The Habit Of Courage
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.”
Bea Resnick rose to give her first speech as a Toastmaster, her Ice Breaker. She walked to the front as though the ice was thin beneath her feet and breaking it was the last thing she wanted to do. She reached the lectern and clung to it, blinking helplessly at us. “My name is Bea. . .” there was a long pause. “I just can’t do this,” she said, blushing vividly and returning to her seat. The room was silent for a long moment. Every one of us sitting there empathized with Bea. The Toastmaster stood up and spoke to her. “That was a good first step, Bea,” he said, and began a hearty round of applause. “We look forward to your next speech.”
Bea did make the speech on the next try and proceeded to rip through the manual in less than a year, while climbing the leadership ladder. Within three years she became president of our club and an Area Governor.
I would guess that most people come to Toastmasters in order to overcome their fear of public speaking. I love going to meetings because I know at the very least I will see a demonstration of courage. We all feel more vulnerable when standing before a group of attentive, listening people. A mantle of leadership descends on our shoulders and with it the weight of responsibility, expectation and opportunity.
Why is speaking in public so terrifying? What are we afraid of, anyway? I believe the roots of this fear go back to the beginnings of the human race and into the depths of the human brain. Stepping out of the group onto the savanna three million years ago or to the lectern today it triggers a fight, flight or freeze response in humans. Science has traced this response to a vital part of the deep brain called the amygdala, the emotional switchboard of the brain. Signals come here before they enter the higher cognitive parts of the brain so that instant action can be taken if necessary, before we even have time to think it over.
In his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman cites research that indicates that some people have a more sensitive amygdala, a lower threshold of fear, than others. It appears to be a genetic trait. But he also shows that many people born with this trait are able to overcome their predilection to fear when given support and encouragement. They are gradually able to face the fearful and become bolder and more confident.
We in Toastmasters know this process well. Through encouragement and support we acquire the habit of courage. Remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? Or ski? Or drive a car? There is at least a small fear involved in almost every new endeavor from skydiving to attempting the Sunday Times crossword with a pen. Practice and repetition gradually diminish these fears. The third time you try ice skating is easier than the first, and by the tenth time you find those moments of trepidation to be part of the fun.
“Outward Bound” programs teach the habit of courage by putting people in life-threatening situations such as surviving in the wilderness or scaling a sheer rock wall. I knew a fellow who paid good money to be cast adrift in a lifeboat with six other guys 200 miles out in the Atlantic. Now that’s scary. But the point of those exercises is to stretch the courage muscles. Once you have faced fear and prevailed, you stand taller, feel stronger and stride through life with greater confidence.
Toastmasters is a sort of “Inward Bound” program, it seems to me. Our members often face an internal demon that paralyzes them with fear, as in the case of Bea. But like Bea, we discover that once the fear is faced and conquered, we are propelled into a life with larger ambitions. For some, an experience of victory over fear brings a tremendous sense of accomplishment and a thirst for more. Like Cyrano, they want to crow, “I am too great to battle with mere mortals. Bring me Giants!”
Here are four useful tips that may help alleviate the fears and anxieties of public speaking.
1) Become “other-conscious.” People think they become self-conscious as a result of their fear, but actually it works the other way around. If you are self conscious, as many beginning speakers are, you are more prone to the fears and anxieties of your situation. Fear feeds on itself and there is no cycle as vicious as feeling afraid and constantly reinforcing it with thoughts like “I’m so scared I can hardly breathe,” or “My palms are sweating and my legs feel weak. . . “ This sort of self-talk can lock you up for good.
Instead, replace your self-consciousness with other-consciousness. Make a strong conscious effort to focus on your audience. I know that’s the last thing you feel like doing, but it’s the best way out. Find a single person out there who is listening to you and make contact with your eyes. Smile at them. Now stay with that person long enough to deliver a full sentence or a complete thought, making sure they understand it. Then move to another person and repeat the exercise. The key is to connect and communicate by actively taking responsibility for the other person’s understanding of what you’re telling them. If you really do that, by the third person, you will have forgotten your fears, sweaty palms and knocking knees.
2) Anxiety feels worse than it looks. My early years as an actor in New York were marked by failure. I couldn’t get over my anxiety at auditions - especially for television. I felt transparent in front of the camera, convinced that all these powerful feelings of fear and self-doubt were clearly visible to everyone. I would often point them out to the auditors and hope they would take pity on me and cast me for my candor and courage – “What a brave guy to admit he’s scared to death.” Somehow, that didn’t work.
Then I got onto a TV quiz show, on NBC in the afternoon and I hit the jackpot! I won gobs of stuff - cars, televisions, trips to Europe, furniture, a sailboat and even some cash. I went from welfare and the unemployment line to a state of world-class materialism - at least that’s how it felt. But the most important benefit I got from that experience was when they broadcast the shows a couple of weeks later. Throughout the taping, I had felt all my usual anxieties and self-doubts, but when I saw myself on the broadcast it looked as if butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth. I seemed calm and collected. That’s when I realized that anxiety feels worse than it looks. If I can only refrain from calling attention to my fears and anxieties, nobody will know about them. I can get on with doing the task at hand and not bother stopping to tattle on myself. It’s a classic case of fake it till you make it - act confident and soon enough you feel confident.
3) Make it look easy. I once saw the debut of a young clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic doing a Mozart concerto. After each solo the clarinetist would slump and gasp and make a great show of effort before launching once more into a rapidly fingered cadenza or a set of arpeggios. We in the audience became fixed on his effort and worried that he was somehow out of his depth with this music. Actually, he played quite well, and I finally realized that this was his way of showing off. He was trying to make the music seem more difficult out of some misbegotten idea that we would then admire him more. The result was that we could not enjoy the music through our concern for the musician. Many of us ended the concert feeling angry and resentful toward the young man for so needlessly drawing attention to himself.
Making a great show of effort is pushing your ego at the audience. We want to hear the speech rather than the speaker. Successful speaking requires a measure of humility. The ideas and thoughts of the speech and how they may benefit the audience are the vital thing. Deliver these with grace, style and by all means enthusiasm, but do not punish us with laborious effort or other irrelevant ego needs. A speech easily delivered is gladly received.
Another tip to make the speech seem easier is to vary the rate of delivery. If you’re normally a slow talker your audience is probably way ahead of you. Pick up the pace and your delivery will feel more natural. If your nerves cause you to increase your rate of speech, ease up. Motor-mouthing will tire an audience out.
4) Let yourself be encouraged. Some people resist encouragement. Low self-esteem, false modesty, or a need to appear self-effacing will cause them to say “Oh, thanks for saying so, but I’m not really that good, I know. . .” Toastmasters is a place where it is safe to nourish visions of success. Take advantage of that supportive atmosphere and get on your own side. Learn to give yourself the benefit of the doubt you would easily extend to anyone else. Persistence is the most useful virtue in the human heart. You’re never beaten until you admit it.
Eleanor Roosevelt was by nature a timid, introverted person who was terrified of speaking in public, but because she was married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she found herself facing audiences regularly. She suffered horribly from her stage fright, and yet she faced her fear and moved beyond it to become one of the great speakers of the 20th century, a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised in America. Her words can inspire us still:
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” . . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt
©2016 Michael Landrum