Why the fear of public speaking isn't your fault

Why the fear of public speaking isn't your fault

August 12, 2021

People fear public speaking. They fear the judgment from others and the possibility of failure. They hate the sound of their voice. They ramble or shut down.

Seinfield even has a joke about how people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

But why do people struggle with something so fundamental to daily life?

The simple truth is that people aren’t ever taught how to do it because public speaking is a skill. Maybe there was a speech class in high school that touched on it for one semester as a throwaway class between the meatier subjects like math, science, and english. And for most, there wasn’t even this one semester course.

Once upon a time, rhetoric played a pivotal role in the education system. Aristotle and the ancient philosophers all placed significant importance on the skill. Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric continues to be one of the most critical sources to read and learn about proper rhetoric. Because at the end of the day public speaking comes down to understanding rhetoric.

Aristotle breaks it down into 3 pillars that form a triangle. Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

Now this isn’t a breakdown of this classic text but those principles matter.

Ethos is the credibility of a speaker and argument. Logos is logic. Pathos is the emotion. To be a successful speaker requires mastery of all three elements.

But at some point in the 20th century, schools stopped teaching rhetoric. So over the coming century this critical skill slowly faded from focus. But the world hasn't changed and people still need to speak.

The result of this breakdown leads right back to this fear of public speaking. If you don’t know the tools, techniques, and tactics, you won’t feel confident in your ability.

The crazy thing about all of this is that I never learned about public speaking until I was in law school. But it goes even further than this because I only learned public speaking by making the national mock trial team at the end of my first year. Before that, nothing.

During the entire first year of law school I took legal writing. It’s a required course at every law school. Students learn how to write a memorandum for a future boss using proper legal research and citations. Then they learn how to write a brief for a case on appeal.

At my school we had an oral argument component to the brief. Except it wasn’t part of the grade so nobody put any time into it. And nobody taught us how to speak.

So every student goes in unprepared and terrified. They receive critique from practicing lawyers and at that point, the students never want to speak in a courtroom setting again.

If lawyers don’t want to take part in public speaking, how could anyone else?

So the fact that you fear public speaking makes perfect sense. Your struggles with it come from a breakdown in our educational system.

Once upon a time lawyers valued rhetoric and oratory above all else. That’s sadly no longer the case.

But I enjoyed that experience speaking in that environment. So luckily I stumbled into a situation where I learned for the next two years from seasoned trial lawyers that made me study the classics, develop my craft, and refine it into something I could wield as a weapon in a courtroom.

This breakdown also provides an opportunity. Most people will never put in the time, energy, and effort required to improve this skill. But you can.

I’ve worked with thousands of people on public speaking. Great speakers aren’t born, they’re made.

That’s the good news.

Now for the tough news. Not every person can be a great speaker. Just like I wanted to be a professional baseball player, I had to give up that dream after my college baseball career. I simply didn’t have the natural talent needed to make it. The Houston Astros were never going to put me on their team just because I wanted it.

So where does that leave you?

You can improve. No matter what level you’re at right now, you can get better. Maybe you go from okay to good. Maybe you go from good to great. Maybe you even go from good to elite. It’s all possible.

Because what you will find is that once you start to understand the theory, tactics, and techniques, the Public Speaking Matrix starts to make sense.

At first Neo doesn’t believe the Matrix exists.

Then Neo doesn’t believe he’s the one.

But finally when he embraces his destiny, everything changes.

Speaking comes down to 3 phases.

  1. Strategy
  2. Preparation
  3. Delivery

Each of these phases has elements that fit inside of them. Strategy means asking questions like “Where is my audience currently?” and “Where do I want them to end up?”. That provides the chasm you need to help them cross.

Preparation means structuring your talk in the most impactful and persuasive way. I like to think through ideas like bookending or stacking as well as thinking through the actual timeline or chronology of the talk. If it’s a story, how can I open loops and close them at different times to keep the audience engaged. This phase focuses on themes and rhetorical devices like the rule of 3 and alliteration. Every great magician develops their show behind the scenes before an audience ever sees it.

That final phase of delivery means creating music. The best speakers in the world have a musicality to the way they speak. From JFK to MLK to Amanda Gorman, they are memorable because they are musical.

Can you learn public speaking? Yes.

I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

Just take it from a guy who used to have a lisp and stutter that hated the sound of his voice. If I could turn that into 102 jury trials, coaching the national mock trial team at SMU Law School, and founding Performative Speaking to help founders, salespeople and more to land promotions, deals, and investments in the tens of millions of dollars...you can too.

Let’s make that Seinfield joke outdated and overcome that fear of public speaking.

You need it for that wedding toast, that interview, and even just the story around the fire pit with a group of friends.

I always think back to Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. The idea of how to defeat fear plays a central role throughout the novel. Fearlessness isn’t the goal.

And while you may not be preparing for battle like the Spartans you can use this idea, “fear conquers fear. This is how we Spartans do it, counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear: that of dishonor. Of exclusion from the pack.”

Because if you let your fear of public speaking hold you back, you will miss out on opportunities. You will miss out on your full potential.

In my eyes, fear of never achieving my destiny is far greater than any fear of public speaking.

It’s time to put your fear of public speaking in a casket. You can give the eulogy.

I'm the founder of Performative Speaking and semi-retired trial lawyer after 102 jury trials.

If you want help to overcome the fear of public speaking, reach out to Robbie@robbiecrab.com or follow me on Twitter @robbiecrab or IG @therobbiecrab.

Cover Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

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