Monday, March 29, 2010

The Fear of Speaking

The following is supposed to be the first article for my newspaper column with a local English Daily. However, due to some unforeseen circumstances, the column never really took off. Anyway, since it has been written, I just thought of sharing it with you. Feel free to comment. Thanks.

I was pleasantly surprised to read in the newspapers recently that University Malaya has revived its Speakers’ Corner to allow students to voice their opinions publicly after an interval of so many years. Although there were mixed reactions (justifiably so) from the public as to the purpose and effectiveness of setting up such a channel of communication, I believe the intention was right. We need to produce more graduates in this country who can speak English in public effectively. Now, if only more local institutions of higher learning would follow suit and set up their own Speakers’ Corner, too, as a platform to encourage more students and even teachers to speak more eloquently and confidently in public.
The ability to speak in public has always been highly regarded by men and women since time immemorial. From the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who attracted large groups of men to listen to them speak in ancient halls to the modern day orators such as Barack Obama who mesmerised people all over the world during his presidential election campaign (but not necessarily after), it is evident that great speakers have been immortalized by their speeches. Who could ever forget Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” or John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country could do for you”? Or our beloved Bapa Kemerdekaan Tunku Abdul Rahman’s “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” These were speeches that defined their era.
Yet, public speaking remains a skill which many people wished to have but wouldn’t really believe they could have. It is as if the world is divided into two groups: public speakers and non-public speakers. When I conduct my public speaking workshops, I would ask the participants, “Please raise your hand if you are a public speaker.” Ten times out of ten, no one would raise a hand. “Well,” I said, “I know that we Malaysians are extremely humble. So, do you hide yourself in some corners first when you want to speak to someone?”

Of course not and that’s exactly my point! None of us is a private speaker (if such a term actually exists). We are all public speakers even though we may be speaking to an audience of just one. However, many people believe that public speaking occurs only when one addresses a large group of audience. Actually, that’s just one of the many types of public speaking situations. Other examples of public speaking situations include a teacher teaching a class, a manager conducting a meeting, a salesperson making a sale and even a parent disciplining a child. In fact if an office receptionist applies the techniques of public speaking when answering the phone, she would be a more effective frontline customer service personnel for the company. Simply put, mastery of public speaking skills will certainly benefit you.
I honestly believe that anyone can learn to speak in public. Even though a lot of people whom I’ve met revered those who could speak eloquently in public as if they possessed some forms of magical abilities, there’s really no magic involved. And I have some good news for you. Public speaking is a type of skill and as with all types of skills in the world, it can be learned. Just like you can learn how to ride a bicycle or play the piano. However, just because it can be learned doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. A lot of people can ride the bicycle but not everyone wants to be like Lance Armstrong.

When it comes to public speaking, the first obstacle to overcome can be found in the grey matters between the ears. Sir George Jessel, a 19th century English judge hit the nail on the head when he said, “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public!” Those of us who have had the honour of suddenly being asked to deliver a speech during an official function would readily agree with Sir George Jessel. “My mind just went blank.” We hear that a lot, don’t we?

Comedian Jerry Sienfield once commented about a survey in the United States which showed that the fear of speaking in public ranked higher than the fear of death. He noted that according to the survey, if he were asked to deliver a eulogy, he would rather be the one lying in the coffin instead. Just how true this is, you might ask. Well, I’ve seen people’s faces literary turned green just before they spoke before a group. And some would rather call in sick than run the gauntlet. Perhaps the popular TV show ‘Fear Factor’ should consider adding public speaking as one of the challenges to be overcome. If the survey result was accurate, the participants would readily swallow the fat and juicy larvae than stand up to speak before a crowd!
So, how do we overcome the fear of public speaking? Just like if you were to go sailing, you would set the sail first, and so you must set your mindset right first before you could speak in public. The human mind is very interesting. It could think of positive and negative thoughts but not both at the same time. You must make a choice about what thoughts to think about regarding public speaking. If you think “I can’t speak”, “I’m not qualified enough” or “I’m so nervous I’ll forget everything I want to say” you will certainly freak out even before you start to speak.
Instead, since you are already thinking anyway, choose to fill your minds with positive thoughts such as “I’m a public speaker”, “I like myself”, “I’m an interesting person” or “I’ll touch someone’s life today”. By focusing on these positives thoughts, we would be in a more ready state of mind to deliver a speech. Anthony Robbins taught that what the mind focuses on grows. And my personal experience tells me that it’s true. A more confident person always outperforms a nervous wreck.

This week, choose to think positive thoughts about yourself speaking in public. The ancient Chinese sage Confucius said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Well, this is the first step that you are taking in this long journey of personal growth. Now, raise your hand if you are a public speaker.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing with you on other tips of public speaking and personal growth. Feel free to email me at

Luke Bong is a trainer with Lighthouse Education and Training in Miri.

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