Be the Lion, Not the Antelope: Beat your Fear of Speaking

As a regular public speaker and comedian, and the host of events such The Next Web, Accenture Innovation Awards and the Nordic Business Forum, Pep Rosenfeld is no stranger to the stage. Here he explains how to turn public speaking from an ordeal into a pleasure. This post was adapted by Pep’s original post here.


Summer is winding up which means back to the real world of business. For many of us, this means speaking to groups, giving presentations, making sales, and other forms of (gulp!) public speaking. And sorry; I know that just reading the words, “public” and “speaking” are enough to make many people order another stiff drink at the beach bar.

Why? Why are people so afraid of talking in front of people? While there are a bunch of theories, my favorite is one I heard a few years ago, ie that the phobia’s origin is evolutionary.

Being on stage conjures up old memories buried deep in the primitive brain, memories of our fight-or-flight days as undeveloped, not-quite-humans. Back then, seeing that many eyes staring at you meant you were about to be dinner. This is why so many speakers over-rely on their PowerPoint. That's their way of saying, “Don't eat me; eat THAT!”

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I prefer to look at it from the point of view of your audience. The set-up of a talk, pitch or story also conjures up a primitive memory for them. This is the memory of smaller pack animals like hyenas. The memory tells them they can beat a smaller animal, like an antelope. But if they come up against something like a lion, they know they're outgunned.

So now they have to decide: are you the lion, and they should respect you? Or are you the antelope, and they should eat you? Your job is simple: be the lion, not the antelope.

Start off as the lion...

In most cases, the audience comes in respecting you and wanting to listen to you. Even in a sales situation where you might not feel high status, you've been asked to pitch for a reason. They want you to be the lion.

The bad news is that over the course of their talk, many speakers, no matter what their actual subject, end up telling the audience, “Don't worry about me; I'm just an antelope!” They demonstrate their discomfort and fear – sometimes even offering on-stage apologies for some mistake that only they noticed. This tells the listener, “Feel free to check your phone while I talk.” Or even worse: “bon appétit!"

So how do Communication Lions speak?

A Communication Lion has body language that says they own the stage. You don't have to be Amy Cuddy to know that acting confident can not only convince your audience that you know what you're talking about, but it can actually convince you as well. And you know how: shoulders back. Head high. Make eye contact (but not the creepy kind). 

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Communication Lions use their tools with confidence. Real lions have claws and teeth. You've got your voice, your words and your emotions – so don't be afraid to roar in order to command attention! Choose your words carefully: don't use too many or over-explain things. That's what antelopes do. 

And know that your facial expressions and your eyes matter too. You can't be shifty-eyed or avoid people's gaze. You're an original Lion King lion, not a remake Lion King lionand your face matters. 

Don’t let anything put you off

Most importantly, Communication Lions do everything they do like lions – even especially dealing with mistakes and surprises. Because the unexpected will happen. A question you didn't expect. The power to your microphone goes out. The clicker has a mind of its own. How you respond tells the audience – and yourself – about your level of confidence and comfort. 

A lion can't prevent the unexpected. And no one can actually expect the unexpected. But you can deal with the unexpected as if you're enjoying it. Own it. Don't be thrown. You got this. You're a lion.

Finally, a lion is not the same thing as a bully. Just because you're confident doesn't mean you're insulting or mean. A lion never throws the tech team under the bus when the aforementioned unexpected happens. Does a lion make fun of people, places and things that go wrong? Of course! But a true Communication Lion never hurts anyone with their humor – they don't have to. Their status comes from within, not from taking down the poor antelopes in the room. 

So Be The Lion. And let your audience worry about fight or flight instead of you. (The reaction to seeing a lion has never been better explained than