7 Thoughts About Fear of Public Speaking

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!

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 3

So our culture tends to show in how we preach.  We may accept that premise, but so what?  In part 1 we introduced the subject, and in part 2 we listed five ways our culture will be showing.

What should we do about it?  Here is a six-step action plan…

1. Write an initial list of your assumptions.  What comes to mind when you think of a typical preacher from your culture?  It is good to have a starting point so that as you think and research further you will see what you have learned.  Maybe start without any real categories, just what seems obvious to you.

2. Start to analyze your culture using categories.  In the last post I listed five: self, authority, confidence, humour and emotion/passion.  You might also consider organizational style and clarity (in respect to sermon content), use of visuals and expectation of the audience to read during a presentation, body language, smile and facial expression, and more.

3. Triangulate a new vantage point.  This is especially hard if you have only lived and attended church in one culture.  But it is still possible.  Select a culture that is not your own, but you have some awareness of … for example, most British Christians have some exposure to podcasts and speakers from the USA.  Listen to some good examples (not the extreme stereotypes that people like to use to dismiss “everything American” but preachers that you can enjoy and appreciate), listen not only to benefit from their preaching, but also to try to identify what makes their preaching distinctly American (or whatever culture you select).  Obviously there are always caveats, three white conservative evangelical preachers will help you to spot some common traits, but you will have missed the massive tradition of African-American preaching, etc.  You are not doing this to generalize or to label, but rather to gain a vantage point for your own culture.

Do the same with a culture you are not familiar with.  For instance you might find a handful of examples of preachers from a third continent.  Be careful not to just watch a handful of preachers with a different ethnic background who also live, study and preach in the USA or the UK – the distinct differences will be reduced by their assimilated context.  A totally new culture can give you the culture shock of unfamiliarity that will help this process.

Once you’ve started to recognize some commonalities in these two other cultures, making notes for your own use, then try step 4:

4. Watch your own culture from the vantage point of step 3.  Maybe find a handful of preachers from your own culture and watch them.  How do they differ from what you observed in the two cultures of step 3?  Be careful not to just feel at home and simply affirm them as generically good preachers.  Recognize that they have strengths and weaknesses from their culture.  Maybe having had a dose of a different culture or two you can start to spot some idiosyncrasies that may not be so helpful after all?  If you only see positives in your own culture, then go back and repeat step 3!

5. Ask questions. Sometimes you can gain a lot of ground quickly by just asking someone who is from outside your culture but will be honest enough to answer your question.  This will be more helpful after doing some good thinking yourself.  If you just jump to this then the benefit will be reduced, but it is still worth doing, especially if that person is in your church and you are preaching to them regularly.

6. Evaluate and adjust.  The more thoroughly you do steps 1-5, the more likely you are to take stock and start to make some adjustments.  This will involve not only understanding more of what is stereotypical in your culture, but also evaluating what traits you personally reflect from that culture, and thinking through who your listeners are too.  If they are from different cultural backgrounds, then that creates some obvious opportunities for adjustment.  But even if everyone in your church is saturated in your own culture, there may still be cultural idiosyncrasies that you could choose not to reflect in order to strengthen your communication.

Maybe you have travelled and become more aware of your own culture? Maybe you are ministering outside of your home culture? What other categories might you add to what has been mention in this short series

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 2

Yesterday we began the series by flagging that your preaching is probably more influenced by your national culture than you tend to realize (click here if you haven’t read part 1 already, it will help to make sense of this post.)

Here are some aspects of our preaching that may be more reflective of our culture than we realize:

1. Self.  How much of ourselves do we inject into the talk, and how do we speak about ourselves?  How comfortable do we feel telling stories about ourselves to support what we are saying?  Do we assume our listeners want to hear about us because we are the one speaking, or are we further down the continuum that assumes our role is to point them to the subject at hand rather than to the person stood before them?

2. Authority.  Do we tend to take the stance of the celebrity expert, or the authoritarian scholar, or use the indirect authority of gentle encouragement?  It is not just whether we speak with authority or not, but how that authority is wielded.  This is about whether we are more direct or indirect, instructive or suggestive, bold or subtle.

3. Confidence.  Related to authority is the issue of confidence.  Do we tend to show confidence when we speak, and is our confidence (or lack of it) usually more focused on subject matter, or on ourselves?  What can seem confident and humble in one culture can be heard as arrogant and aloof in another.

4. Humour.  Even though every person’s sense of humour is highly personal, there are cultural cues in our use of humour too.  What can have one crowd guffawing with laughter can easily leave someone from another culture wondering what all the fuss is about.  Some cultures value personal wit, others leave all humour to the experts, some cultures thrive on scripted stories, but others will naturally find such staged moments tiresome.  Self-deprecation will be another ingredient that shows at differing levels in different cultures.

