How do you feel when you are asked to give a toast or to speak from the heart in a group setting? Is it a breeze? Or do you take a big gulp and feel your stomach turn? This post will offer some suggestions that can help to overcome the terror that wells up inside your belly.
Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post explains that 25.6% of Americans fear public speaking. It’s the number one fear beating drowning, flying, snakes, heights, needles, strangers, earthquakes, darkness and, yes, clowns and dying.
Pubic speaking requires a skill set that can be learned, but this post offers helpful suggestions for the moments when you don’t have time to write a script; when you are required to speak from the heart and risk vulnerability. It gets easier with practice, but you have to start somewhere.
Before: “Perfection Paralysis”
I was the only bridesmaid who did not give a toast at one of my best friend’s weddings. The irrational fear of humiliation outweighed the desire to show my friend how much I loved her. No one held unreasonable expectations over my head; they just wanted to hear a few nice words. But the old me felt like what I said needed to be perfect: It had to be funny, clever and poignant and capture the essence of our close friendship and all that we had experienced together. I couldn’t do it. It was better to say nothing than to fail miserably. I was suffering from what I call “perfection paralysis.”
I felt ashamed as people kept pressing me to speak. While I FELT the power of the primal brain hijacking the neocortical, rational, creative thinking brain, I didn’t understand why it was happening. Remember, our fears and the resulting reactions are not psychological; they are physiological. We don’t intend to let others down. When fear sweeps in, it activates the primal brain and it FEELS life or death, shutting down the creative logical thinking brain.
The Terror is Real
People died for their beliefs – they still do. Maybe your ancestors did. It wasn’t that long ago witches were burned or people were lynched and crucified for being different – they still are. Speaking from the heart and mind has caused tremendous suffering and death, and that is imbedded in our cellular memory. But survival programming prevents us from connecting with one another and from speaking when we have the opportunity to honor others. Survival programming cannot differentiate between a court trial that determines life or death and a wedding toast. And, if we don’t quell and calm the survival programming and learn to connect, we isolate, which creates a whole other set of problems.
After: Sweet Simplicity
This past weekend, I went to a friend’s surprise birthday party. She was thoroughly surprised and is well loved by her community; it was heart-warming. Her daughter asked if I could give a toast. I remembered then that her friends had been asked to bring a poem we liked, or to reflect about our time together, and I had completely forgotten to look for a quote or write anything down.
As much as I love my friend, the old me would have not spoken and done anything to avoid it – even left the party. But, instead, I immediately said yes, of course – I would love to give a toast! I could feel the old me rebelling. It felt like there was a big fish flopping around in my stomach. I turned to my friend, Anne, who is visiting from out of town, and I said, “I didn’t prepare anything.”
Anne smiled brightly. “Tell them what you have told me about her: that she feels like family.” The light bulb went off. Of course! I knew how to do this. This was about her and not about me. All I needed to do was get out of the way so love could be channeled.
Here are some tips…
…that I’ve learned to do that can help you too! When asked to give a toast or short reflection from the heart:
- Immediately give yourself a 3-part outline. It could be three words or phrases. (For example, my outline looked like this: 1. how we met, 2. how she and her family felt like my family, and 3. how she creates a sense of community that causes everyone in that community to feel loved. For memory’s sake, I narrowed it down to: 1. Our meeting, 2. Family, 3. Her Community)
- The 3 words/phrases are your road map – stick to the plan.
- Simple is good
- Remember: people want to get back to eating or dancing.
- Mirror neurons: Your ease and smiles puts others at ease and lights up their smiles.
- People want you to feel comfortable. (They are not even thinking about you – they are thinking they want to go get another drink or they are up for a toast next!)
- Stay focused and don’t overthink
- 3 pieces is enough (People like short toasts).
- Trust that what comes out of your mouth is “good enough.”
- Don’t look at anyone directly at first until you’re ready. Even then you can look over the group’s head, just above them. As you get more accustomed to toasts you will be able to make eye contact.
- Do loving self-talk
- Have compassion and stop judging yourself.
- Ignore others who may judge you, because the judgmental people are probably not the types you’d want to hang out with anyway.
- Don’t rush. Breathe.
- Bring yourself back to the three points (they can be out of order).
- The first few times you try this you may stumble and pause.
The toast I gave wasn’t particularly brilliant, but it was heartfelt. I wanted to say so much more, but it was enough. As I thought about my friend and how much I love her, I forgot about that I was “being watched.” I felt my heart open and tears come to my eyes. Short, authentic and heartfelt is far more accessible and enjoyable than perfect.
It’s about showing up as who you are and not pretending to be someone else, even if that self is not perfect!
Please write to me with how you overcame the fear of toasts and impromptu speaking!