Back when I was a jazz singer, trumpeter Stan Shafran gave me some priceless advice. He said,
“You’ll rarely feel perfect, physically, on a gig. So the trick is to sing your best with the body you’ve got at that moment, not with the perfect body you wish you had.”
My Fractured Foot “Made Me” Afraid to Give a Speech
I thought about that advice — which is also true for public speaking — last week, as I prepared to give a presentation in New Jersey.
And I have to confess that Stan’s remembered words of wisdom were very needed, because I was very nervous about giving a speech on crutches.
Among the paranoid possibilities my nervous brain had been cooking up were:
- I’ll fall and make a fool of myself;
- By the time I hobble to the auditorium, I’ll be too tired to present well; and
- I’ll never be able to hold an audience’s attention if I have to sit still through the entire speech.
But those fears went away when I finally realized that — like it or not — I was going to be giving this speech with the body I had last week (fractured foot and all), not with the ideal body of my dreams.
How Is Fear of Public Speaking Like Having a Fractured Foot?
Even though one of these things (fear of public speaking) is more or less in your head, while the other (the fractured foot) is in what Fats Waller called “your pedipal extremities,” both of these conditions can take your attention away from what’s important when you speak to an audience, namely:
- Connecting with them;
- Sharing your thoughts; and
- Having fun while you do it.
Instead, uncomfortable physical experiences like fear, or hopping on one foot, can pull your attention to the sensations they create, and:
- Make you feel “unsteady on your feet” (vulnerable);
- Generate self-doubt and anxiety (“I don’t know how to cope with this!”);
- Create distracting logistical problems (“What if I sweat? What if I throw up? What if I trip on my crutches?”).
There’s Always Some “Reason” for Fear of Public Speaking
Of course, the irony here is that my fractured foot didn’t make me feel uncertain, unsteady, and afraid of giving a speech.
My amygdala did that!
Thanks to our amygdalas, which are prehistoric centers in our brains, we’re all hardwired to either run, freeze, or throw a punch when we’re in danger — or when we’re about to give a speech!
The “reason” doesn’t matter; in fact, any old reason will probably do. So instead of focusing on the so-called reasons for your discomfort, focus on how you’re going to cope, i.e., do your best with the (fearful or fractured) body you’ve got.
As it turns out, even though fear can feel quite physical, handling it is largely a mental discipline.
Handle Your Fear of Public Speaking the Way Public Speaking Professionals Do
A quote that’s recently been circulating the “Twittersphere” says it all.
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”
Or, to put that differently, the amateur is more likely to believe that his or her fears mean something — something like:
- See, you really are a lousy public speaker;
- You should never have agreed to make this speech;
- You’re going to totally suck, etc.
A professional, on the other hand, will try to put aside his or her feelings of fear, knowing that they are just feelings.
Respect Fear of Public Speaking — But Don’t Be Ruled By It
This is not to trivialize feelings! Emotions can be powerful, persuasive, and sometimes painful. But they don’t always reflect reality, and they don’t have to dictate how you act!
So my suggestion is not that you make your feelings magically go away.
It’s not that you protect yourself from uncomfortable feelings by avoiding taking any risks.
It’s that you try to not buy into your unpleasant feelings — possibly feeding or magnifying them — by focusing on “what they mean.”
- If you had a headache, you would try to move past it and give the best possible speech you could;
- If you had a fractured foot, you would try to move past it and give the best possible speech you could;
- So if you have fear sensations, treat them in the same matter-of-fact way.
To the best of your ability, bracket those unpleasant sensations.
Remind yourself that fear is from your amygdala, which is partying at your expense.
Go out and give the best speech you can with the body you’ve got now.
And of course, contact me if you’d like help!