COLUMN: "Public speaking no ‘bear’"

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece ran as part of the Oct. 10 edition of “Between You and Me” on KAXE.

Public speaking is no ‘bear’
By Aaron J. Brown

As the old cliché goes people fear public speaking more than they fear death. As I recall, the original poll that yielded this truism involved people randomly naming their biggest fears, rather than a specific choice between death and public speaking. I do a lot of public speaking (I teach it for a living) so I’d much rather give a five minute talk than die horribly before my time. Death is a pretty heavy subject to fear on an everyday basis. Conversely, public speaking is something that could hit us at any time, from the time we go to kindergarten until our aforementioned death.

Public speaking is like a bear that never kills, but instead just bats you around for 15 or 20 minutes every time it sees you. Every time. No exceptions. You’re dressed up to give a wedding toast? Bear’s gonna maul you. Going to school? Bear’s gonna maul you. Work presentation? Bear. Join the Rotary Club? Bear. And then another bear next month when it’s your turn to introduce the guest speaker. Then you retire and they throw you a big party and there in the back of the party, way back by the punch bowl next to the amusing youthful picture of you is the bear – punching a fist against his open paw. He’s not done yet. Or is he?

Back when the cave people ruled the world, humans operated off a much simpler if somewhat more dangerous system. A cave person, upon encountering a saber tooth tiger out in an open field, faced two simple choices: kill the animal using brute strength or run away at a speed faster than the tiger. The implied alternative is to become a pleasing meal for a saber tooth tiger. The implications are clear and evolution responded with the development of adrenaline.

You know what I’m talking about. ADRENALINE! This force can help us lift up a car to save a life or teach that car a lesson for not starting when we’re late for work. Adrenaline serves us well when we’re fighting saber tooth tigers, opening jars or winning high school sporting events that will later seem less relevant. But adrenaline often works against us in the modern world. When your boss tells you he needs you to brief the clients on the Jenkins account, society doesn’t allow you to crush your boss’s skull with a nearby stone. Nor are you allowed to scurry out the window, across the parking lot of the office complex to live the rest of your days foraging in the grove of trees by the adjacent drainage pond. No, today one must solve problems that require pinpoint accuracy with a brain built for clubbing things with tree trunks.

The secret in all this is knowing that public speaking is much more than a bear waiting to slap you around. Public speaking is a skill, not unlike being a ninja. Dare I say it: a bear-fighting ninja?

The fear that hits you before you have to stand up and present yourself and your ideas in front of others never goes away. Rather, you must learn ways to use that sensation to your advantage. Through practice and perspective, you can teach yourself to turn fear into power.

If you can walk up in front of strangers, peers, friends and neighbors and speak with confidence – not perfection, just confidence – you will own something that most people never know. To turn the primordial fear of rejection and humiliation into what Quintilian described as “a good man speaking well” is to build the future. And the glory is that anyone can do it.

Just be sure to mind the bear.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog His recent book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.


  1. Two pieces of advice turned me from a ready-to-die speaker into one with some confidence (having given sermons in church a number of times over the last 22 years.)

    First is that somebody told me that when you feel anxious while speaking, you may be exhaling more than inhaling, so pause and breathe. That is a big help. I suppose a corollary of this is speak somewhat slower than normal, so that you do breathe correctly.

    The second suggestion somebody told me is that I need to imagine, in advance, the worst thing that could happen while I’m up there. Then whatever does happen won’t be as bad as my imagination. The suggestion helped, only because I can look back on two bad things that did happen. Once, the portable mike squealed terribly and wouldn’t quit. The other time, I got up and had no voice, only a hoarse whisper. I didn’t know that was coming. But people had to pay very close attention, so it actually helped. The lesson is that I survived, not that these were the worst possible things.

    But mainly, I have just had anxiety while I’m preparing ahead of time, so it is mostly gone by the time I stand up there. However, extemporaneous speaking still almost strangles me, especially because I don’t do it unless I’m really emotionally involved when I find that necessary.

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