From Anxiety to Engagement: Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking: A Review of Craig Valentine and Mitch Meyerson’s “World Class Speaking” by Sarah Nolan

This post is written in conjunction with the “Becoming a Public Scholar-Activist” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.Sarah Nolan

Recently, after preaching a practice sermon in one of my seminary classes, a fellow classmate gave me the following feedback – he said, “Sarah, the way you clutch the podium while speaking makes us anxious for you, and I am afraid that people will miss the content you are trying to share, because your anxiety speaks louder than your words.”

He caught me. I am an anxious public speaker, and it shows. Not only does the pounding of my heart and the ever present cotton mouth each time I get up to speak in front of a crowd (or classroom) remind me of my anxiety, my posture, pitch and speech delivery remind everyone else in the room.

What a great irony it was, when I discovered that my blog post for Dr. Coleman’s class would be on the first part of Craig Valentine and Mitch Meyerson’s book, World Class Speaking: The Ultimate Guide to Presenting, Marketing and Profiting like a Champion. Now, you may be hesitant to get excited about this book, because the title makes it sound like one of those self-help business books you see while standing in the check-out line at FedEx Office or Office Depot…I sure was. Yet, in the midst of my obligatory reading, I realized much of it is semantics.

While Valentine/Meyerson and I probably share some philosophically different beliefs about how to engage the world, overall I see they have a point to their message and a skill set to share; both of which I need to take seriously. It just took a little translation.

When I read, “Does your speech sell,” I hear, “Does your speech move people toward action.” When I read, “Don’t be a wanna-be speaker,” I hear, “Know why you are speaking and take it seriously.”

Whether from a pulpit, in the classroom, or on the streets there is a layer of social change that emerges through the tool of public speaking. While, it by no means is the most important or most essential tool to transformation, it is unavoidable at worst and can be inspirational and vision shifting at its best (how many TED Talks have you watched this year?). Take a few moments and think about the most recent sermon you heard, perhaps a political speech, or public lecture…were you moved to action, contemplation, reflection…or moved to sleep, disengagement, apathy (yes…you can be moved to apathy).

As Valentine/Meyerson reveal to us, there is a method for the skilled public speaker; and this skill can be learned. These are skills that can get people on board with a movement, challenge practices that are oppressive, inspire courage, instill reflection, and the list goes on. One of my favorite lines in the book, says “Don’t strive for perfection strive for connection” (149). The role of the public speaker is to connect with the audience and then move that audience towards something greater than themselves.

Now, taking a step back from World Class Speaking, I am curious…is there a difference between preaching, public lectures and giving a speech? Do they share the same purpose? Should they share the same foundation and structure? What do you think?

Sarah Nolan is the Director of the Abundant Table, a non-profit Episcopal organization which houses a campus ministry, Episcopal Service Corps young adult intern program, five acre farm, farm to school education programs, and a weekly house church. Sarah is in her final year of an M.A. graduate program for Ministry, Leadership and Service at Claremont School of Theology


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