Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Afraid of Public Speaking? Try Crossing a High Wire

What can the seemingly fearless teach us about fear?

Take a look at an interview with Philippe Petit, the tightrope artist who crossed a high wire linking the Twin Towers. (His story is the plot of Man on Wire, the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature):

Given Mr. Petit's steadiness at 1,500 feet and his entrepreneur's resilience, it's fair to ask what does rattle him.

"I am very human and full of little stupid fears on earth," Mr. Petit says. "I have problems with big dogs showing their teeth. And centipedes and tarantulas. But up there, I have no fear. And I have no fear, I feel, out of working on it, knowing my subject, not out of not wanting to know."

"That," he said with characteristic seriousness of purpose, "would be death in my profession."

(New York Sun, July 2008)

This is not the answer I expected to hear.

I thought Mr. Petit would say that he is afraid when he can't get out of his head. Yet instead he says that it is knowing his subject that allows him to conquer his fear of it.

Of course, one has to imagine that when Mr. Petit is actually on the high wire, he survives because he is able to quiet his mind. Yet, what enables him to do that is the preparation he does beforehand - his absolute knowledge of his subject.

So unfortunately for those of us who like to wing it (I am often guilty of this), there is no substitute for thorough and thoughtful preparation.

From the Green Room: Prepare. Prepare some more. Then trust yourself.


Anonymous said...

Right up there (literally!) with Petit's preparation is his concentration. Having just watched the fabulous documentary, Man on Wire, I was struck by how, for Petit, fierce concentration and a sense of fun are not at all mutually exclusive -- something to keep in mind when a public speaking presentation itself begins to feel like a high wire act.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but what he does is so scary--are you saying we should approach public speaking as a terrifying experence? I'd love to hear someone successful like you write about your own path through fear

Sarah Gershman said...

The lesson I learn from Petit is not to approach public speaking as a terrifying experience, but rather to take the preparation piece seriously.

Thank you for asking me to write about my path through fear. I look forward to exploring that in a future post!