When I speak to groups about becoming a unique and sexy speaker, inevitably someone will pipe up, "Well, you know people are more afraid of making a speech than they are of dying."
Isn't it time we laid that old chestnut to rest? After all, many people feel that way about lots of things. Some would rather die than fly, or bungee jump, or leap from an airplane with a carefully packed parachute and a trained instructor strapped firmly to their back.
At least when you give a speech you've got both feet on the ground. Usually. There's that story about the famous Rabbi Hillel, who was asked by a powerful king to tell him all about Judaism while standing on one foot or face death if he couldn't. This may be the only time in recorded history that a complete speech was given with one foot off the ground. Rabbi Hillel, it is said, faced the king, foot up in the air, and replied, "Do not unto your neighbor that which is hateful to you. All the rest is commentary."
Thankfully most of us will never have to literally give the speech of our life. As long as we know we'll live to speak another day, what is there to be afraid of? Or more importantly, what do we think we're afraid of?
When we stand in front of a crowd, what do we see? A group of people a lot like us. Tall, short, thin, fat, dark, light, in jackets and ties or t-shirts and jeans, looking expectantly at us, ready to soak up our words of wisdom. What is there to be afraid of in that?
Obviously, what we fear is not out there in the audience where we can see it. Most probably it's an intangible in our head. For example, not being perfect. For some of us, the thought of making a mistake is terrifying because not being perfect really is a fate worse than death. It carries with it our vision of ourselves as worthwhile, capable, competent and important human beings. Something as simple as tripping over our tongue, misstating important data, forgetting a single point in a sequence, or feeling like we're not living up to expectations seems like a tragedy. It can paralyze us in mid-sentence, bring out the shakes and shivers, dry up our throat and chase us off the stage forever. That’s a heavy price to pay for a momentary glitch.
So, what can we do if any of these things happen?
Plan ahead! While rehearsing your speech, rehearse what you'll say or do if anything unexpected mars your performance. For example:
a. If you trip over your tongue and your words come out garbled: Stop. Breathe. Smile. Say something simple like, "Let's try that again," or "What I meant to say is..." or "One more time," or "Take two," or any other simple phrase that feels comfortable to you. Repeat the garbled words correctly and continue on with your speech. If you don't make a big deal out of it, no one else will, either.
b. If you misstate some important data: If you realize immediately that you've said something incorrectly, stop, breathe, and correct the misstatement (see a. above). If you don't realize it until later in your speech, complete what you're saying at that moment, then stop, breathe, pause for a moment, and then say something like, "Let's go back to (subject) again for a moment. I'd like to revisit a point I made earlier." Or "Let's go back to (subject) for a moment, I'd like to clarify an important point." And then make the correction simply and matter-of-factly. The less heat you bring to the moment, the less the audience will remember it or make an issue of it.
c. If you forget something in a sequence of information: When you realize what you've left out, finish what you're doing at the moment, then stop, breathe, and (like b. above) say, "Let's go back to (subject) for a moment. I'd like to add an important point." Or say whatever feels comfortable to you in the moment. Your audience will think you planned it that way. If you don't admit you forgot, it will never occur to them.
Little glitches often make us feel like we're not living up to expectations. Correcting them as soon as we can removes the feeling of incompetence and replaces it with a burst of confidence. It's easy to think on our feet when we remember that the audience doesn’t know we didn’t quite say it the way we planned to. It’ll be our little secret.