I usually get pretty nervous whenever I have to speak publicly at my job. It’s not that I don’t have a firm grasp of what I’m doing either, it’s just that when all that attention is focused on just me I doubt myself, my own knowledge, whether my words clearly articulate the work I am speaking to, if what I say will define how my peers think of me negatively or positively. So I usually blank out, recede into myself, and pretty much throw out a few phrases that hopefully will have some relation too what I was supposed to be talking about, and then go hide in the back, defeated, wishing I’d done better.
I don’t think this is a problem that’s unique to me either. I’ve taken courses on public speaking in the past, as well as watched numerous videos which are supposed to provide tips and tricks on perfecting this art. A need to teach public speaking wouldn’t exist if it weren’t something that people needed help with.
Despite the steps I’ve taken to try to remedy this consistent problem of mine, I’ve never been quite that successful. At this point in my life, I’ve started to suspect that my problem really has nothing to do with any lack of technical knowledge in regards to public speaking, but with how over-concerned I am about the outcome of what it is that I’m going to say. Will my words be in keeping with the company culture? Will I touch upon the key points necessary to show that I am competent in the subject matter? Will what I say define how upper management sees me and whether or not they consider me for further promotion?
These are real concerns of course. But they press on me too heavily when I am in the middle of trying to speak. Really, I just need to put things in perspective. I am knowledgeable about my field of expertise, I am capable of articulating myself pretty well under normal circumstances, so why can’t I just get on with it? With what I’m supposed to be talking about? After all, whether I do good or bad, the world will keep on turning and business will go on as usual. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, whether or not I put on a good presentation will not affect the entirety of the universe. Maybe my own personal universe, but not the big picture.
Now it’s easy to put things in perspective in this way, but much more difficult to act accordingly. My own personal universe is important, what I do and how I do it might not matter to the universe, but dammit, it matters to me. And that’s perfectly natural. But when this over-concern with the effects of my actions or words stifles or paralyzes me, well then I have a problem don’t I?
When I recognize this paralyzing fear coming on before a day at work when I have to speak in any official capacity, I practice a Stoic meditative exercise that is called The View From Above. The purpose of this exercise is primarily to put our words and actions into perspective, to remind ourselves, in a substantial way, that we are not the center of the universe. In putting ourselves in the context of the larger fabric of existence, we are released from our overwhelming concern about what we are going to say or do next. And it’s not that we don’t care anymore either when we do this, but rather that we are able to care in the correct proportion to the situation. After all, if I am too concerned about my words and actions, like I’ve explained above, I freeze up and am not able to even utter a coherent sentence.
Well, putting things in perspective is easier said than done right? How to do this in a Stoic context? At it’s most basic level, the exercise consists of imagining oneself from the third person and increasing the range of one’s attention from one’s own personal life further and further out until the entirety of the universe is encapsulated in one’s thought.
Many examples of this sort of exercise can be found in the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Now, Marcus was a Roman Emperor who led a very busy and stressful political life, but utilized philosophical practices on a regular basis in order to be the best ruler that he could be under those circumstances. In his personal writings, which have come down to us as the Meditations, we see him using different meditative exercises in order to mentally prepare himself for the daily duties which were required of him, duties which surely must have included public speaking as well.
Here is one such example:
To see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm or stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another, and leave it. Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. (Meditations 9.30)
And here is another:
Think of the universal substance, of which you have a very small portion; and of universal time, of which a short and indivisible interval has been assigned to you; and of that which is fixed by destiny, and how small a part of it you are. (Meditations 5.25)
Marcus would write meditations like these to himself constantly, to remind himself of his place in the universe and how small his own personal troubles and concerns were in relation to them. It was a way for him to achieve the tranquility needed to make level-headed decisions without being distracted with his own emotional attachments.
I’ve never had to run an empire, or a fight in a war, as Marcus did, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t run into the similar problems as he or any of the other Stoic philosophers did. We are after all, human beings. We all fall into the same mental blocks that inhibit us from being the best version of ourselves.
With that being said, I’ve included below a step by step approach to conducting this meditative exercise. This isn’t the only way to do it but it’s the way that’s worked for me.
The following steps are the ones I took to conduct this meditation:
First, I ensured that I set some time aside in the morning before I went to work that was all to myself. This is important because when you conduct this exercise all of your attention must be focused on your train of thought. Any music in background, or loud conversations will be a distraction. If you are naturally the kind of person that can ignore outside sounds and feel that you can do this exercise in a distracting environment, more power to you, but for most of us, a quiet minimally comfortable place will be most appropriate. I tend to just drive to work early and do these sort of exercises ten or fifteen minutes before I head into work.
Second, I made sure that I brought a journal to write in and a pen to write with. For me personally, writing on paper is still the way to go, but since most of us carry a smart device of some sort nowadays, you can pull up any app that lets you write, whether it is a notepad, google docs, even an e-mail app. The important thing here is get the words out of the space of thinking into the space of words. If you find yourself in a situation where you have no tools with which to write, your final resort should be to speak or whisper it to yourself, to verbalize it, not just to think it. Trust me, letting the words take verbal or written form is key for this exercise to have any sort of noticeable effect.
Third, remember that this sort of meditative exercise has a certain sort of structure to it in accordance with it’s purpose. You have the freedom to choose what words you use, what imagery you play with, and how long you write for. All of that is up to you. That’s why I’ve included some samples from Marcus above and why I’m providing a sample of what I wrote to myself below. But, because this exercise is meant to have a definite conclusion, I suggest you shoot for conciseness. When you end this exercise you should be ready to face the day, to meet the world as best as you can, which is all that any of us can do.
So here is what I wrote to myself:
As a human being you have a remarkable ability to think outside of your immediate self. So do this for me now: Let your mind leave this body, this sense of yourself. Let it float away from this parking lot, wander out of the neighborhood, even further past the city limits. Let it traverse the forests and the mountains. Finally, let it step off the beach and walk over the Pacific Ocean. Go further up. Where the air thins, where the vast starry expanse seems to go on forever. Leave this star and it’s planets. Glimpse the churning galaxy as it becomes a pinpoint among pinpoints, each a galaxy unto itself. Further still in the grand emptiness where light has yet to reach you go now. All of the cosmos is no larger than an atom, barely perceptible, it might as well be but a dream. All your cares, all your worries, all your troubles, anxieties, reside there in that place which is barely the size of an atom. Now, get up. Go about your day.