On my wedding day, my wedding coordinator said something strange to me. “More than likely, something won’t go perfectly today. But more than likely, it won’t matter.” The more I thought about her words, the more freedom they gave me. She was right. We had put in months of planning and preparation and had done everything humanly possible to make the day perfect. That meant I could relax and enjoy the day. It would be okay if not everything went according to plan.
Many of us are afraid of public speaking because we know there’s no guarantee that when we stand in front of an audience everything will go exactly right. We are afraid we might fail. And guess what? Sometimes you will. Sometimes I will. Licensed psychologist and author Guy Winch, Ph.D. says that failure “distorts your perceptions of your actual abilities by making you feel less up to the task. Once you fail, you are likely to assess your skills, intelligence, and capabilities incorrectly and see them as significantly weaker than they actually are.”
So it’s no wonder that many of us fear public speaking because our moments of failure have distorted our perceptions. Let’s have an honest discussion about failure in hopes that we can reshape our fears of public speaking.
Some failures are avoidable. They are called consequences. These aren’t mistakes, they are the result of specific actions or inactions that we could have changed. If you don’t practice for a speech, it’s probably not going to flow smoothly. If you don’t leave yourself enough time to get to the meeting, you’ll be late. When you encounter a failure that you had some element of control over, those serve as wake-up calls.
If your fear of public speaking is tied to an avoidable failure you experienced in the past, it’s time to put that into perspective. One study at Purdue University showed that when we fail, we think our chances for success the next time actually shrink. Realize that you had a role in creating that failure. That means you have the power to make it different. Then, take the necessary steps to make sure it doesn’t happen the next time. Once you realize the actions or inactions that caused the failure are within your control, you can feel confident trying again. With better preparation this time, of course.
Failure is part of being human. And many cases of failure are unavoidable. For example, if you are late to a meeting, it’s avoidable if you didn’t leave early enough, but it’s unavoidable if there is a traffic jam on the interstate you had to take to get there. The same is true of public speaking. Say the environment you are speaking in is extremely noisy and causes you to lose your train of thought a few times. That’s nothing to feel guilty about. It’s natural for a loud environment to be distracting.
Sometimes you can plan perfectly, and things just aren’t ideal. You can slip up and say the wrong word, or the technology in the room you are using can stop working. That’s just the nature of human communication and, well, life. It’s messy and unpredictable at times. Some things are simply out of our control. Having a healthy perspective on life’s unavoidable failures will help to keep your presentation anxiety in check.
Failures provide great life lessons. Like rumble strips on the highway, they allow us to correct course. When it comes to public speaking, do everything you can not to fail. If you’ve prepared well, chances are that things will go great. But if by chance you make some mistakes during your presentation, process them to figure out why they happened. If they were avoidable, great! You just learned how to do something different or better next time. If they were unavoidable, move on and don’t let them eat you up.
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