Friday, January 15, 2010

Public Speaking on the subject of ghosts: get over the phobia

(above; a talk at Borders Bookstore for the opening of the movie "1408")

It’s inevitable that at some point in your work in the ghost hunting field that you will be asked to speak publicly. I admit, fear of public speaking is not one of my phobias. I really enjoy talking to people about my findings and my experiences and whether it’s one-on-one or in front of a large group, I treat it exactly the same. You won’t get a stuffy stilted public speaker. I’m kind of folksy and personable like I am on the blog. I don’t have a pretentious bone in my body. Sometimes, I’m waving my long arms like Julia Roberts in her lanky awkwardness, other times, I’m snorting with laughter. I don't see the exercise as an opportunity for others to shoot me down or make fun of me or laugh at me. I learned long ago that, by being who I really am with my closest friends and relatives, people see me as a real person up there and that means I can make mistakes, forget what I was going to say, and all is forgiven because I'm just so "real."

I don’t plan a speech. I don’t use note cards unless there’s a lot of points I have to make. I simply wing it. The crowd usually shows me what they want to talk about. A ghost hunting interest group is likely to have a lot of questions and want to hear stories of what you’ve experienced. Between those two things, the time goes real fast.

How does one handle the fear of public speaking? Well, it didn’t come naturally for me. Although my father was an important lecturer, I was extremely introverted and shy like my mother until some time in junior high when I did a science oral report on ghosts and ectoplasm. The entire classroom erupted in questions about my scary house and ghost experiences and suddenly I forgot I was scared to have people staring at me and I realized—we’re all in the same boat. They came to hear about the subject and I came to talk about it. While I was talking about what ghosts are made out of and how we can prove the properties of ectoplasm, they were sitting out there desperate to raise their hands and anxious to ask questions, equally nervous by having to stand and ask a question that may or may not be regarded as “stupid” by me. They actually wanted my approval as much as I wanted theirs!

Imagine how great it is to do public speaking about something you love with people who love the subject? I felt like one of the crowd out there rather than the person behind the lectern. When I realized that public speaking isn’t static and it’s not just about me talking, but was also about them thinking and wanting to participate, something clicked inside. From that time on, I was the first to volunteer to talk in class.

My advice is to talk frequently with friends and family on the subject until you feel comfortable that you have a stand and attitude about it. This includes reporting stories of what you’ve experienced in the field. The key things the audience really wants are stories of the unexplained and they will have lots of questions, some of which will surprise you. Some of the strange ones I'm frequently asked are can ghosts can have sex with you? Can a ghost follow you home? and do they watch you bathing?

When you go from talking to those close to you about your exciting interests, sharing it with a larger group becomes much easier. My father used to tell me he’d envision people sitting naked in the audience. I am such an immature little girl that I can’t help but giggle like mad if I do that. There comes a time when it’s just easier to say, “you know, they’re people, I’m people, we’re all here to talk about this, let’s just get the conversation rolling and I’ll be the one to speak first.”

More often then you know, someone in the audience will start a whole new subject and you’ll be off on tangents. You can always include the audience which makes them much more comfortable too. You can ask, “have any of you experienced a ghost?” or “Do any of you know what to do in that situation?” Become the interviewer instead of the interviewee. There is absolutely no difference from talking with a crowd as there is talking one-on-one with someone you know. You ask questions, you knock around ideas, you hypothesize, you give opinions, you chuckle, you come to a conscensus.

In my mind, it’s pretty obvious. You have your Martha Stewarts who are extremely self- conscious, jilted, awkward with emotions, and don’t really listen to their own guests because they’re in their own head, plotting their next move. Then, you have your Sandra Bullocks who are awkward, goofy, personable, warm, and really want to hear what you have to say. If I were to take a poll, I’m quite confident that 95 out of 100 of you (easily) would prefer to have a conversation with Sandra rather than Martha. You’re not up there to be judged or critiqued. You’re there to pass on information as a “village elder.” The audience seeks comfort, knowledge, answers, and wisdom.

Just remember if you fear them, they will think you have something to hide. If you scorn them, they will think you are egotistical. If you are shy, they will think you have no courage. But, if you embrace them, they will embrace you back.

Just think of yourself as their host in your home. As a true southern woman, I understand charm, flirtation, and especially making people feel immediately relaxed and comfortable. I use precisely those techniques when speaking to small groups or large groups. Something happens when you quit expecting yourself to be perfect and when you quit expecting others to be perfect; suddenly you all are in the same human boat. There is no easier way to get over fear and scorn of humanity than to say "we're all just a bunch of kids in adult clothing." When you're in the same boat, you become company with each other instead of higher-ups and grunts. So, my advice is to quit asking yourself to be without discernible flaw (the Martha Stewart syndrome) and be real and human. Embrace your personality, whether you're a crusty old coot or a goofy giddy socialite. Do not try to emulate anyone else up there. Be the real you that everyone that knows you sees and talks to every day.

It really comes down to this; remember you are talking with them---not at them.


  1. in college, in a couple of classes, i got all nervous and hated it.
    for my very first job, i had to speak in front of groups sometimes, at community centers, colleges and elementary schools. at first i was so nervous, but then after a few times, it was no problem. in recent years, i led a few classes in art at my son's elementary school and i did not enjoy it at all. i know i'm a wimp :{

  2. Sandra;
    It sounds like you've gotten comfortable in your own skin. It really comes across when talking in public. I've noticed (talking at SciFi conventions) that the nerds have the hardest time of it. They aren't comfortable in their own bodies yet and their confidence in their intelligence hasn't progressed into other areas of their self view. A well rounded person comes across as just being comfortable and okay with being gawky or goofy and takes that as part of their personality. I think of people like George Clooney and Colin Farrell and women like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock as just being comfortable in their skin. I suspect you're very charming to listen to and when it's a subject you love like art, your excitement is probably contagious! Go girl!

  3. I have the hardest time with public speaking. Maybe because in my household we spoke english but parents spoke spanish. I once took a class on public speaking and I was so scared that I did a demonstration: I demonstrated how to put on false eyelashes. At the time, I wore them every day and I was comfortable with that...

    So I understand your point. Wish I could attend one of your lectures.

  4. Paula;
    You made a great point--talk about something you really know and then it becomes a conversation instead of a speech. My goal is that by this summer I figure out how to get some videos up on my blog. I'd like to do some posts talking to folks and making it real, maybe demonstrating equipment or showing them haunted sites. My old computer wouldn't support it, but this new one will. Just need to get some time aside to figure out how to do it. Then, you'll be able to kind of see me public speaking, or I should really call it public chatting :-)