One of the quickest ways to find a false use of statistics is to look up the fear of public speaking. Given a list of options for their greatest fear, more people selected public speaking than death. The wrong way to say that? “More people would choose to die rather than speak in public!” (Please don’t “tabloid” interesting stats to make them sensational and nonsense – people weren’t given that ultimatum!)
By the way, this could be our first helpful thought: (1.) If so many people fear public speaking then you are already ahead simply by standing up front – after all, you doing it means they don’t have to. At the same time, this initial credit fades as fast as they sense that you are a poor communicator!
Speaking to a crowd of people is something that is unnatural for everyone, and fearful for many. Whether you have been asked to preach for the first time, or have been conquering this fear over many thousands of sermons, here are a few more thoughts that may be helpful:
2. It is natural to feel unnatural about doing something that isn’t natural. Whether you feel tangible fear is besides the point. Speaking to a crowd of people is unnatural. They are looking at you. They are potentially listening to you. They are expecting something of a certain standard from you. This is not a conversation with a friend you are passing in the corridor. We need to recognize the unnatural reality of public speaking, but then look for ways to communicate in a more natural way (even if we are quaking on the inside).
3. Don’t follow silly advice to overcome your fear. Please don’t imagine anyone without their clothes on – that is unhelpful on so many levels. Please don’t look just above peoples’ heads – they notice that far more than you think they will. Please don’t concentrate solely on your content and ignore your listeners – again, they will notice if you don’t care about them.
4. Do care about your subject and your listeners. Being an expert on your content is not as important as caring about it. When you care about it you will communicate with greater enthusiasm and emotional integrity. Obviously it really does help to know what you are talking about though, always remaining humble because there is always more to know. Care about your listeners too. Once you become more comfortable with delivering your content, you will be able to grow in sensitivity to the people that are sat before you. Their facial expressions and body language can become really helpful for you over time.
5. Have something to say. Ultimately this one is asking for more than just coming up with a message for each particular occasion. This is also the reason I don’t tend to teach public speaking skills without spending more time on Bible handling, spiritual growth and theological instruction. Honestly I don’t want to increase the number of people who can say things well without having anything worth saying.
I recently saw an example of a very poor communicator who is putting videos online, but really doesn’t have much of value to say. Sadly, and predictably, he has multiple friends who are ready to offer their gratitude in the comments and perpetuate the cycle. In the old days exposure and opportunity would grow with demand, but now we can all “self-publish” via podcasts and YouTube. If you are really growing in your spiritual maturity, then you will increasingly have something to say … which in turn will help to overcome the nerves.
6. Practice saying it. Since public speaking is unnatural, work on becoming natural with what you have to say. There is nothing wrong with running through your message, out loud, to improve it and to prepare yourself to preach it under the increased pressure of listeners. There will always be something you can work on in your delivery too. Maybe better use of pauses, or variation of pace, or appropriate size of gestures (and in the right direction from the perspective of the listeners). It takes work to naturally point to your left when you are referring to the future, but once you do, it looks natural to the listener.
7. Fearlessness is not your goal. It is understandable that those with a tangible fear of public speaking would long for the day when they can stand and deliver without the slightest qualm. This may not be the best target. Some nervousness, awareness of the significance of the situation, concern about your own weaknesses as a communicator, etc., are all potentially helpful. Whether we listeners realize it or not, we want you to preach in reliance and dependence upon God … that will always bear greater fruit than you relying on yourself because you have become so good at it!