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Why you hate public speaking

Last updated on January 30, 2023

Everyone hates public speaking, right? Ask almost anyone, even the most accomplished speakers, and they tell you that they get twitchy before they go on stage. But why? Public speaking is just talking, and everyone I know can talk.

I blame school.

(I have no doubt that my teacher friends will be stopping by to give me a good swift kick for saying that, but hear me out.)

I’m sure that we did public speaking in middle school, but the most vivid memories of outright gut-wrenching panic come from high school. The first was from English class. Yes, I got assigned Hamlet’s soliloquy.

“To be or not to be, that is the question.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing, end them …”

Two decades later I can still recite that thing from memory because I had to recite it in front of the class. I mumbled through it in the hope that my teacher wouldn’t catch any errors that I made. I had nightmares about it. My brain still retains it. And for what? So that I could write a blog post about it in 2011?

My other memorable public speaking terror came from a high school science class. Our teacher assigned us topics. Another girl in the class got to research what makes fingernails strong or weak. Someone else was given the topic of why our pupils dilate and contract. I was assigned a clinical study about hepatic lesions in mice. I was 16: what the hell did I know about hepatic lesions? I spent two weekends dividing my time between two local college libraries, trying to learn everything I could about the topic. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was in way over my head and didn’t know squat about mice or lesions.

And this, I think, is where everyone’s fear comes from. In our formative years, we’re handed projects that we either need to memorize (errors are obvious when reciting some of the most famous words in literature), or something that’s vastly out of our league. We’re not confident about our topic or our memories and so we flounder, the terror of the experiences permanently etched in our minds.

Well, guess what: we’re adults now. And we know things.

I can guarantee you that you could get up in front of a group and talk about a topic that you know inside-out. Maybe others in the room know something about the topic, but they don’t know it the way that you do. You have experience. You have insights. You have personality that shines through in what you say and do.

No, really.

It doesn’t matter if your audience is one person, 10 people or 200. You’re not memorizing soliloquies; you’re having a conversation. Granted, it’s a bit of a one-sided conversation, but it’s a conversation nonetheless. The audience will respond with their eyes, their nods, their furrowed brows or their smiles. Watch for the cues and let them guide you.

With a little bit of practice, you can put Hamlet behind you.

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