The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 10, 2011

Speak your mind, share your heart | Ralph Couey


— It’s called glossaphobia. No, it’s not about your brand of car wax or furniture polish. It’s the technical term for the fear of public speaking.

Countless surveys and public researches have listed this particular dread as No. 1 above all others. It leads fear of death, spiders, darkness, heights, people, flying, open spaces, thunder and lightning, and confined spaces.

Kinda strange when you think about it.

If someone walked up to you in the dark and put a spider in your face in a crowd of people standing at the edge of the Inclined Plane lookout platform during a thunderstorm and demanded that you give a speech or die, I don’t think anyone would quibble over the choice.

But according to the researchers, three out of every four people suffer from some form of speech anxiety, so you’re not alone. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the audience is a few friends at a dinner party or an auditorium full of hostile politicians, the fear is the same.

The anxiety starts when you receive the assignment. Immediately, the mind goes blank in panic.

“What in the world am I going to say?”

“What if I make a fool of myself?”  

You do the research and jot down some notes, or maybe you try to prepare a full manuscript.  

On the day of, you enter the place nervously.  

Your heart is beating rapidly, your palms moist.

Then the moment of truth. You step forward and look out at the audience. Your mind’s eye sees the chairs filled with predators waiting to pounce. Your hands shake, but not as much as your voice. Your heart is now pounding so loud that it must be audible to the audience.

As you speak, your delivery is rough and unpolished. But as you get into the speech, you concentrate more on the subject matter, and you discover that you really do have something to say.  

Then, you’re finished. There’s a breathless pause, then the room erupts in applause. You look out and see not a herd of predators, but a room full of normal people, smiling at you.

Afterwards, folks congratulate you, complimenting your speech. You feel pretty good about yourself, but mainly relieved that the ordeal is over. Then the host comes up and says, “Wonderful speech! Can you do this again next month?”

Most of the anxiety of public speaking comes from a fear of the audience. But think of yourself sitting out there. Were you really hanging on every word? Were you looking forward to capitalizing on every mistake the speaker made? Or were you drifting in and out, thinking about work, the grocery list or the weekend chores? If that was the case, then surprise! You’re normal.

Very few people can commit to memory every word of a speech.

I once asked a veteran orator about how he could stand in front of large audiences without fear. He said that even though there were a thousand people in the audience, roughly half of them had their minds somewhere else. Others were drifting in and out. “So, out of a thousand people,” he said, “there are only about eight or 10 who are really listening.”

In my life, I’ve done a lot of public speaking, both in and out of church. Over time, I’ve lost my fear of audiences, and I genuinely enjoy myself.  

A speech, after all, is really nothing more complicated than a conversation with a lot of people.  

Most people are clearly articulate when speaking to their friends. Think of a speech in that context – as a conversation.

There are three things that really make a speech: Clarity and brevity of the words, strength of the delivery, and the power of the moment.

I was blessed with a father, a full-time minister, who gave more sermons in his lifetime than anyone could reasonably count. After receiving my first preaching assignment, I asked him for any advice he might have. He thought for a moment, then said, “Don’t trip and fall on your way to the podium.”

We all have something to say.  

Stand up; speak your mind and share your heart. You may surprise yourself.

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset. He is a frequent contributor to The Tribune-Democrat.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.