One time, a group of people decided to commission a study to establish what it is that frightens people more than anything else in the world. One would think that the fear of death would rank highly, but curiously it didn’t.
They found that the greatest (or in some instances second) fear that most people in the world suffer from is the fear of public speaking (Glossophobia). This is an interesting condition because as humans we are born into the world with only two natural fears:
1. The fear of falling and
2. The fear of sudden loud noises
That is about it – two natural fears. The reality now, is that if we were to do a search to find out how many named fears we now have, we find that the list is almost 550-strong. This is very interesting because seemingly, we spend our lives learning all the things that we should be fearful of.
For example, the number one fear of people in the United Kingdom is the fear of spiders (arachnophobia). The United Kingdom however does not have any venomous species (at least, dangerous to humans) of spiders and for this reason I’m quite flummoxed as to how we can have such a ‘culture of arachnophobia’ here.
The truth is there are fears which are useful, and serve to benefit us rather than to hinder is; so, for example, a fear of spiders can in many instances be a useful fear. Consider the value of arachnophobia in a place like Australia, where they do have species of spiders which are very venomous and indeed, potentially lethal to humans.
Glossophobia on the other hand, is not a useful fear. If anything, this fear gets in our way, and stops us from experiencing our magic.
Consider for a moment, the last time you were in a meeting and had a valuable contribution to make. You’d thought about it, you prepared for it, and you absolutely knew that you could make a difference: and the time came for you to speak up – and instead of doing so, you bottled it! Does that sound familiar? Have you ever walked into a situation knowing something valuable to share and being so comprehensively shut down that you just couldn’t do it?
How did you feel afterwards?
The amazing thing is that it takes no more effort to be great at speaking in public as it does to ‘fail’ at the endeavour. The effort that does need to be expended is in self-development, rather than in ‘technical preparation’. Many people make the idea of ‘public speaking’ all about the machinations – when in reality, the machine is no more, or no less, the same for everybody. Learning the machination is a bit like learning how to drive a car. Once you have the vehicle, it’s (the car’s) performance on the road will depend 100% on the person driving it.
It has less to do with the car and more to do with the individual. I have heard ‘presentations coaches’ advise their clients to ‘pick a spot at the back of the room’ and address that. Such advice, while it serves to potentially ‘calm the speaker down’ does more harm than good because it creates the impression to the audience that the speaker is simply ‘not present’. This may not be so, however, the audience has the distinct feeling that the speaker is ‘above them’.
This in turn creates a downward spiral because the speaker is conscious of the ‘lack of engagement’ emanating from his/ her audience and has little or no knowledge as to how to retrieve this condition. The truth of the matter is that unless a meeting or ‘speech’ is politically or otherwise emotionally charged the audience has a desire, a deep and honest desire for the speaker to succeed.
Why is this ability to speak just so important? Why is it that of all the skills that entrepreneurs, business-people, employees, politicians, managers and salespeople could learn, this one is one of the most important?
It comes down to human nature. Human nature, being what it is, does what it does. It is the human condition to assess, very often, and arrive at conclusions, based on erroneous data. The determinant data is usually received via the eyes and conclusions drawn from that. Humans have the distinct disadvantage, (of all animals in the animal kingdom) of being able to draw conclusions. In many cases, one could argue, that the ability to draw conclusions is an advantage – and technically that is correct; but in the world of speaking in public, that could be, and often is, a disadvantage. Humans, when faced between a choice of credibility and believability, will choose believability.
This is the reason why PT Barnum, coined the phrase – ‘There’s one born every minute!’ – referring to the capacity confidence tricksters have to dupe mankind. There’s a an entire science around the social structures we create and why they work, and more in depth work on this can be found in every university in their sociology departments.
However, that is not what I wanted to get in depth about here – only that the social structures that we create are complex. However complex they are though, the great speaker knows how to make human nature work for him/her, by knowing, in the first instance, what is playing out in the first seconds of his/her arrival to deliver that ‘presentation’.
Great presentations are more a function of great organisation than they are of great preparation. Preparation is important, to be sure, but that type of preparation one needs to consider has more to do with audience identification, analysis, expectation, engagement, room layout, ambiance and such like. The actual content is better served organised than ‘prepared’.
This can be such a difficult point to understand but here’s a way to explain it – if you were invited to deliver a presentation on your subject of expertise, the organisation inviting you has recognised your status as expert on that subject. What they are not expecting is for you to go and do additional research to present ‘new data’ – they are expecting you to deliver, in an organised and coherent manner, the data that you already know (the best time to present new data is when you’re part of a research project, and the data is relevant to why people are there).
Of all the skills that seriously-minded career individuals, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, salespeople, marketers and other ‘customer-facing’ professionals, the skill of presenting, and communicating ideas articulately, coherently and concisely, is probably the most important.
The fact is that audiences usually decide within the first few seconds whether or not they are going to go along with the speaker. There is no outward physical signal that will let the speaker know how he or she is doing – people do have the capacity to look at you straight in the eye, nod their heads in acknowledgement of what you’re saying, and yet not listen to a single word. If you’re going to have their ‘minutes’ (The audiences’) you had better pass their ‘seconds’ tests.
If you want to make a lasting impact, remember that as far as audiences are concerned, if it comes to a contest between believability and credibility (your ability to communicate vs. Your credential), believability wins.