5. Emotion/Passion.  Some cultures generate more public speakers with flare and enthusiasm, others are much more reserved.  While many will joke about their own cultural stereotypes, what shows in preaching is not always so obvious – in fact sometimes it can go in the opposite direction (I can think of some cultures known for being at one end of the continuum and yet generating many preachers who seem to reflect the opposite end of the scale!)  How does enthusiasm show, and in what element of the message does that energy become manifest?

These are just five categories of cultural influence on our public speaking.  What would you add to the list?

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 1

Last evening we sat down as a family to watch the first part of a training course that we want our teens to experience this summer.  It was very helpful.  And it was presented by someone from a different culture than the one we are living in.  Some of the differences were striking, but I wonder if the presenter might only have a limited idea if asked what was peculiarly typical of his culture.

One of the benefits of living in a foreign culture is that it gives you eyes to see your own culture of origin more clearly.  Our culture is like the water a fish swims in – it is all around us and affects everything, but we tend to be oblivious to it.

As preachers we work to know the world of the Bible and the world of our listeners, and maybe we think about our own world in respect to the inner landscape of our own lives that help us to recognize where we might be inclined to push an issue harder or avoid it altogether.  But I suspect a lot of us preachers remain fairly unaware of how our preaching and communication reflects our own culture.

Culture is made up of a series of overlapping categories that shape us and the way we communicate.  We are influenced and shaped by our family of origin, our education, our local area of upbringing, subcultures we choose to identify with (political, entertainment, music, special interests, etc.), national culture and even global-regional cultures (i.e. Latin America, or North America, or even Western vs Eastern).

And yet, while we are all individual in the profile of our various sub-cultural influences, still we tend to reflect the broader categories more than we realize. Even with clothing neutralized, vocabulary filtered, physical features blurred and accent removed, I suspect we might still be able to identify a speaker as being typically British or American or Australian or Italian or Polish or South African or Japanese or Brazilian, etc.

Tomorrow I will list five ways in which our culture tends to influence how we speak.  The following day I will list a plan for growing in awareness of this and hopefully improving our speaking as a result.  In the meantime, feel free to comment with things that come to mind when you think about how people tend to preach in your culture (probably better not to comment critically about other cultures though!)

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I just finished my Journey Thru John – one highlight per chapter through John’s Gospel.  Here’s the link in case you want to take a look (notice the slightly indirect invitation and that I didn’t make bold assertions about the life-changing truths in these brief videos?  Actually, it feels slightly awkward to mention them at all.  That’s my culture showing…)

 

Delivery Matters

Don’t judge a book by its cover.  But you do.  The best publishers know that, and so they tend to make the covers of their books look attractive.  Every now and then I come across a book that I know is pure gold in content, but just shake my head at the choice of cover.  Even the same book released in two countries with different covers can cause consternation, but that is another issue.

While we might strongly assert that only the content matters, the truth is that packaging, and cover, and typeface, and font size all do matter when it comes to books.  How much more does delivery matter when people are communicating direct?

Again, some will argue in most spiritual terms that the only thing that matters is content.  This simply is not true.  Great content poorly delivered is wasted content (because it will not be heard content).  While packaging must never cover for thin content, we must not hide great content in shoddy packaging.  This is simply poor stewardship.

More than stewardship, it is a downright contradiction of God’s approach.  God isn’t in the business of sending abstract content in inaccessible documents via courier.  God communicated vividly, powerfully, effectively and personally.  His ultimate revelation of Himself was Himself in the person of His Son.  Yet His Son came to us in the form of us.  The incarnation was, in part, an issue of message delivery.  He spoke the language of the people, he connected with the people, he didn’t allow his message to be obscured by poor delivery.

So let’s not be super-spiritual in an attempt to avoid the fact that how we deliver messages matters.  When people communicate to people, the people hearing the communication are always and constantly processing much more than just the bare content itself.

There is the tone of voice, the manner of the person, the facial expressions, the physical movement, the body language, the energy conveyed and the perceived interpersonal connection between speaker and listener.  Over the next couple of days we’ll ponder some of these aspects of delivery to prompt us in our preaching.  After all, delivery matters.

