There’s no better feeling than being onstage delivering a presentation, telling a story or making people laugh, especially when it’s all working out perfectly. But perfect moments like that are few and far between, which is why public speakers keep doing the work — the same way a junkie keeps seeking out that perfect high.
If you’re interested in a life of public speaking or you’re already a public speaker looking to improve, here are some hard truths about the process that you will need to address.
You should be scared every time you get onstage.
At the last speaking event I was at, a fellow speaker said, “I can’t wait until the day when I’m not terrified to do these things.”
Here’s the thing about fear of public speaking: you’re supposed to be afraid.
The fear isn’t supposed to go away over time. You should learn how to manage the anxiety and navigate around its pitfalls, especially in the days leading up to the event.
If the fear honestly disappears; what that really means is that you’ve stopped caring about the process. You’ve checked out, and chances are your audience has too.
All that said, there is a point where you should have forgotten that you’re afraid, and that’s a few minutes into your talk. If you’re still focusing on how afraid you are five minutes into your presentation, then don’t be surprised if people are reaching for their phones to avoid watching a train wreck in real time.
Here are the things I remember the most about the time I went bungee jumping: I remember the long walk up to the jumping off point and the mounting fear. I remember all of the excuses I was telling myself to not do this. I remember each strap feeling tighter than the last. I remember looking down at the horror of it all.
I don’t remember jumping. There’s this seemingly-hour gap in my memory between the jump and the first time the bungee cord pulled me back upward.
When my memory resumes, all I’m doing is laughing as I’m being bounced back and forth from the rush of certain death below and the beautiful sky above. I was having too much fun to be afraid by that point.
The hardest part of public speaking is the lead up to the moment. If you’re still focusing on the fear while you’re actually doing it, then you might want to consider a different path in life.
The stage is supposed to represent your fear, not be the place to live it.
Speaking of the stage…
There is no such thing as a stage.
I’ve been on stages that tower over the audience and I’ve been on stages that are literally two inches off the ground. I’ve done stand-up on a pile of pallets. I’ve presented on stages that literally wobbled. I gave a talk while standing on a chair.
Personally, I prefer a proper stage. I recently did a storytelling event where there was no stage and while it was a wonderful evening, the performer part of my brain was scoffing at the lack of elevation.
And that’s really what it’s all about: elevation. Public speakers have associated that step upward as a significant part of the process, a necessary part of the transition from the unseen to the seen.
And that’s bullshit, by the way.
Recently I sat in on an acting coach who was consulting with a client who needed help preparing for public speaking. He asked his client what he meant when he said he was going to be on stage. After the client answered, he said, “What is a stage to you?” And the coach stood up from his chair and said, “This. I’m on a stage right now.”
It was a nice moment, mostly because it confirmed something I always believed — despite what the performer part of my brain says — that we are always on stage.
The space that we associate as the stage is really just the space where you are given the attention you need to accomplish a task. If you’re sitting in a classroom and have a question, you raise your hand. When the teacher calls on you, you are then in the space of attention. All eyes are on you. You are on stage. You didn’t have to even stand up.
The same goes for the back and forth of a conversation. The same goes for the moment when it’s your turn to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The same goes when you decide to tell a joke at a party.
Your audience may come and go throughout the day, but you are always on stage whether you like it or not.
Let’s talk a little about that audience, by the way…
Some audiences do suck — mostly it’s you, though.
Enough isn’t said how sometimes the audience sucks. You can go out there and give it your all and the audience will be unfocused, disengaged, and basically a collection of the worst human beings on the planet.
It happens. Maybe the environment itself is displacing the audience from its own experience or maybe it’s just the combination of these incompatible people being forced to engage together.
It’s true. Sometimes the audience sucks.
However, most times it’s you. You suck.
I love when public speakers or performers tell me about how their audiences suck. “The show I did last week was terrible. The audience was just awful. And I swear those same people came to my show last night.”
If you notice that you repeatedly attract terrible audiences, then maybe consider looking at the common denominator. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re not doing as good a job as you think you are.
Maybe you’re terrible.
“But Christian,” you say. “Everyone tells me I’m great! What gives?”
I’m glad you asked, imaginary reader…
Don’t depend on others to tell you how terrible you are.
Do you notice how that guy on Twitter from Croatia has no problem telling you how much you suck? He just focuses on your weaknesses and really goes to town. He’s so good at dismantling your ego in 250 characters or less that it practically makes him a social media expert.
Unlike that guy from Croatia, your colleagues and friends don’t know how to communicate how terrible you are.
This isn’t deliberate and it’s not their fault. They really mean well.
