Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why Is Public Speaking So Difficult?

"Every time someone speaks, it's bravery."

I was half-listening to the radio the other day when those words caught my ear. Since I teach public speaking, I decided to put that concept before my class.  If it's bravery to speak, I asked them, what is at stake?  What do we stand to lose by speaking up?

     "You might look stupid," someone replied.
     "What do you stand to lose by looking stupid?" I asked.

Their answers included your reputation, respect, friends, and more.  Speaking up is dangerous.  Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who spoke up for the right of girls to be educated, was shot on October 9, shot for having a voice.

"What do you stand to lose by not speaking up?"  I asked the class.  Their answers included time and money.

There is much to lose by not speaking up.  In September, many people became sick with E. coli infections from beef originating at XL Foods, an Alberta meat processing plant.  Many workers did not speak up due to fear of reprisals.  They were laid off anyway.  And their silence made others sick.  Their silence might have killed someone.

The tainted beef story involves too much silence - even the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not speak up for two weeks after discovering a problem with the beef.

Does our culture encourage silence?

We each need to examine our fear of speaking on a case-by-case basis.  Are we willing to speak up when we see a dangerous workplace, incompetent workers, or bad management decisions?  Are there ways of speaking up that stress mutual goals and reduce personal risk?  Are you afraid to speak up?

"Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right."   -- Malala Yousufzai 


  1. by Almost_A_Robot:
    Well I know this, when giving a boring presentation everyone in the room has contempt for you, because during the speech/presentation you are a obstacle preventing them from getting on with and enjoying their lives. Then again there's always the chance of an angry mob or getting trampled.

    1. Good point - a sleep-inducing presentation is a waste of time. Being boring is probably worse than looking stupid. Giving presentations is an act of bravery because when we stand up in front of others, we are revealing ourselves and all kinds of fears come into play.

      I don't think, however, that everyone in the room has contempt for you. Some of the audience will be grateful that it is not them up there speaking. Some of the audience will be generously trying to understand you, trying to figure out your message. The people that don't want to be there shouldn't be.

  2. by thenewgreen:
    This is timely Lil, I was considering having the fear of public speaking as my next topic for my #tngpodcast.

    Perhaps I can call on your expertise?

    When I was 15 I had a public speaking class in High School. I remember my teacher taking me aside and telling me that I was good at it. I was a little shit in HS so not a lot of teachers took me aside to give me praise. Although I would just show up to the class and improvise a speech with only a few bullet points, she told me that not a lot of people can do that.

    She could have been wrong but it stuck with me and I've managed to make a career out of presenting to people on a weekly basis. I don't often have any fear when speaking unless I am emotionally connected to the content. For example, when I perform my own music I get pretty nervous. So I guess that when their is something at "stake" emotionally it matters.

    1. Actually, I do have one bit of expertise on this topic that I'll share with you. People are paralyzed by their fears because they are thinking that the audience is judging them and they are worried about how they will look and sound. These thoughts build a wall of fear and they are unable to connect with the audience. I tell my students to think of their speech as a gift they are giving to the audience. Give to them: entertain them, inform them, engage them - give them the gift of your ideas. The speeches that Almost_A_Robot is talking about are boring because the speaker has failed to connect with the audience. He or she has put up a wall of slides or information or noise and the audience feels invisible. -- lots to say on this topic. I look forward to seeing your podcast.

    2. by Almost_A_Robot
      I was trying to give the the perspective of a nervous speaker, I'm not sure if I made that clear. But thinking of a speech as a gift is a really amazing change of perspective.

    3. You're lucky you had that teacher. From time to time, I have a student who gets up to speak and cannot say a word. It turns out that they blew a speech in a primary school grade or high school and decided never to speak again. I encourage them not to let their eight-year old self make decisions for their 22-year-old self -- or not to let the teacher they hated in grade 5 continue to control them in college.

      That seems to be a transformative idea.

    4. by thenewgreen:
      --I encourage them not to let their eight-year old self make decisions for their 22-year-old self--
      -Easier said than done sometimes.
      It is amazing how much of an influence teachers can have on a persons life. All it takes are a few great ones to help positively steer a child in the right direction. I was lucky to have some that saw passed my smart-alecky ways. I bet you're a great one.

      I had a "fundamentals of speech" class as a freshman in college and we had to give a speech on someone that was influential in our lives. I gave mine on my high school American Lit teacher Mr. Messmore.

      I had worked hard in his class and I really enjoyed it. -two things that were rare for me. Mr. Messmore saw that and therefore allowed me to have the last month of his class essentially "off". He let me read what I wanted and just had casual conversations with me about it. He treated me like an adult. I confided in him that I wasn't sure I would pass enough classes to graduate and he encouraged me and helped me with other classes. When I received my HS diploma, Mr. Messmore was on the stage and looked over at me and gave me a thumbs up and a big grin, he knew how hard I worked to be on that stage.

      When I was finished giving the speech about Mr. Messmore's impact on my life there was a women in the front row crying and she said regarding Mr. Messore, through her tears "who is this man, I have to meet him".

      I realized then what a well delivered presentation can do. I was able to make a women cry from a speech about a teacher that was influential to me. -That's powerful stuff.

      Those that can communicate the most effectively end up being the leaders of our societies. It's true. What you are teaching your students is incredibly important.

    5. Visitors to this site looking for tips on public speaking: This link
      should take you to thenewgreen's podcast on the subject. I'm on it and offer some tips there.

  3. by novanleon
    In my experience, the best way to prepare for public speaking is just to understand the topic that you're talking about, inside-and-out. Knowing something extremely well builds confidence and makes it easy to talk about. Being passionate about the topic also helps a lot.

  4. I originally wanted to talk more about teaching public speaking: to look more deeply at people's fears and how to face them, to look at the actual risk of say, asking a question or speaking up in class vs. the risk of staying silent.
    The initial motivation morphed into a discussion of the Taliban and tainted meat. The commentators, though, heard my question and told their stories of speaking up. Thank you all.