I teach things that many find offensive. Whether it’s articles containing racist language in my “Gender, Race, and Class” course or descriptions of oral insemination as part of the Sembia male’s coming-of-age rituals in my anthropology course, I know that some students are going to be offended, sometimes deeply.
Over the years, I’ve come to view offense as a particularly useful state of being – but only when the offense one feels is used properly. Most people view being offended as an excuse for shutting down, even going (you guessed it) on the offensive. They refuse to be party to whatever offensive material is being presented to them, whether it’s someone making a sexist joke or a politician’s attack ad.
Obviously I can’t have students shutting down – or worse, feeling so put upon that they lash out at me or their fellow students. My classroom is, after all, a learning environment. But being offended is one of the key parts of the learning process. It is through taking offense that we discover the limits of our own knowledge, understanding, or compassion, and therefore it is at the point of offense that we have the greatest potential to grow as people.
Consider the kinds of situations that make us feel offended. We take offense when:
We are confronted with situations radically different from those we’re used to.
We experience situations that conflict strongly with our own values.
Our belief systems are challenged or dismissed as inadequate.
We are labeled or otherwise treated in ways that are inconsistent with our self-image.
All of these situations can offer us an opportunity to grow as a person, whether by learning about value systems or ways of living that differ from your own (and which sometimes offer a more efficient, more fulfilling, or simply more reasonable way of doing things), or by increasing our understanding of other people (offering the opportunity, perhaps, to resolve conflicts before they become intractable), or simply by exposing the gap between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves (which can be eye-opening indeed).
This can only happen, though, when we recognize offense for what it is – our mind’s way of processing unfamiliar experience. We have a whole set of mental standards that our minds are always comparing new experiences against to guide our actions and reactions; when no “entry” exists that we can categorize some situation into, offense kicks in – “this is wrong,” it says.
At that moment, we can act in ways that prevent growth – attacking someone, condemning them, walking away, or becoming defensive – or we can use that offense as a trigger to kick us into “understanding” mode. Try thinking about these points next time you’re offended:
Offense is not injury. The most important step to keeping a level head in the face of serious offense is to remember that just because something offends you doesn’t mean that it hurts you in any way. Be careful to sort out your immediate, emotional response from the actual practical effect of whatever offensive situation you’re confronting – most of the time, you’ll find your life can go on just fine regardless of this offensive thing.
People aren’t stupid. For the most part, people do things for reasons that, at least at the time, seem like good ones. And when they have the weight of tradition behind them, they’re usually right – societies that do things that are actually and truly wrong tend to be extinct. No matter how difficult it is to accept, you have to acknowledge that many practices that seem utterly impractical and stupid have endured for hundreds or even thousands of years without killing, maiming, or traumatizing the people who practice them.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. The way you do things will always seem like the right, best, and only way to do it – but it’s not. Try to recognize the value in the way other people do things – often you’ll find that, as odd and offensive as it might seem at first, it actually manages to accomplish the same ends as your “right” way of doing things.
You’re pretty weird yourself. Never forget that to an outsider, everyone seems weird. We are always exactly as foreign to others as they are to us. Try to look at some of your practices from the outside and see just how weird you really are.
Clarify, clarify, clarify. Since offense usually arises at the point of misunderstanding between two people, cultures, or social contexts, dampen your moral outrage for a second to ask some questions. Although asking a question or two might seem easy, in my observations it takes a great deal of courage to ask even the simplest questions – we all want to protect our self-identity by refusing to look ignorant, vulnerable, or unprepared. But of course, we often are ignorant, vulnerable, or unprepared – and sometimes all three. Make sure you actually know what’s going on!
Those shoes are tight. You know the saying “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes”? Well, it’s one of those sayings that are actually pretty true. Try to see things from other people’s viewpoints – and often enough, the offense just melts away.
Of course, there are situations where immediate action is necessary, as for instance when people are being injured. But a lot of us end up with a “think first, justify later” attitude that causes more conflicts than it solves. Welcoming offense as an opportunity rather than a problem is a step towards reducing the conflict around you – by any measure, an entirely non-offensive thing!
You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.
Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.
Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:
1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically
According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.
“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor
Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:
If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.
If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.
Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:
Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.
Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.
To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.
Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.
Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.
Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.
Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.
Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:
2. Focus on your goal
One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.
Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’
Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.
Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.
If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.
3. Convert negativity to positivity
There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?
‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’
It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.
Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”
Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.
Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:
4. Understand your content
Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.
However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.
“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor
Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.
Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.
One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.
5. Practice makes perfect
Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.
In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.
Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!
6. Be authentic
There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.
Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.
Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.
To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.
With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.
Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:
7. Post speech evaluation
Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.
Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation
We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.
You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.
Improve your next speech
As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:
How did I do?
Are there any areas for improvement?
Did I sound or look stressed?
Did I stumble on my words? Why?
Was I saying “um” too often?
How was the flow of the speech?
Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.
If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too: