Prepare for spotlight while in shadows

Learn from my pain.

It is said that people fear public speaking more than death. If true, they must be refusing to take the latter seriously. But an appointment to stand in front of a crowd is no joke, even if you’re a comedian–especially if you’re a comedian.

And changes in audience size seem incapable of altering the effect. A gallery of few eyes can bring the speaker as much terror as a packed auditorium.

I once was invited to participate in a round-table discussion at a professional conference. It was held in a banquet room at a Hilton Hotel. I accepted based on the stated “informal” structure. About three minutes before “go time,” however, the master of ceremonies informed the “talkers” that the format had changed. We would go one-at-a-time to the podium and speak for five minutes apiece.

Talk about what? I panicked. I had agreed to participate based on the scheduled arrangement. My plan had been to keep quiet until an idea sprang into my brain. But that approach wouldn’t work standing solo behind a microphone. Someone else was first in the lineup, so I had a moment to gather my thoughts. You’ve heard the expression, “like herding kittens”?

I stepped to the lectern, leaned forward and blurted the first in a chain of unmemorable words. I heard my voice blare from mammoth speakers. I froze. Then I blabbered. My throat was cotton-dry. Two-hundred faces waited for more.

I said nothing worth repeating, but I learned a lesson. The audience wasn’t nearly as judgmental as I had presumed. In fact, I believe they were pulling for me. I survived.

I had noticed something, however, that bothered me for a long time after the conference. One of the other speakers pulled a few pages of text from his pocket and referred to them throughout his segment. I thought he must have gotten advance notice about the arrangement change and that angered me. Had I been duped? How else could he have known he’d be going solo?

Maybe he didn’t. Maybe his gray beard represented more than age. Maybe he had some wisdom I failed to possess.

I believe he was just prepared. And that remains the key to public speaking. Not only will prep provide the material you need, it will allow you to have confidence in your ability to communicate it.

Because of my disaster, I created a game. Whenever I am in a professional setting and someone–anyone–is “saying a few words,” I imagine what I would say if the attention were turned to me. I create a couple of relevant sentences in my head. I decide what I would say, if I suddenly had to address the group.

I have yet to be called on by surprise, but my confidence level has surged. I won’t freeze in an impromptu situation because my little game keeps me ready and relaxed.

Preparation, even in small bits, is the key to success.