Problems at the Podium

A friend, we’ll call Jed, remembers when he was “just a kid” and was called on one Sunday in church to come up front and share his thoughts. He started up there, but didn’t quite make it. Instead, he took a detour and headed out the side front exit. That’s how anxious he was to share his thoughts with the people in the congregation.  Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is reported to be the number one fear, according to several sources. It beats out the fear of spiders, heights, even the fear of dying. In other words, many of us would rather die than speak in public.

Why is it we are so afraid to get up in front of others and express ourselves?  For me it was always due to concern I’d make  a fool of myself. When I was a teenager I remember once completely psyching myself out once.  Here’s what happened: While practicing what I wanted to say, I got my tongue twisted a little. That concerned me because I didn’t want to make that mistake in the real talk. I practiced again and got those particular words right, but got my tongue twisted in another part of the talk. I tried again. The more I worried about not getting my tongue twisted, the more I fouled up. I began to obsess about it. Even while I was on the stand waiting to give my talk, I was whispering the talk to myself, trying to get the words right. By the time I got up to the podium, I was in such a state that I sounded like I was speaking a foreign language. Members of the congregation chuckled and found my problem pretty funny. I find it funny now too. It didn’t seem very funny to me at the time, however.

My uncle remembers how he somehow avoided giving a talk for many years, and when he was finally “caught” he expressed concern to his older brother about all those faces that would be looking at him. His brother advised him to pick a point in the chapel he could concentrate on.  On the day of his talk, he followed his brother’s counsel and chose the clock. Unfortunately, the clock was on the side wall which meant that my uncle kept his head turned sideways through his entire talk.

As a student officer in his high school, a relative we’ll call Phil, says he was wishing he had a podium when he spoke for one of his first times. The school auditorium was built like kind of a theater in the round and he had to stand in the middle of the floor, fellow students all around him. Consequently, he had to continue turning from one side to the other, so that he wouldn’t have his back to anyone for too long. To his relief, his presentation went fairly well! It was when he tried to leave the floor, that he fell (as the expression goes) flat on his face. With all his turning, he’d wrapped the microphone cord around his ankles and had basically hog-tied himself—a real character-building experience.

Happily, when it comes to speaking, experience really does help. It generally helps curb some of our fears and lessens problems at the podium or any time we’re up in front of an audience.  I’m not sure if they became fearless speakers, but all those I mentioned lived to laugh about their first experiences and  became really good speakers.

By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I’d discovered that feeling deeply about my subject matter really helped me give more successful talks. I’d attended an inspirational fireside not long before I was asked to speak in church, and I decided to use many of the thoughts presented there. I’d give credit, of course, to the man who’d shared those thoughts. I even called a friend to find out his name. It wasn’t until I got to the meeting that I discovered that the second speaker on the program was this same man. I still remember my intense panic as I tried to come up with some new, last-minute material. My mouth dried, my head felt light, but when I got to the podium, the thoughts came. I’m still not sure what I said, but I knew I’d experienced a miracle. I’d definitely gotten help.

I wish I could say that I am no longer fearful of public speaking now that I’m older, but I still sometimes get that pang in my stomach, and that light-headed feeling that causes me to forget the material I planned to say, including everyday words and names I knew perfectly well only seconds before I rose. More often these days, however, talking in front of others doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it once did. When I remember the secret: that it’s not about me, miracles are more apt to occur and I get that Heavenly help I always hope for. That’s a good feeling. Maybe someday I’ll be able to actually say that I enjoy speaking, but right now, speaking, conducting etc. continues to be a challenge.

One more story: I served an LDS mission to California, and by the time I’d been out for a few months, I’d spoken in front of so many groups, that it became almost routine. For about a year, I actually lost my fear of speaking. But I still had herpetophobia, a fear of reptiles. As I waited on the stand for my turn to get up at the podium, I noticed a lizard resting at the foot of the pulpit. This was no cute little Geico gecko. This was a very real and creepy thing with an exceptionally long tail. I let the bishop know I didn’t plan to join “that thing” at the podium. I think he could tell I wasn’t kidding.  He sent a message to his son, who grabbed the lizard by its tail and rushed it outside. But the incident unnerved me, and during my talk, I kept checking the floor, worried that the lizard had little friends and relatives who might come looking for him.

Maybe you’ve had an unusual or character-building problem up at the podium. If you have, please share.

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