On a recent Sunday evening, I watched a friend 'graduate' from a beginner's class for stand-up comedians.
Needless to say, I saw many levels of competence and talent as the nine students gave their 10 minute 'commencement speeches' before an audience of perhaps 250, mostly friends and family.
Some, obviously, would never make it to prime time. Others have a good chance, given determination and patience. But, what's striking is that they all got up on the stage and did their acts.
I know it takes courage to stand up on a stage and deliver a conventional speech, and it must take even more to deliver a comedy monologue, especially for the first time.
If you've itched to take the stage, but fear holds you back, perhaps their example will give you the extra push you need to take the plunge. The good news is that you can overcome that fear. And you overcome it with two things: knowledge and practice.
Knowledge refers to the strategies, tactics, and techniques used by speakers, and involves learning about the many, diverse elements that go into a speech or presentation.
In a properly-managed learning process you work with the elements individually. In one speech you'll focus on the way you stand, in another you'll focus on what you're doing with your hands, and so on.
With practice, each element becomes more natural and eventually you'll master and incorporate them all into your speeches - without even thinking about them.
Personally, my big challenge was eye contact. With a background in radio, I had lots of experience with speaking to others, speaking to literally thousands of people at a time. But, put me in a room with a dozen people looking back and I felt that gut-wrenching chill that novice speakers know so well. After a few speeches, though, I was over it. I had enough knowledge of the mechanics of speaking to get over my fear.
That takes us to the matter of practice. The only way you'll learn to use your newfound knowledge is through practice - standing in front of an audience and using what you've learned.
The elements only become natural and automatic through practice. And here's a bonus: you also become increasingly familiar with what happens in the audience as you speak. That allows you to adjust your content or presentation on the fly, to get the results you want.
For me, the path to enjoyable public speaking - and I now love it - came through Toastmasters. If you're not familiar with it, it's a non-profit organization, made up of local clubs, where aspiring speakers learn from each other. I strongly recommend it. And, hey! If you go on to do a comedy act in front of a crowd one day, maybe I'll be cheering for you.
In summary, don't think of public speaking as one big leap; think instead of learning a series of elements one by one, and increasing your proficiency with them through practice.