Steve Tobak | January 8, 2014
The public humiliation over freezing up on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show may not be the worst thing movie director Michael Bay has to deal with. If he suffers from public speaking anxiety - as millions of people do - the meltdown will likely reinforce his fear.
At least he's not alone. Far from it. That particular fear plagues more successful and talented people than any other, by far.
Perhaps Bay was so excited that he skipped over Samsung exec Joe Stinziano's intro line and messed up the teleprompter's timing, as Bay later wrote in a blog post. But I doubt if that was the root cause of what happened. He appeared to be very nervous when he walked on stage.
As filmmaker Zak Bagans wrote on Twitter, "leave Michael Bay alone, some of the most talented and creative ppl in the world suffer from anxiety and stage-fright" and "as an anxiety sufferer myself its nothing to poke fun."
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I can certainly relate. People who've heard me speak have a hard time believing that I share this most common fear. That's because, long ago, I faced my fear and dealt with it. Now, I'm an accomplished speaker who has given thousands of presentations and speeches over decades.
Still, it's a mistake to think I've "conquered" my fear. It's a lot like an addiction. I overcome it each time I speak, but it's always there, lurking in the background because you can't simply delete those neural pathways. But in time, you can weaken their power to trigger your body's fight-or-flight response by taking the right steps.
For me, that began when I reached the executive ranks more than 20 years ago. My presentations were beginning to matter more and more and my anxiety began to rise in concert. That's when I came across a Wall Street Journal article that changed my way of thinking about my dreaded problem.
First, it explained that public speaking is the most common fear. People even fear it more than death. While I found that amusing, comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it in context in a way that only he can, "This means, to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."
The article went on to explain that those most likely to suffer from speaking anxiety are those who care most about their careers. The reason is that overachievers - driven, talented, capable people - are highly aware of the importance of presentation skills in climbing the corporate ladder and becoming successful. So they worry about their performance on stage or in front of their bosses.
I learned how those same people are reluctant to admit to the problem for fear it will damage their careers. So they try to sweep it under the rug and make believe it doesn't exist. Their feelings of shame, embarrassment and isolation grow, and that just serves to feed the beast of fear.
Lastly, I was fascinated to learn that the body's ancient adrenaline response to fear was the culprit. And since your body treats fear as a threat to survival, it trumps everything, even rational thought. That's why it's so hard to simply tell yourself not to let your fear get the better of you.
Since then, I've been coached and I've coached other execs. And while what I learned from that one article started me on the path to dealing with my problem, I've since come up with a five step process that seems to work wonders for lots of people.
1. Face your fear. The first step to resolving any problem is to admit it exists, get it out in the open so you can deal with it, and have faith that you will eventually get over it. Isolation only enhances the fear so remember: you're far from alone and in very good company. If you're brave enough to be honest with yourself and face your fear, you will overcome it.
2. Know your material cold. It will help your confidence immensely to know your material backwards and forwards. Don't memorize, just be clear on the information you want to get across, your key points and messages, that sort of thing. People who look calm and relaxed on stage - who think well on their feet - are confident because they're prepared. They know their stuff.
3. Remember, it's not all about you. Overachievers tend to have big egos. We think all eyes are always on us. What we never seem to realize is that, while everyone in the room may be looking at us, probably half of them are mostly interested in the content and the rest are distracted by their own mini-dramas. Besides, if even a quarter of the audience has the same fear you do, that's a lot of empathy.
4. Interact with your audience. You can relieve your feelings of isolation by interacting with the audience, by asking leading questions, by telling them stories they can relate to. You'll instantly feel more comfortable and so will your audience. Ironically, that will also make you a more dynamic and engaging speaker.
5. Ask yourself, what's the worst thing that can happen? It's funny how that simple question can diffuse just about any life problem. It certainly applies here. If your hands shake, you screw up, or you panic and bolt, so what? First, that's not likely to happen; it's all in your head. But what if it does? You'll pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and live to fight another day. Failing is part of business and life. This is no different.