time, and I’ve found that once you get a handle on a few key things, public speaking starts to be exhilarating instead of terrifying, it becomes a place you look forward to being, and you really start to see that it is a great way to serve a cause that’s important to you.
1. Be Prepared
The first key to be a more comfortable and effective public speaker is to be prepared. I know that sounds obvious, but you would be surprised to know how many people are terrified to speak in public because they feel like they have nothing to talk about. If you’re prepared, then that won’t have to be a concern for you.
Now to be clear, this will look different for different people. For instance, if you have to get up in class and talk about macroeconomics (when you’re actually a history major like me) then you had better study up, have copious notes, and plan out what you are going to say before you get up there. That is to say, if you aren’t familiar with the subject that you are going to speak about, then preparation for you is going to be more work, but that work at the back end will save you a lot of fear and heart ache in front of your audience.
There is another side to this though. If you have been reading Spider-Man comics since you were six years old and you get asked to speak at the Spider-Man Symposium (which is probably a thing) then you are already prepared, because you have been preparing your whole life. What I mean is, if you are deeply immersed in the topic, and it’s something very near and dear to your heart, then trust the preparation you have already been undergoing. Nothing wrong with an outline at that point, but you want to let your heart shine through. When I get to share a sermon, I’ll usually have an outline, but if I over prepare, then I’ll sound like a robot, and no one wants that. (Except robots, I guess.)
2. Be Genuine
This leads directly from our last point. Make sure you’re prepared, but also make sure that you actually mean what you are saying. Think of the most effective public speakers in history, people like Charles Spurgeon, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and so on. What does this diverse group have in common that made them great public speakers? They believed what they were saying.
Is it possible to be a hired gun, who publicly speaks about anything? I imagine so. But all the real greats have been people who spoke with passion, and not just head knowledge but heart knowledge. If you want to read off a dry list of facts, well anyone can do that. But if you want to convince people, to make them see what you see, to help them catch your vision, then you have to truly believe that you are right first.
When I speak, it’s with conviction of the truth from God’s Word, and when you speak, you must have conviction of the truth also.
3. Be Supported
This is my final key, and the one I find to be the most important. When you get up there to speak, don’t think you have to do it alone. If possible bring friends or family with you. There is nothing better than feeling the love of people that you care about in the audience. Having my wife or good friends in the audience when I speak makes it that much easier to speak with comfort. I’m sure Abe Lincoln loved having Ulysses S. Grant in the audience when he spoke. (Don’t ask me why I’ve decided that Lincoln and Grant were best friends.) And for me, the real best friend to have when I speak is the one who is always by my side, the Holy Spirit. I encourage you to let Him be your comfort and your support.
However, when we think about going into public speaking, regardless of anything else, we are never alone. In fact, by the very definition of public speaking, you are not alone when you do it. This is what causes the fear for many people, but for me, this is what brings the comfort. The people in the crowd are not your enemies. They are there to hear you speak. Make it a group effort.
As you speak, try to find the people in the audience who are engaged and responsive. You’ll see people nodding, making eye contact, maybe even letting a few “amens” fly. Those are your friends for the duration of your speech. Focus on them, and let their interest be your encouragement. Feed them the info they are there to see, and they’ll return your effort with thanks.
I’m sure there are people out there who have other really great advice for public speaking, and none of what I said above is exhaustive, but I think if you try these things, you’ll start to find wonderful joy in what others fear.