“People think actresses find public speaking easy, and it’s not easy at all; we’re used to hiding behind masks.” — Jane Fonda

“I never, ever wanted to be an actress! Public speaking and acting make me want to vomit… When it comes to public speaking, I stumble on my words, sweat, and pull at my clothes.” — Kelly Clarkson

It’s called “glossophobia.” There’s no telethon for it, and no pill or injection that’ll prevent it. But even famous people like Jane and Kelly suffer from it. Yes, it’s the dreaded fear of public speaking. But the good news is that for most of us, there is a cure. More on that in a minute.

It’s a really common fear and when you think about it, it makes sense. For most of us, the first time we spoke up after being born, somebody slapped us. Yes, it was a doctor, but still — if you’re a newborn, you deserve more positive encouragement when you’re crying out loud, for crying out loud. 

Unless you’re a hermit, you probably have to speak with one or more people every day. At what point do you become nervous? Is it based on the number of people you’re talking with? Do you feel less anxious if you’ve prepared a presentation in advance, or if you’re just speaking off the cuff in a team meeting or in an elevator with your boss? Do you start feeling uncomfortable after you’ve been talking for 60 seconds or more?

Previously in this column, I’ve admitted that I’ve been a bit of a ham since I was about 5 years old and sang “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” at a retirement home. At that age, I was basically a “ham-let” before I knew who Hamlet was. But as the years went by, I developed some bad speaking habits. I either went into way too much detail, taking five minutes to make a point that I made four minutes before, or I’d insert those annoying “uhs,” “ahs,” and “ums” that are unnecessary ingredients in conversation and especially in a prepared speech (“like” and “you know” are other common fillers).

Hillary Clinton had good advice for people like me: “If you’re not comfortable with public speaking — and nobody starts out comfortable; you have to learn how to be comfortable — practice. I cannot overstate the importance of practicing. Get some close friends or family members to help evaluate you, or somebody at work that you trust.” But is it realistic to expect your friends and family members to assess your strengths or where you can improve? If they’re willing, won’t it probably be just a verbal pat on the back? Probably not. 

Time for the cure to glossophobia: Toastmasters (www.toastmasters.org). This professional worldwide organization — in existence since before the Cubs last won a World Series — has multiple clubs in McHenry County, including two in Crystal Lake, and each club meets regularly to give members the chance to improve their public speaking and leadership skills in a very supportive environment. Where else are you applauded when you stand up to speak and when you’re finished, too? Where else can you give a prepared speech and be guaranteed a helpful evaluation from another club member? Where else can you think on your feet to give a one- or two-minute response to a random question (the “Table Topics” portion of the meeting)? The club I’m a member of, Crystal Lake Toastmasters (crystallake.toastmastersclubs.org), meets the first, third and fifth Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. at Exemplar Financial Network in Crystal Lake. I know that at each meeting I’m going to laugh, learn something, and get a chance to exercise my mind, mouth and body (e.g., gestures, facial expressions).

Trust me, we have a lot of glossophobia survivors in Toastmasters. Those butterflies in our stomachs are still there, but we say they now fly in formation. So come to a meeting. To face your fear, there’s no better “atmos-fear.”

Paul Lockwood is an occasional community theater actor, frequent dramatic reader, active Grace Lutheran Church and Toastmasters member, and past president of TownSquare Players. He’s RFP Manager for The Vitality Group (Chicago) and has lived in Woodstock for 15 years with his wife, Diane.

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