• Stewart Knights

Your Fears, Roadmapped - A Public Speaking Article

Updated: Nov 6, 2019

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Throughout my experiences in public speaking - regardless of the form it takes - I have identified six stand-out ‘stages’, per se, time and time again. These stages that I am referring to are: Learning you have to present, Immediate Fear, Dense Preparation, Preliminary Fear, Delivery and Self-analysis. What interests me most about these stages is that they seem to be the hallmarks of presentation that exist - in some broad form - for as long as I continue to present. This doesn’t make them terminal, however, as the more I seem to learn about the aforementioned stages, and devote meaningful energy to understand them, the more they become points of strength rather than points of weakness. In this article, I will be attempting to decode these stages in a way that makes them more easily recognisable to both the seasoned presentation veterans and also those of us that are just entering the public-speaking world. Prepare for a long-one.

Stage 1 - Learning You Have to Present:

At some point in our educational or professional careers, we will have to ‘present’ to our peers to some degree - and not just once, either. This presentation may take the form of an address to your physics class in high school (by which I am following the English trends of schooling - sorry, America), a presentation of data collected on a current issue to your line manager or a global address bringing much-deserved attention to the ticking clock that is climate change - which gets ever-closer to striking midnight. Regardless of the context, the most common eventuality is that you are asked by someone to undertake this challenge. At this point we are now caught up to the title of this section - your learning that you have to present.

Some people conscientiously revel in this opportunity, recognising this scenario as the beginning of a journey to new-knowledge and indirect self-discovery. In my own experience, I can remember a number of times where I have been asked to present something - yet what I had for tea two days ago still escapes me. And this is exactly why I see this stage as noteworthy in the traditional roadmap of presentation. It is the green-light at the traffic lights, the gun-shot at the beginning of the sprint & the “and your time starts…now” at the beginning of every test you have taken all rolled into one. Something subconscious and instinctual seems to take over, filling you with a paradoxical and juxtaposing collection of anxiety-type emotions churning with a layer of excitement-type emotions. This becomes an issue, however, when the excitement-type emotions are significantly outweighed by those anxiety-type emotions - and this is what we shall explore in the next section.

Stage 2 - Immediate Fear:

Upon knowing that at some point in the future, you will have to present to your peers or colleagues, some people feel an immediate sense of fear encroaching upon them. This is completely natural and not something to dismiss. Fear is undeniably a positive emotion and brings to focus the adage “if you weren’t anxious/fearful, then you don’t care about it enough” - this is true. However, where fear becomes an issue in public speaking is the energy we have to devote to this fear. Try to imagine how you felt the last time you were genuinely petrified of something - before, during and after the incident. In my own experience, it was when I thought I was going to drown myself during a snorkelling experience.

Before the incident, I was filled with energy - ready to learn a new skill and excited to do so. I jumped into the water (or carefully lowered myself - you be the judge presiding over which was most likely) and it was there I began to panic as my mask kept filling up with water. Hyperventilating, shaking and eyes like saucers, I tried to push myself but, at one point, it was all too much and I swam back to the safety of the boat. Upon clambering onto the deck whilst incessantly blaming the mask for my failure, (the Art of Being Wrong) I felt both mentally and physically drained. This lasted for at least seven hours before I was able to return to my equilibrium and reflect upon my experiences.

Whilst there was a clear physiological danger present in my mind during this incident - I would argue that the psychological effects of immediate fear in public speaking are even worse as you think about the task you will face in the future at any moment where your mind drifts - and this happens a lot. This would be like me coming out of the sea - resting for a few minutes - and then jumping right back in to experience the ordeal all over again. Without proper guidance, this can be extremely mentally draining and can even prevent you from being able to prepare for the presentation, compounding the worries and anxieties to an insurmountable level. With proper training, however, this step can be inverted and changed into feelings of excitement, bordering on impatience as you think about how well you’re going to do - thus allowing more time for the preparation phase and subsequently resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby more preparation equates to a better presentation.

Stage 3 - Dense Preparation:

A colloquialism for this phase would be ‘cramming’ as you try to take on as much information as possible before your excitement for the project dwindles. However, as we discussed before, with smart planning and the ability to harness the initial, primal, feelings towards the task at hand - the excitement won’t dwindle as you have vastly higher energy banks to draw from.

Imagine you are told that you have a presentation to deliver in 10 days - assuming all the information you would need to deliver this address is readily available to you with limited digging required. You spend 10% of your time learning that you have the presentation to give, internalising this information and actually agreeing with yourself that this is something that will happen. Upon internal confirmation that this is happening, there are two possibilities for the next step:

1. You spend 60% of your time panicking about the imminency of the presentation - giving yourself only 30% of the time to engage in meaningful preparation up until you have to present. This is the last 30% of your energy, too, meaning it will dwindle extremely quickly.

