While it’s not true that people fear public speaking more than death (**that old cliché quote has been debunked many times), it’s still terrifying for most of us. It’s such a common ailment, it has its own phobia: Glossophobia.
Most of my childhood in public spaces (classrooms, social situations, birthday parties, lunchroom, and the like) was spent avoiding standing out in any way. I wanted to be invisible. All driven by a fear that for any reason, at any moment, the spotlight would turn onto me and I’d have to use my voice in public. I wanted to be around people and join in the things they were doing, I just didn’t want them to notice I existed. This made for a difficult childhood.
Audience size didn’t matter, the anxiety was the same for four people or forty. I’d shrink in my seat when the teacher would scan the room for someone to answer a question. In group assignments I remained silent, much to the aggravation of my fellow students. I always played individual sports, as the group ones brought out my anxiety. If there were assignments that required a class presentation I took a failing grade over the dread of having to speak to my class.
Leaving for college gave me the hope that maybe I would feel different around a whole new group of strangers in a more welcoming environment. It didn’t. If anything, because everyone now seemed smarter, more mature in their speech, and more confident, it made my fear of speaking worse. It felt like a guarantee that I’d make an idiot of myself, so I spoke even less in public. My mumbling got worse. It was always bad, but in college it peaked. There is no word in my entire life I have heard someone say to me more than, “What?”. This is the life of the chronic mumbler. I felt more out of place in the college classroom than I did in high school and I didn’t think was possible.
Due to that and a distaste for traditional education methods, I dropped out my junior year at Ohio State. I had learned web design in 2001, had a dozen or so paying clients by 2003, and that allowed me to work in my room alone all day, and never have to run into a situation where I’d be socially uncomfortable. I created a little cocoon for myself to be safe from people and the extroverts of the world that constantly wanted to pull me into terrifying situations. And what happened? My mumbling got worse, my social anxiety increased, and I was more scared than ever to use my voice. I would turn into a sweaty, shaky, and flush faced mess when asked to give a speech. I began a heavy regimen of Paxil to be able to function through the day.
This continued for years until 2011. That’s when I made a new friend, who happened to be a speech coach and his viewpoints have changed the way I viewed talking in public forever. What he talked to me about was not the typical advice I had heard from everyone else. No blog posts covered it. No YouTube videos had any explainers mentioning this advice. It was unique and it struck me to my core. And the timing couldn’t have been better, as I needed to be a better public speaker right away.
Most people who know me locally assume that I’m a decent public speaker. Four years ago, I co-created and host an event series that brings out 500 people to a theater in downtown Chicago every month to watch local startup companies present their ideas. I open the show, I moderate the Q&A from the audience, and I close it out. Afterwards, many people have come up and told me that I seem like a “natural” up there. It’s hard to believe them, as in my head I am the same bumbling sweaty guy that I always was. So, I go back and look at the video. I see a guy who looks decently confident and in control. Maybe even comfortable. In my head, I know I was still nervous while up there, but that catastrophic thoughts of humiliating myself have faded. I’m not calm on stage by any means, but I’m no longer a trainwreck. And what got me there was not what I expected.
“They don’t give a fucking shit what you are saying. Seriously… Seth, most of the audience is barely paying attention for more than 10 seconds at a time. They are thinking about their phone. They are thinking about their kids. Bills that are due. What happened at work earlier. Their boyfriend. Their life, not yours. The thoughts in their head, not what is coming out of your mouth. If you’re lucky, they will remember two bullet points of what you said 48 hours later. If you’re lucky! Most speakers aren’t that lucky. If you stop fighting me maybe I can get you into the fucking lucky category…”
(This continued for a few more minutes.)
My first thought was, “Oh shit… I think I pushed my speech coach a little too far.” I have a tendency to be a bad student when I’m engaged. Teachers LOVE engaged students who hang on every word and do the work. When I’m engaged, I’m constantly pushing back, challenging, doing my research and bringing it back to them (normally contradictory), and in general being extra difficult. Some might call it being an asshole. A seasoned coach of 20 years, he was doing this voluntarily as a friend, while used to being paid $200 to $400 an hour by Fortune 500 executives. He had trained well known TED speakers, celebrities, and people who were already exceptional but needed a little polish. And here I was challenging him on every piece of advice he was giving me.
He had tried all the normal routes to training me. Explaining that there really wasn’t any ONE way to speak. That I would develop my own that would be comfortable to me. That all the great speakers out there had their own subtle styles, their own subtle differences in mannerisms and tone. That many of the greatest speakers broke the “rules” of speaking all the time, so forget any arbitrary crap about holding your head like this or arms like that. That those things were designed to sell speech training to people by making it way more complicated than it needed to be. To keep breathing and stay in my body. That if nervousness does come up to remember that it’s the same chemically as excitement is in my body. That the only thing that mattered was sounding authentic and all other speech tips were icing on the cake. And above all else, to simply practice and give speeches. No one was born having delivered 100 speeches already, I had to earn it.
And I kept pushing back.. “How do you know that any of this works? But how does that insure I don’t say something stupid? Or freeze up? Or sound like crazy person? Or make a fool of myself? Or… Or… Or.. ????” It had been multiple sessions and I continued to barrage him with same fears over and over. Finally, he snapped. The frozen in my brain forever speech of (“They don’t give a fucking shit what you are saying.”) began. It continued for about four minutes, non-stop.
While he berated me, he had perfect cadence. He maintained eye contact and didn’t pace around. There was conviction and authenticity in his tone. He used his hands confidently, but not too exaggerated. His decades of practice were showing even when he was ranting. He simply couldn’t turn it off. He had done his “10,000 hours” as Malcolm likes to say.
He calmed down and began to break down for me what he meant. Starting with the “they don’t give a shit” part. One of the most effective techniques he had ever discovered for speaking without uncontrollable fear taking over, was this Buddhism meets Nihilism realization that… the audience is never fully engaged. That your speech is a passing moment in the course of their lives, where you have their “continuous partial attention”, and that studies show within a couple days to a week they will forget nearly everything about your speech except for a couple bullet points of information. The partial attention means they won’t notice the shaking, sweating, or that stammer you had a couple minutes in. They will barely notice any awkward hand gesturing or that you talked a little too fast. They’ll barely notice the sentence you messed up or the bad pun you nervously tried. They certainly won’t remember it. They won’t remember 99% of the things you think they will and that you sit there dwelling on for the half hour after giving your speech. A little movie reel of disappointment, playing over and over in your head.
That is what finally broke me free from the terror of standing in front of people and speaking. The speaking part is nothing more than a formality to get my ideas to the audience. I used to think it was the most important part. Maybe I watched too many famous TED talks or Steve Jobs product announcements. I thought that level of perfection was what everyone else could do, but not me. I rewatched some of my favorite talks and realized, it wasn’t their speaking ability (some of them break every “rule”), it was the quality of their content that resonated with me.
Your audience is there for the content of what you are saying, not how you are saying it. I can control the content of my speech. I can’t control if I sweat or look nervous or accidentally stutter or if I come across awkward or if my natural voice is nasally. My impact comes from owning a voice through the content I present, not my voice as it’s presented. I can control whether or not my content is meaningful and useful. Generally, if it’s those two things, it’s by default authentic and relevant to the room. Generally, if it’s those two things I stand a strong chance of being remembered in 48 hours.
Apparently, that’s all any great speaker can hope for.