Public speaking is exactly like freestyle skiing.
Yes, you read that correctly, public speaking is exactly like freestyle skiing—for a couple of reasons.
At a freestyle skiing contest, before it’s your turn to drop-in and do your run, you’re never alone. You are always accompanied by nerves and a bit of anxiety. Your stress is your body’s way of priming you for what’s you’re about to do. When the competition starter calls your name, you slide into the start gate, and the butterflies get more intense. You hear your name over the loudspeakers as the announcer lets the crowd know you’re ready. Then the starter calls your bib number over the radio, “bib number ___, dropping in 3 – 2 – 1!”
Then you push out of the gate and walk up on stage.
I once had a conversation with a Suz Graham about “the butterflies.” Suz is a BASE jumper, professional skier, skydiver, and no stranger to managing fear. She articulates BASE jumping in the most eloquent way that changed the way I’ve looked at the sport. She told me, “When you get to the edge, those nerves are intense, but it’s just potential energy, and as soon as you step off, it turns it into kinetic energy, and you feel the rush. It’s hard to describe what it’s like. The world could be ending around you in full-blown Armageddon, but all you can see, feel, or focus on is those few moments of free fall.”
I used to think that BASE jumpers were just a bunch of cowboys (or cowgirls in Suz’s case) with a death wish (or a “life” wish, depending on how you look at it), hurling themselves of Buildings, Antennas, Spans, and Earth (BASE). However, there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Whether they’re jumping off a bridge or a cliff, the same nerves accompany them before they “drop-in” like with freestyle skiers. Suz’s theory is that those nerves, the butterflies, they’re just potential energy waiting to become kinetic.
Like BASE jumping and freestyle skiing, public speaking gives you the same nervous energy. The risk of failure pales in comparison. I mean, it’s not likely that you’ll die or get seriously hurt if you screw up on stage, but the nerves are still there because screwing up could mean serious embarrassment. Luckily, like extreme sports, public speaking is extremely rewarding, which is great! Otherwise, we would probably never get up in front of the room.
Most people who fear public speaking don’t know about the rewards. They don’t understand why they might enjoy getting up in front of the room in the first place. Like action sports, there’s a lot more going on under the surface. In BASE jumping, skiing, and speaking, there is a neuro-chemical release in our brains when we do these activities. A combination of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, anandamide, and endorphins release in your brain. These neurochemicals are the same ones that all elite performers experience when in the flow state (better known as, being in “the zone”). They make you feel incredible, and when combined, they’re like a super-hero drug!
The adrenaline and the neurochemicals feel great—especially once you’re finished. In skiing, once you cross the finish line and get a good score from the judges while the crowd cheers, it’s the best feeling. But it’s only once you finish that you get to enjoy the full effect of the neurochemicals. That feeling (the reward) is why you do the sport, and it feels amazing. It keeps you coming back for more, but the thing is, you rarely get the feeling if you’re not a bit nervous before your drop-in.
When speaking in front of a group, there are almost always nerves involved. How you choose to look at the nerves is up to you. You can look at it like Suz and say, they’re just potential energy, meant to keep you on edge, meant to prime you for your performance, OR you can look at it like a freestyle skiing contest:
Once the “starter” calls your name and introduces you to walk on stage, your nerves intensify, but guess what; once you start speaking and make your first points, it’s like landing your first trick. After that, you get into the flow of your run and your performance always falls back on your preparation. So, you have to know your tricks. Speaking, like skiing, is a judged sport. How well you do depends on how well you stick the last landing or your closing comment. Once you drive home your last point, hopefully, the crowd gives you a good score (applause), or even a ‘standing-o,’ or maybe your colleagues give you the respect and admiration you deserve. Whatever the case, all the nervous energy you had to begin with, gets transformed into gratification once you’re finished.
Public speaking is intensely gratifying and that is the reward. It gives you a rush, just like extreme sports, conveniently without the obvious risk of bodily harm. Remember, it’s not about how we do it, it’s about why we do it. Also, almost no one likes public speaking so you’re not unique. Virtually no one likes being in front of an audience, and for that reason, the audience is always on your side. Your listeners are rooting you on from the get-go, so don’t be afraid to “drop-in.”
These are my two cents on why I like public speaking (for what they’re worth). I hope it helps you transform any of your nervous energy into your potential and helps you reframe “the butterflies.” Those nerves are a necessity if you want to enjoy the reward, the rush, and the gratification. I hope you’ll be excited about your next talk, your next meeting, or your next big presentation.