Public speaking makes me nervous. Why?

It should go without saying that Foreign Service Officers have to do a lot of speaking. We have been told that we now have public lives, personal lives, but no private lives. At any moment, we may be called upon to represent U.S. policies. This week we had two exercises to help us prepare.

The first exercise was the prepared speech. With the help of a professional coach, who is excellent, we prepared and delivered a five-minute speech. The speech was delivered in front of a group of our peers, and was video recorded. Afterward, we had peer feedback, feedback from the coach, and we were given a DVD of our speech.

I don’t know why, but I get nervous when I have to speak in a formal setting in front of my peers. I have no nervousness at all when I teach, when I give conference presentations, or when I give Q&A sessions. But when I have to deliver a prepared speech, I get nervous. Why?

I have been reflecting a lot about this lately. I have been doing some serious introspection. I like to use humor to defuse tension and try to make everyone feel more at ease. But a lot of professional context actually have unsuccessful human relationships. Humor can actually prevent people from interacting and making connections with each other. I wonder if I use humor as a defense mechanism, or a way to hide part of myself, or even a way to keep people at a distance.

When I have to give a speech, I have no way to hide.

Some self-help psychologists or life coaches say that people often sabotage themselves, often right when they are about to complete something or reach a goal. Psychologists say that it’s because people are actually afraid of failing. If they trying their hardest and fail, it can be devastating. So, what people sometimes do is quit at the last minute, so even though they never achieve their goal, they never succeed, they can still console themselves by telling themselves that they didn’t fail.

Lately I have been wondering if I hide behind humor. Do I keep people at arm’s length through humor? If I habitually use humor as a shield, then when I am in a position where I can’t, such as when I have to give a speech, I’m really exposing myself in a way that I usually don’t have to. Is that why I get so nervous when I have to give a speech? Do I feel more vulnerable in that circumstance than I usually do in my daily interactions?

Lots to think about.


  1. Your comments about humor have stuck with me and made me think too!

    First, they reminded me of the wonderful lyrics in Joni Mitchell’s “People’s Parties”:

    . . . Cry for Eddie in the corner
    Thinking he’s nobody
    And Jack behind his joker
    And stone-cold Grace behind her fan
    And me in my frightened silence
    Thinking I don’t understand . . .

    So, yes, the implication, here at least, is that Jack can hide himself behind his laughter and that this is a sad, pathetic way to interact with people, something to mourn.

    A couple of observations:

    By the end of the song, Joni wishes she:

    . . . had more sense of humor
    Keeping the sadness at bay
    Throwing the lightness on these things
    Laughing it all away
    Laughing it all away
    Laughing it all away

    I like this, throwing a lightness on these things. Often, especially with friends who take everything little thing so seriously, I will make fun or be silly or use irony or whatever, just to throw a lightness on the heavy world they have built over and around themselves. Usually doesn’t help them much, but at least I don’t allow their world to burden me as well. Always feel that if people trapped by their own earnestness could see things with humor the lightness would be salutary and liberating. Of course, the repetition of “Laughing it all away” three times as the song fades away sets a melancholy mood and undermines the long-term wisdom of this approach. Maybe. Back to the critique of Jack.

    Second, to stick with Jack, he could be with his joker and not behind it. Humor not as a disguise or mask, but as part of one’s self. No reason why we humans can’t be with humor rather than behind it–even though Jesus never laughed, not in the Bible anyway. :^)

    Third, there’s humor and then there’s humor. Humor can be cutting, crude, distracting. All can be used to keep people at arm’s length. But humor can be clever and appealing too—I’d rather have friends with humor like that. And most importantly, a teasing humor that relies on intimate and personal knowledge of the other, that relies on your common experiences, can be one of the most pleasant and acceptable ways of expressing friendship and love.

    Finally, discomfort in giving a speech may have more to do with performing and assuming an unnatural role that one doesn’t feel comfortable with, laying one’s competences on the line where the consequences matter. Besides, the best speeches often contain elements of humor, something, if successful, shows cultural commonalities between speaker and audience, predisposing the audience to find commonality in any forthcoming values, actions, or decisions that the speaker will present to them.

  2. I try to use humor as a tool to get a sense of a person, as social lubrication and occasionally as a way to point out the elephant in the room. I suppose though that I do use it as a way to distance myself at times.

    In professional and social settings when I meet someone new I feel a near unbearable awkwardness that doesn’t subside until I have a sense of their personality. If I will be working with them these feelings tend to prevent me from interacting productively with them and I try to use humor to relieve some of that tension. Starting off with gentle, bland but vaguely humorous observations or explanations. Then slowly working up to greater levels of sarcasm until I feel that I hit their comfort level. Occasionally in order to make a point or to circumvent everyone dancing around a subject I will use a more pointed or possibly cruder joke to cut through the fluff.

    From a public speaking perspective though, humor is difficult. When you are making a public speech and want to include humor you have to decide am I going to plan out a joke here or just try to improvise. Both have their drawbacks, planned jokes have a greater risk of falling flat and sounding rehearsed whereas improv can sound more natural. On the other hand with improv you run the risk of going too far and distracting from your intended message.

    As for using humor to deflect or hide I’m guilty of that as well. In many ways it’s too easy to hide behind the “IT guy” persona so as to avoid interacting with others and allow my Id to run wild. Certainly one downside to this behavior is that it reinforces what I like to call my Roy tendencies where I am easily frustrated with other people’s concerns when they don’t strictly overlap with mine.

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