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Monday Musings on Manipulation

Thought I’d follow up on Saturday’s post by sharing a quote I appreciated in the book I will name this week:

You must not fear to have affective goals for the sermon as well as cognitive goals.  There is nothing wrong with trying to move the listener.  It is not manipulative to seek to engage their entire being with the truth.  Manipulation is when the preacher overwhelms the emotions (or the mind for that matter), and creates a disorientation that actually takes the power of will away from the listener. (p.106)

I like that definition in some ways.  I like the recognition that manipulation occurs when disorientation is prompted by overwhelming.  I like the recognition that such overwhelming can be of the emotions and also of the mind.  When this occurs, something is taken away from the listener – somehow their decision making is controlled by an outside force, rather than by the appropriately shaped motives of their own heart.

Is the will ever truly free?  Perhaps not, but the heart must be free to supply the values that the mind and will rely on to make decisions.  Supplanting the heart with emotional hype, or with overwhelming intellectual astonishment, or even excessive pressure on the will itself (guilt-trip preaching) . . . are all a problem, all can be manipulation.

As a preacher convinced that my role is to speak to the heart, and not just the head, I must regularly wrestle with the issue of manipulation.  I must ponder the interaction of the soul’s faculties.  I must spurn any rhetorical technique designed to manipulate the listener.  I must consider what is biblically, ethically, theologically appropriate as one who has the privilege of speaking the Word of God into the lives of others.

When Less is More in Delivery

More power does not always mean more power.  Sometimes for emphasis we need to do the opposite of the obvious:

When less is more in delivery – When we are convinced or excited, our volume tends to rise.  But it can be dynamic and powerful to drop to a whisper at the point of emphasis.  When worked up we easily rise in pitch, delivering our most significant material in the annoying shrill of an over-enthusiastic choirboy (but dropping the pitch to a lower tone will add emphasis without the discomfort for listening ears).  And of course, when we get worked up we easily drop our foot to the floor and speed through key material.  In the cold light of midweek it is easy to spot the weakness in that approach!

Variation is critical in content and delivery.  One way to add variety is to be sure to look for opportunities to apply the old principle that works so well in preaching – sometimes less is more!

Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking

Michelle just submitted this comment to the site, a plea for help!

I just joined a preaching/homelietics course at my church and we are using Robinson’s Biblical Preaching book. On the first day I learned that we will be giving a fifteen minute sermon at the end of the course. The course is seven wks. long. I’m terrified. I had no idea that I’d be speaking in front of our pastor and the other ladies in the class. I’m so tempted to drop out but it was open to a selected few. I joined because I am a leader for bible study fellowship and we use homiletics. I thought this would be a great way to better myself at the skill of homiletics.
I want to be able to prepare and deliver passages just not in a preaching setting, more of a small group. I have made up my mind to finish the course but I was wondering if there were any resources you could recommend that would help me get over my GREAT fear of speaking in front of large groups.

Anything would help!
Thank You,
Michele

So let’s see if we can help.  Feel free to add your comments to the post and supplement my few thoughts.

Fear of Public Speaking is Normal – You’ve probably heard that manipulated statistic that tells us that more people fear speaking in public than death itself.  The fear is normal.  Over time and with practice the fear subsides and you are left with some level of gentle nervousness.  In this case, Michele, you have to get through one event in order to take this class that will benefit your ministry in Bible Study Fellowship (a very strategic ministry from what I’ve heard!)

People Don’t Think What You Think They Will Think – The fear often relates to what others think in some respect.  It helps to realize that in a preaching class, everyone is in the same boat.  Consequently everyone respects everyone else for going through with it.  Even the pastor was once a first-timer, sitting nervously in a seminary classroom trying to remember his opening few lines as he awaited his turn.  A class like this is typically like a New Preacher’s Anonymous group, and once you speak, everyone is really welcoming and appreciative!

Re-Orient the Group to Your Goal – Since you are taking the class to help you improve your skills for the BSF setting, your pastor may allow you to take a few brief moments at the start to set up the context for your “message.”  People with a context in which to apply what they learn are usually better learners anyway, so why not?  Simply describe the setting as it would be at BSF and then present using what you’ve learned in the course, but in a way appropriate to that setting (so if you normally sit, then sit, for example).  I teach essentially the Haddon Robinson approach and have had people turn the end of course preaching into a youth group lesson, a Sunday School lesson, etc.  It can be done, people will “play along” and it puts listeners mentally “on your turf.”  For nerves, this can help a lot.  (Talk to the leader first and follow whatever restrictions to this advice that they suggest.)

Someone will probably quote the standard “tool” for overcoming fear, that of imagining your audience naked.  I won’t mention that though, because I think it doesn’t quite fit with the more serious realities of preaching!  Ultimately fear that pushes you up against God has to be a good thing.  The course should be a real help for the great ministry at BSF.  Furthermore, you’ve probably already done the main thing – committing to going through with it despite the fear.  You won’t regret it!

I’ve gone on way too long, other tips?