The Other Fear of Public Speaking

As a speaker, you strive to fight your fears and overcome your nervousness before or when you face your audience. But what about your audience’s fears of you? Have you tried to address them? What happens if you don’t? Do you even know what those fears are?

Here are some of your audience’s concerns regarding your upcoming speaking event, along with some tips for handling them.

  1. Is this for me?

This is often the audience’s first fear when they first know about your speaking event. Whether it’s an online advert, an email invitation or a flyer, the reader decides – there and then – whether to attend or not. And it largely depends on what your invitation says about your speaking program. As a speaker and a part time copywriter, I learned that speaking invitations, just like any advert, must appeal to the reader’s needs and expectations. I published catchy, ambiguous titles for my conference presentations, only to receive enquiries such as: “What is your talk about?” I then had to carry out a series of explanatory advertising campaigns on social media to convince my target audience that this really is for them. It doesn’t matter to the readers how arty and creative your ad is. What matters is the promise your ad gives them as a reward for buying your product – or attending your speaking program. Actions:

  • Make your titles talk to your target audience’s needs and promise a solution.
  • Yes you can have eye-capturing titles. But, make sure that what comes under, after or with the title, including your credentials, provides a clear clue on what the audience will take away.
  • Study other speaking adverts and ask: Am I encouraged to attend? Why? Why not?
  • Before publishing your ad, seek feedback from friends and/or sample attendees. Modify your ad accordingly.
  1. Strange place, strange people

So, you convinced your invitees to attend. Just like guests who visit you in your house for the first time, your audience arrives at the venue with feelings of unease, anxiety and anticipation. Like many speakers, I used to think and act as if it’s someone else’s job (the meeting organizers, etc) to welcome the arriving guests. My job – I thought – is to focus on my own discomforts and last minute preparations. But, that didn’t calm my fears, or theirs! Over time I realized that no one other than me can relieve my audience’s tensions – no organizer, no music and no big smiling banner of me! Here are a few practical ideas to relax you and your incoming “guests”:

  • Arrive early and finish all your final preparations before your first guest shows up.
  • At the entrance, greet and welcome every attendee.
  • Mingle with your guests, introduce yourself to them and build rapport, especially with early comers. This way, you have earned a lobby of fans scattered in the hall which will support you quicker and more than others – thanks to the early connection you both made.
  • Just before starting the program, take a brisk walk around the room, cheerfully greet the seated attendees and shake off their nervousness with a warm handshake and wide smile.
  • Get your attendees involved in doing something before the start of the program; like filling in a questionnaire, a quiz on the screen, an activity with other attendees around tables etc. Anything that takes their attention away from negative thoughts and towards productive energy.
  • Do just what you would do when you meet a key client in a business meeting; because that’s who each attendee is: a key client.
  1. To pay or not to pay!

Every one of us is afraid of paying. There has never been a time like now, a time when millions of people invite us to events every day. Paying attention is no exception. In fact, it is the king of all payments, which if not attained, no following payment is made. Any speaker knows that it costs more to make the audience pay attention than to attend, or even pay to attend. And the catch is: you have to secure the payment as early as possible. So, at the very onset of your talk, here are two key challenges that will shape the rest of your program, along with useful tools and tips: The first challenge is to make your audience abort what’s bothering them BEFORE you start. “May I have your attention please” will at best get them to stop chatting and texting, and start looking at you. But in order to bring their minds back from where they are into the room, in other words to grab their attention, you must kick start your talk with something hotter than their issues and cooler than their smartphones. Here are a few tried and tested techniques that have stood the test of time for any type of talk. Always start your talk with:

  • A big bang statement, fact or statistic.
  • An intriguing question.
  • A request of action, like a show of hands.
  • A gripping story or anecdote.
  • An interesting image or clip.
  • Anything which is unusual or unexpected.
  • Caution: don’t start with anything weird and unrelated to your topic.

The second challenge is to make your audience decide, just AFTER you start your talk, to stick with you till the end. Ok, so you managed to get their attention with your catchy opening. But it doesn’t mean you’ll have it for long. Immediately after your brilliant opening you have a limited time to help your audience decide whether your talk is worthy of paying the balance amount of their full and lasting attention. This decision depends on how well you answer their most pressing doubts at that stage:

  • Why did you decide to give this talk? (A short history or background).
  • Is there a problem/conflict? What is it? (Accurately describe it).
  • Why should I listen to you? (Clearly state how they will benefit).
  • Are you the one to provide the solution? (Give them reasons to believe you are credible enough to tackle this subject).

The bottom line is: by the end of your speech beginning, everyone should be on the edge of their seats, eager not to miss any second of your not-to-be-missed presentation. As a speaker, you should be far more concerned with diagnosing and eliminating your audience’s fears and anxieties than curing your own. Luckily, by diminishing their fears, yours diminish as a result. Isn’t that wonderful?

Mohamed Ali Shukri is an International award-winning speaker, professional trainer and consultant. He has over 25 years of experience as a public speaker. Mohamed is the first Arab to reach to the World Championship of Public Speaking finals in August 2006 in Washington DC, where he was crowned as one of the “Top Ten Speakers in the World”. Mohamed has helped many individuals and groups find their true voices and teach them how to effectively and sincerely transfer their ideas and experiences to their audiences.

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