At the end of my senior year in high school, I learned that I was to be the class valedictorian. I declined the honor. And I managed to get into my thirties without directly confronting my fear of public speaking. At the age of thirty-three, I enrolled in graduate school, where I gave a few scientific presentations while lurking in the shadows of PowerPoint. Still, it seemed that I might be able to skirt my problem with a little luck—until I began to feel as though a large pit had opened in the center of my life, and I was circling the edge. It was becoming professionally and psychologically impossible to turn away.
The reckoning finally came when I published my first book, The End of Faith. Suddenly, I was thirty-seven and faced with the prospect of a book tour. I briefly considered avoiding all public appearances and becoming a man of mystery. Had I done so, I would still be fairly mysterious, and you probably wouldn’t be reading these words.
He also offers a few tips for overcoming the fear that might be helpful to some people. It’s decent advice. I would add that the most important thing about public speaking is being passionate about your subject. It might be tough to speak in front of strangers, but it’s even worse when you’re not invested in what you’re saying — if you lack confidence in your opinions or lack interest in your own subject matter, the audience will notice.
I’ve been coaching public speaking now for several years and it’s amazing how easy it is to transform a person who hates getting up in front of an audience to someone who is captivating to watch (even when the subject is normally boring). But it does take practice, even if you’re a natural.
Side note: Jerry Seinfeld used to tell this joke:
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
In homage to that, we wore shirts during my first year on my high school’s Speech Team that read “We do for fun what most people fear worse than death.”