Copyright ReSolve, Inc. 2004©
Some studies have shown that fear of public speaking
ranks up there with the fear of death. That doesnt surprise me. Although
I am now about as comfortable with a microphone and an audience as I am in my
own living room, that wasnt always true. To be honest, until only a few
years ago, I was petrified to talk in front of any sized group.
job after college was as the legislative aide to our communitys maverick
City Council Member. My job was to research potential new approaches to
problems our city was facing. I loved the work - loved finding innovative
solutions to old problems. And one of those issues was the issue of comparable
worth in womens pay scales.
this issue top to bottom and back again. So it made sense when a local feminist
group wanted information about the issue, that my boss sent me to tell them
what I had learned.
group was 5 women. Thats it. We were all seated around a table. No
podium, no huge audience. A table of 5 women. I didnt even have to stand
was so nervous I couldnt talk - not a word. My voice shook and my hands
shook and I was barely able to apologize. I was paralyzed. After about 5
minutes, they let me leave. Still to this day, I am embarrassed when I think
about it. A group of 5 women sitting around a table, a topic I knew inside and
out, and I was struck dumb.
I shouldnt have been surprised. Although I have
always been an outspoken person, that was when I knew everyone in the room.
These were all strangers! For years I had had the same problem if I had to
stand up and say my name at a workshop or breakfast meeting. I would get so
nervous, just saying my name and the name of my organization, that I would
intentionally not eat anything until after the introductions, knowing I would
For those who know me now, this has always been tough
to believe. But fear of public speaking isnt about ones personality
(mine does tend to be pretty out there.). It has to do with our
perceptions about ourselves, and our perceptions of public
These days, I relish giving keynote speeches to rooms
with 500 people. I love to teach workshops, love to talk to Rotary groups about
the work I do or the organizations Ive formed.
So what changed? Did I learn to envision the audience
without clothes (perish the thought!)? Did I take medication before heading out
When my daughter was in the 3rd grade, I was
frustrated that no one was teaching the kids to write. This was supposedly a
gifted and talented class, and no one was teaching them to express themselves
creatively in writing. So I spoke with Lizzies teacher, offering to teach
an hour of creative writing every week for the school year.
I never thought twice about this as public
speaking. When Lizzie was in preschool, I had always taught her class to
garden, digging alongside them, planting tomatoes and putting up netting to
keep the birds away. There was no great leap from teaching gardening to
teaching writing. And besides, these were all 8 year olds - what was there to
be afraid of? I was a mom, after all. I could certainly handle a room full of 8
The following year, her teacher was already teaching
writing (thank goodness!). But since I speak Spanish, she asked if I would
consider teaching the language.
I knew from Lizzie that the kids hated Spanish. Ironic,
in a school system only an hour from the Mexican border, that the only Spanish
language education they were receiving was occasional videos that talked down
to them. Please dont do this, my daughter begged. The
kids really like you. If you teach Spanish, they will hate you! I knew if
I were to take this on, my most important job would be to ensure they stop
hating Spanish. Anything over and above that goal would be a
I taught Spanish for an hour every week during her
4th and 5th grade years. The kids learned to say whatever
they wanted. They acted in plays. They learned to conjugate verbs. I wore funny
wigs and taught them to say My brother never washes the dishes.
Heck, they were just kids, and this was like a big birthday party every
Public Speaking is Just
During this time, the demands of our business began to
change. I found myself doing more teaching and facilitating, and less
on-the-job work with small groups. And it was a while before I realized that
hey - I wasnt nervous speaking to groups anymore!
I had made the switch in my mind. No longer did I
consider these tasks Public Speaking. I was just teaching - and
Id been doing that for years!
Whether I was teaching how to make charitable
organizations stronger (in conjunction with my Help 4 NonProfits & Tribes
role), or teaching about the effects of poverty on families (in conjunction
with the organization my partner and I founded), I was telling audiences
something they needed to know. And thats teaching!
The transformation was amazing. I was no longer a
performer worried about messing up. I was a teacher, worried about what would
happen if the group didnt receive that knowledge.
The Difference Between
Teaching and Public Speaking
Heres what I realized. When I was afraid to do
Public Speaking, the fear was all about ME. What if I choke, what if I mess up,
what if I dont remember. Me me me.
But when I was teaching, it wasnt about me at
all. It was about the students (i.e. the audience) and the
The students needed to learn the content, and someone
had to teach it to them. I could be boring or funny-looking or have my dress
rip across the back (that really happened once - dont ask!) and still
what would matter was that I shared this critical information with as many
people as possible otherwise they would
never learn it!
And miraculously, I was never nervous
When we are nervous, it is because we are worried about
ourselves. I will mess up. I will lose my train of thought. I will look like a
moron. I will be boring. Me me me.
The minute it stops being about me and
starts being about the content and the audience - your students - the better
you will feel. Thats what teachers do - they know they have a lesson to
give their students, and they know that if the students dont get it from
them, they likely wont get it at all. They arent there for
themselves; they are there for their students. They are there out of love of
the subject they want to convey.
Teachers refer often to their notes; they dont
perform. Teachers make certain the group understands one concept before moving
on to the next one. They ask for feedback as theyre going along. Teachers
answer questions to be sure the group is following the subject
So go ahead - become a teacher. Tell your
students - the audience - about the horrors of child abuse. Talk
with them about the joys of disabled kids doing art. Show them the riparian
area that is about to die just down the road. If you dont tell them, they
wont know! They must learn this stuff, and you have all the ammunition
you need to teach them - your extensive day-to-day knowledge of the
Your audience is there to learn. They are not looking
for a comedy routine or a one-woman-show. Whether it is a Kiwanis club or the
Chamber of Commerce or the PTA of your local school - they want to learn what
you have to teach them. Thats why theyve asked you
As you venture out in your new role as teacher,
remember: audiences are incredibly forgiving. They really and truly dont
care if you mess up. They dont care if you lose your place. They
dont care if you look at your notes. And they dont expect you to
start with a joke. They know it could just as easily be them up there, and they
are rooting for you.
what the audience learns more
important than how you appear when you are providing that information. Your
nerves will quiet down when you know you must teach your class what they need
to know about the critical issues your organization is addressing for your