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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Worst Fear*

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
July 10, 2011
as "Speak your mind, share your heart"

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 number one 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 black widow spider in your face in the middle of a crowd of people standing at the edge of the Incline 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, 3 out of every 4 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 up there?”  “Maybe I’ll get the flu!”  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, the words seem choppy, your delivery rough and unpolished.  But as you get into the speech, something happens.  You concentrate more on the subject matter and you discover that you really do have something to say.   Then, suddenly you’re finished.  There’s a breathless pause, then the room erupts in applause.  You look out there 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 have the attention span to commit to memory every word spoken in 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 8 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.  The clarity and brevity of the words, the strength of the delivery, and the power of the moment.  At Gettysburg, Edward Everett spoke eloquently for two hours.  Nobody remembers what he said.  Lincoln spoke for two minutes, and his words no one will ever forget.
I was blessed with a father, a full-time minister, who gave more sermons in his lifetime that 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.
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