Public Speaking and Panic
oh god so many people and what if i screw it up and why am i doing this oh no
Public Speaking Sucks. But you can get better at it. and stop freaking out. as much. not entirely.
But Habituation works! mostly
Public speaking sucks.
It’s just so terrible. Well actually to be fair, it does but it doesn’t.
Straight up talking isn’t a problem. We all do it pretty much every day, we usually do it alright, and even if we don’t then whatever? It’s low stakes to misspeak in a conversation or forget what you’re saying. We just move on and the other person gets it because we’re people not Stepford Smilers and WE know THEY Know that.
So it’s not the actual speaking that sucks. The stuff around Public Speaking sucks.
What words am I going to say? Are they dumb? Will I fumble the message? What is my message? Why do I need to have a message? Do I look funny in this shirt? Am I too sweaty? Why does my voice sound so weird? Will people leave during my speech? Will people pay attention? Will people think I’m dumb? How do I even start? What do I do with my hands? Am I too quiet? Too loud? Too fast or bouncy? Why did I sign up for this? Can I get out of it? Oh no it’s time to start don’t screw this up
don’t. screw. this. up.
That stuff totally sucks.
Before we get started let’s be clear, I’m a good public speaker.
It’s an obnoxious thing to say, but it’s super relevant for you to effectively believability weight this essay. If I was bad at it, you shouldn’t listen to me. So.
I submit to the court my bona fides.
I spoke at my graduation in front of 5,000 people alongside General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, about the relationship between leadership, stress management, and confidence.
I spent 3 years in college training VMI’s Freshman class during the infamous first year training program known as the Ratline. As a senior, I led the planning and execution of the Ratline and playacted as the Big Bad for a year as part of the job. See below for the first speech I gave to the 600 freshmen about how their lives were going to be as Rats. Fast forward to 8:00 if you hate the feeling of building anticipation. Weird year, lots of public speaking. to lots of groups.
I’ve given countless mission briefs and extemporaneous speeches to small groups of Soldiers, platoons, companies, staffs, allied forces, and even “not quite” allied forces ranging in size from 5 to 500 people. I’ve had to speak to large groups coherently during training events in the deserts of New Mexico, on a mock deployment to the Mojave desert, on a real deployment to the deserts of Kuwait and Afghanistan… You know written out like this I realize why I hate sand. Anyway - day and night, hot and cold, sandy and…sandier, I publicly spoke my way through my career. tbh it’s almost all you really do as an officer.
I taught leadership at the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School where I instructed 150 officer candidates within a team. Every day. Multiple times a day. Usually weekends. For a year. I answered questions. I gave firm advice. Loudly.
To the extent this one matters, I got perfect “Participation/Discussion” scores in every class of my MBA while at HBS where the case method style of learning is designed to force you to speak cogently in order to engage with your (pretty smart) classmates during each 90 minute class discussion. I also tutored people on how to get better at this while here. Can’t stop won’t stop.
At the startup I cofounded, I ran the daily company wide standup meetings. and weekly product syncs. and dev check ins. and performance reviews. and new client BD. and strategic account management. and business reviews. and whatever else. Startup leadership is honestly just talking all day and hoping you get the chance to put your head down and actually get the work you want to do done at some point. so much speaking.
Honestly there’s more, but let’s stop here.
I think it’s fair to say I have enough practice at public speaking to probably be helpful to anyone reading an essay about Public Speaking and Panic on the internet ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
So what’s my secret?
Pure, unadulterated anxiety.
Seriously. I’ve never gotten over that terrible, anxious feeling that tightens your chest before talking to people because somehow talking but “official” is just hella stressful.
I’ve tried self pep talks. I’ve tried over preparation. I’ve tried under preparation. I’ve tried not thinking about it (lol). I’ve tried distracting myself with media, memes, phone screens, computer screens, etc until the absolute last possible second. I’ve tried deep breathing exercises to artificially stimulate the Vagus Nerve to lower my heart rate. Nothing works for me. Not a single thing.
So now all I do (besides normal prep) is just grit my teeth and start the damn speech.
In fact, the only thing that I’ve ever found to help reduce my discomfort with speaking is to literally shorten my anticipation anxiety time once the uh oh feeling has started. I volunteer to go first for things so that I can speak with a half baked anxiety lasagna in my gut rather than a fully or extra baked one and just get it done and over with.
Really sorry I can’t help with the nerves. Wish I could. Never figured it out.
But dear reader fear not! There is some value here for you.
All my anxiety issues led me to intellectualize my problem set (like any good, emotionally stunted nerd) and I have developed a pretty simple set of rules for doing the actual writing for my “normal” speaking prep.
Assume that people will only internalize ONE thing from your speech. So have only one goal for your speech. One. No more. Structure everything around that.
Write down an outline, not a script, for the things you want to say.
If you must use a script, use Churchill’s technique of visually spacing and arranging the words on your paper to match the pauses and emphasis desired in your speech like this
Obviously, you’re going to want to say more than just one thing (and by all means say those things), but you just gotta accept the fact that people aren’t going to retain it. If you actually need people to retain multiple pieces of important info, write it down and share it with them in an email afterward as a “summary” of the speech they should’ve (but I promise they didn’t) paid attention to.
Less is more, folks.
I mean, look at this speech.
JFK basically doesn’t say anything!
He does a whole speech that amounts to “Hey look at us!” and “Communism is bad” and the audience LOVED it. If the President of the United States can crush it without saying anything of meaningful value you can too. I mean, hell, apparently you don’t even have to say anything that’s accurate lol. Speeches of half truths and majority false statements seem to work just fine (although to be clear I’m not endorsing that).
For help with the actual speaking, here’s what I recommend.
Make sure all of your ideas are organized using the Rule of Threes. This will save you from ever getting lost during a sentence again.
You don’t need to be loud, but you do need to be comfortable with your voice. The quickest way to do this go to a (relatively) sound proof room and shout as loud as you can. Shout a bunch of random things. Do this for a few days in a row. Not joking here. You’re going to feel like a goof. Trust the process. You’ve probably never done something like this (unless you’re a singer) and after those few days of shouting you’ll realize how much more aware and in control of your voice you’ll feel. The diaphragm is a tool. Use it.
Take your outline (again really don’t use a script if at all humanly possible) and give the speech looking at yourself in the mirror. Do it minimum 5 times. The lack of a script will force your brain to create unique connecting sentence combinations every practice round which will build flexible speech memory pathways rather than rote speech memory pathways which will make you speak instead of recite what you want to say.
That’s it. Rule of Threes baby.
You gotta remember that no one really cares lol. This a huge moment for you, but it’s just Tuesday for everyone else. This is cool because you have the opportunity to make this the most interesting Tuesday they’ve ever had, but you don’t have the obligation to do so that because no one is expecting it because I promise no one cares.
I hope this added value to your day.
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