But it is your fault for constantly returning to the same people who make you feel good rather than give you the constructive feedback you really need to better yourself.
While we’re on the subject of making you feel like shit…
It’s not about you.
You’re minding your own business and you get an email inviting you to be a speaker at a show. They want to fly you out, put you up in a nice hotel and have you presenting on a nice fancy stage. Invitations like this have a way of making you feel like a million bucks.
Then the promotional work starts and you see your picture being shared and liked online (except from that guy in Croatia; I mean, what is his problem!?). You’re feeling awesome!
When the big day comes, the organizers are treating you like a superstar. Your name is on all of the posters. People are telling you they’re looking forward to your talk. You’re so pumped!
And finally you’re onstage for your 45 minutes and people are clapping, cameras are clicking and your face is on a giant screen. You’re practically high from the experience!
This is the part where I need to remind you that everything that just happened wasn’t about you.
You were a part of the machine that was designed to, at worst, make a ton of money for the organizers and, at best, provide a lot of useful knowledge to the audience. You were the delivery system to provide content and make money.
If it wasn’t you, it was going to be someone else.
It was not an experience designed to make you feel good. In fact, the audience isn’t there to make you feel good; that’s the organizer’s job (and most times they will fail because they got a lot of people to make happy).
Sorry to be a bummer. But at least you got paid for the experience, right?
You’re never going to make money doing it.
Oh, you weren’t paid? My bad.
Most of these gigs do not pay. You’re lucky if they pay for travel and accommodation. And there might be free coffee.
In the end, doing a big public speaking event is more than likely going to cost you. And it’s not just money. You’re going to lose a lot of time preparing. You’re going to lose valuable mental space because you’re going to be thinking about it all of the time. You’re going to lose time away from your friends and family. If you own a business, you’re going to lose focus with your work.
And if getting paid isn’t a big deal and you have money to burn, you can even pay for the experience.
This isn’t to say that you won’t make money. You will get some here and there, but you’re never going to make a living from it.
Something is probably going to go wrong.
During one of the biggest presentations of my life, every time I pressed the button to advance the deck, it jumped 7 to 8 slides ahead.
My worst moment on stage was doing a stand-up show at a fringe festival where the owners of the bar moved my show to the main room at the last moment with the hope that I’d have a larger crowd. When the show began, the room was packed with about 70–80 people. The problem was, they were there to drink and have fun, not to watch a show.
I start telling the first joke and immediately (as if it were planned) everyone stands up and walks out. There were four people still seated when I got to the second joke.
I had 45 minutes left of my set.
I did the whole show though. I just refocused my energy on the four who remained and I made the best of it.
The point is, something always goes wrong.
It could be as small as a broken projector, incompatible PowerPoint, faulty mic, or as big as…well, 95% of your audience walking out on you.
The easy thing to do is to get annoyed, sometimes even take it out on the audience (which I’ve seen way too many times).
Let me offer another solution that’s creative and fun.
I like to write book jokes. You know, the kind of jokes you’d find in a big joke book.
Here’s one I wrote:
Three Americans walk into a bar. They all order a beer.
The first American tastes his beer and says, “This is amazing beer!” He takes out his phone, takes a picture of it and posts it on Facebook.
The second American tastes his beer and says, “This is the best beer I ever had!” He takes out his phone, takes a picture and puts it on Instagram.
The third American grabs his beer and throws it on the ground.
The bartender says, “Why did you do that?”
The third American says, “What’s the point? I left my phone at home.”
If you’re a writer and you find yourself staring a blank screen for too long, try writing a joke. And try it even if you’re not a writer. Let it roll around in your head like a brain teaser until you get it just right.
When you’re done, share it with someone. Don’t tell them you wrote it. Slip it in a conversation the way you would any joke. Give it an honest test run. You’ll know immediately if you were successful.
If you’re a public speaker, I also encourage you to write them. Test them. Practice them until they’re perfect. And then keep your best ones (particularly the clean ones) in the back of your head, especially when you’re onstage.
And in those moments where something completely out of your control happens, take a deep breath and (instead of pointing out the problem or getting snarky with the audience) tell one of your jokes. It’ll re-engage the audience and (hopefully) allow time for the technicians to fix the issue.
If you can make an audience laugh — especially when they weren’t expecting to — they’ll follow you through to the end.
Public speaking is awesome. If you really commit to the experience it’ll change your life in a lot of different ways.
But it’s important to keep it all in perspective. And you can do that by learning to:
- Manage your fear.
- Take responsibility.
- Understand the space of attention.
- Accept criticism.
- Know your role in a given event.
- Keep it real.
- Always be prepared,
- Ignore that guy from Croatia.