2. You spend half that time worrying, you now have 60% of your time left to prepare - an optimistic calculation in anyone’s eyes!

And this is why stage 2 is so important to focus upon due to its inevitability and its domino effect on the rest of the stages. The “dense planning” stage becomes much less dense and confined with acute attention paid to the preceding step - allowing for a more attentive approach to preparation and a virtuous cycle of positive thoughts materialising into positive preparation and culminating in a positive presentation. Furthermore, you have much more energy to expend and this makes the following stage a much more comfortable affair, also. This stage being ‘preliminary fear’.

Stage 4 - Preliminary Fear:

This second stage of fear is equally as natural as the first - this time occurring within the 24 hour period before the presentation. Most commonly, your mind blanks, you reread everything and get bogged down in doubting your own ability to retain information for longer than a small fish. This step happens to everyone, no matter what they tell you, the key is minimising the energy you expend on this stage to give you more of a chance in the delivery stage.

Continuing with our example in the previous section, let’s imagine either scenario in the context of this next step. Firstly, you spent 10% of your energy thinking about the presentation, 60% being afraid of it, and 30% preparing for it. This leaves you with a grand total of 0% energy to expend on this entirely natural step - meaning that the presentation you will give will lack the energy and colour it deserves - resulting in a vicious cycle of fear, anxiety and deflation post presentation. Considering the latter example, you spend an equal amount of energy thinking about the presentation but, crucially, devote half the amount of energy to fear - leaving you with 60% left of your reserves to devote to the triad of planning, preliminary fear and delivery. With deeper reserves still remaining, preliminary fear becomes a null issue - the same way you don’t panic when your car flashes up with the red fuel-pump once it just sits on the top of the red line - contrasting greatly with the perspiration produced by the sight of it on the bottom of that red box.

This fear stage brings into focus two very important points:

By knowing how to harness fear in the second stage and leverage it to your advantage, you have a much greater chance at moving with more energy through the following stages.By knowing the depths of your ‘reserves’, you can consider more accurately how much energy you should be devoting to each stage, and adjust accordingly if you are under- or over-spending.

Stage 5 - Delivery:

At this stage in the roadmap it is time for delivery. Controversially, I would argue that the audience number is irrelevant to the energy needed to be expended, rather, the amount of energy you use should be a flat rate - this being the rest of it as you should treat every presentation like it is the one to decide your future. After one of my first workshop presentations, I came home and fell instantly to sleep - I was utterly exhausted and this was one of the best feelings I could have hoped to have experienced as I knew I had given it my all.

The reason I suggest giving it your all in every instance follows the same foundations as another classic adage, this being “train hard, fight easy” as the more energy you exert in situations that don’t decide your future, the deeper your energy reserves become as you gradually condition yourself and the larger your “one-hundred percent” actually is. This means that when it does come to those defining instances, your worry time is less of a deciding factor over your delivery and, inevitably, the better your delivery will be.

Much like in sporting scenarios (for those of you who play some type of sport), you know that you have to give it all your energy as it could be the deciding factor between ‘winning and losing’ - and we don’t want to associate our experiences with the negative connotations of ‘losing’. The same applies for public speaking. If you have 10% of your energy remaining and only utilise 5% of these reserves - expect a performance that is representative of 5% of your energy and, for most of us, this probably isn’t the greatest quality end-product. The way I quantify this is that you know when you have given it your best-shot, and your improvement in the future will reflect this - regardless of how well it went at the time.

Stage 6 - Self-analysis:

The final stage of this monster of an article is self-analysis. We all have our own self-perceptions of our work, allowing us to subjectively decide whether said work was either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In the context of public speaking, self-analysis could have its own article (hint) but to surmise, it takes place after-the-fact over a long time-span, requires little energy but intense reflection to be effective. It is in this stage that we uncover whether we did really give it our all or not - and our brains have a funny way of punishing us with retrospect for not giving it our all.

If you used 100% of your energy and it didn’t go well, you can sleep easy knowing that the next time, because you know what went wrong and where you allocated too much energy, it will be better. However, especially in my own experiences, the feeling of knowing that it didn’t go well and you didn’t give 100% of your energy is torture - and something that is entirely damaging and uncomfortable. And that is your motivation. It may be an iteration of negative-reinforcement - negative feeling-avoiding behaviour which is reinforced - but what a fantastic behaviour to be reinforced. That of unequivocal commitment to the task you are involved in.

Take home points

  • In this article, we have established that there are six distinct stages to public-speaking and each one requires an allocation of energy.

  • Fear isn’t necessarily negative, and these stages are unavoidable, so we must minimise the energy spent on fear stages and harness fear positively. This occurs through:

  1. Regular practice

  2. Giving your all

  3. Understanding where your fear stems from

  4. Expert guidance

  • The only thing to be scared of in the realm of public-speaking, is the fear of not giving it your all

  • Work hard now, sleep well later

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