Alexander Boucher, called “Alex” by his friends, is impassioned by language and intercultural communication and aspires to be a writer especially for humanitarian or international causes, either in writing grant proposals or editorials. A 22-year-old New Jersey native, he endeavors to graduate in December 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Communications from Cedarville University, located in southwestern Ohio. He has also completed minors in Ancient Greek and Bible. As a student, he participated in various student life opportunities involving leadership and community outreach and was even a radio DJ for a time for his university’s broadcast station. He enjoys linguistics, poetry, theology, philosophy, and intellectual discussion. His ultimate goal is to utilize his talents in helping to make the world a better place.
“Why!?” “Must I?” “But what if I mess up?” “Could a greater anxiety exist in the world?” “Oh no, my mouth is dry!” “Whelp, I’m humiliated now… it’s all downhill from here. Life over.” If you are like me, at least half of these thoughts have ricocheted like anxiety bullets to all corners of your brain when having to give one of those dreaded “speeches” for class. If you are like me, you likely have had these thoughts right before you give your speech… and during! If you are like me, even the thought of public speaking makes your heart want to turn inside out from the gut-wrenching fear of messing up and of the consequential humiliation. Even if you are like me, you are going to survive. I did. In the words of Ingrid Michaelson, you are “going to be okay.”
As a Public Communications major (soon to be graduate), my concentration comprised of speech, rhetoric, and persuasive theory. My school mandated speech as a required course for students of all majors to graduate, but with my major, I had to take not one but THREE public speaking courses, each one harder and more frightening than the last. When you attend college, or if you are already attending college, you too will most likely have to take at least one speech course while a student, or perhaps even three. Some of you may be thinking, “Why would you willfully make your concentration public speaking when you fear it so much?” Simply put, I wanted to benefit myself not just in becoming a better speaker but in becoming a better human being.
Without further ado, here are three life applications public speaking courses have taught me in bettering myself as a person:
1. Preparing for the worst
Notice I did not say, “Preparing beforehand.” While I like most college students on the planet struggle with resisting the comforting fuzzy embrace of procrastination’s conniving clutches, it is of no surprise to any student the benefits of preparing beforehand, especially if an inconvenience were to occur right before an assignment’s deadline (as when it often tends to occur). No, I am not talking here of printer malfunctions two minutes before your paper is due in class. Rather, I am referring more to preparing for the worst in the moment (which preparing beforehand helps). When giving a speech that you have rehearsed a dozen times over, you may think you have it nailed down. You stayed up all night practicing. You are ready to go! You get up in front of class the next day, about to give the greatest speech in the world. Point One, done… smooth and successful. Point Two, good. I remembered it. But wait, what was that poverty statistic again? What part of this Taiwanese girl’s testimony am I forgetting here? How did that quote go again from that one professor from Boston… oh no wait, from University of Illinios, right? You blank out. Your speech flow is interrupted. The one piece of evidence you forgot now became three, no wait, seven! You lost your place. You panic internally. What do you do now? Improv?
Even after spending so much time preparing beforehand, all you have done is minimized your chance of failure. It certainly helps, but it does not guarantee that you will not blank out, a common occurrence to which we are all prone. The keying to preparing for the worst is not to follow rigidly a static, word-for-word formula in your conduct but rather to know so thoroughly and intimately your research and position on a matter that you are able to repeat over and over again the same principles while NEVER saying the exact same thing twice. Whether in public speaking or in life, it does no good to prepare for the future with a strict outline of micromanaged details; then it becomes expected. When you know something so well that you can execute it with flexibility, then you are better prepared for the unexpected, even the worst.
2. Focusing on others (rather than yourself)
You have no idea the revelation something as universally disliked as public speaking has given me about focusing on others! From having to deliver around a dozen speeches as a student, one recurring phenomenon kept creeping up on me: the more I focused on my words being delivered as perfectly and flawlessly as possible, the less possible it was for my words to be delivered perfectly and flawlessly. When I would focus on myself while delivering a speech – and not even in a selfish, conceited way but rather in a way to do my very best – I found myself trying so hard to regurgitate verbatim the points and evidence I had memorized that my delivery ceased being natural. Stressing out over perfection overshadowed sharing out my information. Indeed, worrying about my own benefit to do well crippled the benefit of others to learn from me. However, do you know what happened when I placed my focus on my audience? My speaking was smoother, and my points poured forth naturally and nearly effortlessly. The key is to learn to care about your topic to the point of passionately sharing with others the information you have learned and how it will benefit them. It is remarkable how doing this increases one’s public speaking effectiveness! You will be surprised how focusing on others perfects yourself.
3. Managing your fears
Notice I did not say, “Overcoming your fears.” In life, fear is a natural instinct, and in some instances could even be a good thing… if managed correctly. Fear helps ensure our survival in heightening our awareness in the midst of threatening external stimuli. Fear also humbles us. It makes us realize how not all-powerful we really are. Fear may make us seem weak, but the most courageous among us have learned not to seek ways to become devoid of fear but rather to create solutions to control and manage their fears, even to make their fears work for them.
Even as a communications student whose concentration is in speech, I am still quite afraid of public speaking. I used to be extremely horrifyingly cripplingly afraid. I used to “psyche myself out” in pretending the fear was not there. I used to try to convince myself that there is nothing of which to be afraid. Much like my second point above regarding the placing of one’s focus, when focusing on ridding myself of fear, fear remained as an unwelcome guest, for it was still on my mind. I even finally succeeded in not being afraid once or twice! My speech suffered; with no fear inhibiting me, I slacked in my delivery. Now of course this does not necessarily apply to those who possess a natural confidence with public speaking, but for those who fear, the key is to manage your fear to the point that it does not cripple or hinder you but also that it is still present enough to heighten your awareness and to humble you. Overcoming fear may yield heedlessness and pride; managing fear assures attentiveness and humility.
So I urge you, take that public speaking class with confidence! Even if you do not care at all about public speaking, even if you are never going to use it again, public speaking will teach you how to prepare for the worst, how focusing on others benefits both them and you, and how managing your fears is less daunting an endeavor than overcoming your fears. Whether or not you succeed in speech class, it will help you as a person succeed in life.