Public Speaking or Death?

Public Speaking or Death?
Tom Scott, founder of Nantucket Nectars

The human fear of speaking in public can be so damn powerful. I have to speak in front of groups of people regularly. Whether it is in front of a small group at work or some larger outside audience, it is a regular part of what I do. I've been doing it for years. In fact, I studied theater in college, so I am somewhat trained in the process. And yet it scares the hell out of me. I've seen statistics that show humans fear speaking in public more than they do death. Death? What is this all about?

What is ironic is that we all know what to say. The content of a presentation is not an issue at all. I speak mostly about the story of my company, start-up-business stuff, maybe marketing, or social entrepreneurship. The bottom line is that I know a lot about these things. I've been doing these things most of my adult life. I better know them.

Ultimately, you have to stand up and say things you know. There will be no punishment. The audience wants you to do well. They are generally rooting for you. When you are done saying things you know, you may have to respond to a couple of questions on other things you know. Then you sit down. This not a big deal. What is it we fear?

I used to panic each time I anticipated facing an audience. The night before board meetings was always a sleepless one. Over time, I became less terrified of the task. But I never reached the point where I could actually relax. In recent years, though, the sleepless thing seemed to go away. It all became manageable. Somewhat.

So, two weeks ago, I had to give a presentation on growing a business. Familiar subject. I was completely relaxed. I buzzed into the conference without a worry. I met the person who had asked me to come, and I got up to speak. About five minutes into the speech I did something stupid. I thought, how can I find enough content for the next 40 minutes? I panicked; my mind went blank. I was choking. It was a nightmare. I had to ask for a glass of water. I recovered fairly well. Finished the speech. However, it scared me silly. I was really shaken by the whole thing.

On Friday, I had to speak again. It was a conference put on by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. They were expecting 250 to 300 people. I was petrified. I flew into Burlington on Thursday night and had dinner with some old friends. I was thinking about the speech the whole time. Couldn't relax. I checked in to my hotel and could not sleep. I was so shaken by the last incident that I wondered whether I could get through this thing.

Well, I finally fell asleep. Got up and went down to speak--I was the keynote speaker, speaking at 8:30 a.m. I started off with terror and slowly settled in. I got into the zone. I was on. I felt great about it in the end. When I left the hotel to fly down to Nantucket, I was extremely relieved and exhilarated.

I don't have any real words of wisdom on this one. This fear of public speaking is just a fact of life. In a way, I like the fear: It works for me; it gets me focused. Maybe I owe it to the people in the audience to honor them and respect them by giving them due fear. In any case, speaking in public is something I both hate and enjoy. I'd definitely choose it over death.

Copyright © 1999
Slate, www.slate.com
May 24, 1999


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Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu on Tuesday, 08-Jan-2008 14:10:11 EST