FEARLESS - The Ultimate Guide To Conquering Your Fear Of Public Speaking
If you're struggling with public speaking anxiety, you're in the right place to learn how to overcome it.
- Next Steps
Do you avoid opportunities to make presentations?
Do you dodge requests to make a toast when you get together with family and friends?
Does the idea of standing on a stage and speaking in front of a crowd make you shudder?
If so, you aren’t alone. I used to be afraid to speak in public too. My hands used to start sweating and my shoulders bounced up and down. Instead of butterflies, it felt like screws turning in my stomach. But I overcame my fears and now I teach others to do the same as a professional public speaking coach.
This blog is here to help you understand why you fear public speaking and what you can do about it. You can go from hiding in the wings to taking center stage, it just takes a little practice.
Let’s start by uncovering the reasons why people fear public speaking.
Chapter 1: Why We Fear Public Speaking
Research tells us that many people have a fear of public speaking. How big that fear varies.
Some people fall into the “I’d rather not” category while others have a full-blown social anxiety disorder. There’s even a clinical name for this type of fear--glossophobia (derived from the Greek word meaning tongue.)
You may have even heard about the studies saying that some people fear public speaking more than death. The truth is, most people don’t fear public speaking more than death. And, we fear a lot of other stuff more than either of those things.
In the 2017 Chapman Survey of American Fears, government corruption, oil spills, and identity theft all ranked higher than both public speaking and death on people’s “afraid or very afraid” lists. (Death was number 48 on the list and public speaking was number 52.)
But just because public speaking isn’t the worst thing you can imagine doesn’t mean you look forward to or seek out opportunities to take the stage.
Why is that? Stepping up to make a presentation or speaking in front of a large audience is a great way to boost your career and demonstrate your abilities. So why would people want to avoid it?
Uncovering why we are so afraid of public speaking.
Just as not everybody has the same level of aversion to public speaking, not everybody has the same reason for avoiding it. Researchers believe there are several different factors that contribute to our natural tendency to avoid putting ourselves out there through public speaking.
I’ve put together a list of four public speaking fears based on those factors. One or more of them may be the cause of your speech anxiety.
But don’t worry, I’ll give you some solutions to these fears later in this book.
When you stand up to speak, even among friends, you stand out from the crowd. Of course, in modern times, that’s the whole idea. You want to stand up and be noticed.
But imagine what it was like when human beings faced danger from predators. Your primal brain knows that when there’s danger present, creatures who stand out and make noise don’t survive long. So when you begin thinking about making a speech, there’s a part of your brain that’s yelling NO! You’re going to get us eaten!
This fear is similar to the throwback fear but based on the present. When you take to the stage, you are physically on display. Everyone is looking at you and can see your every flaw--or at least that’s what your brain is telling you. And it isn’t just your physical presence that is under scrutiny. You are also putting your words and ideas out there to be judged.
To be any kind of public performer requires a willingness to open yourself up to others’ criticism. Yuck! Right?
This fear is particularly powerful when you don’t speak in public often or are speaking to an unfamiliar group. As human beings, we crave certainty. I mean, who wants to be caught off guard in front of an audience? The fewer details you know about the who, what, when, and where of your speaking engagement, the more stressed you will feel about it.
You know the saying, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. You aren’t going to feel secure about your presentation or speech if you haven’t studied the materials so that you know what you’re talking about. Of course, sometimes practicing in advance isn’t an option. You’ll also feel the effects of unpreparedness if someone asks you for an impromptu presentation or speech. In those instances, your preparation is learning how to stay cool under pressure.
In the next chapter, I’ll share tips to help you recognize which type of fear you are dealing with.
Are you ready to raise your self-awareness and become less self-conscious about public speaking? Let’s go!
Chapter 2: What's Going On?
Now that you have a better understanding of why you might feel anxious about speaking in public, let’s look at what that anxiety does to you and how our brain and body react to speaking in public.
Your response to a public speaking date may be physical, verbal, or non-verbal. It can even be a combination of all three. How you react will depend on why you are feeling anxious and just how bad your fear is.
In this chapter, I’m going to ask you some questions to help you identify some of your speech anxiety symptoms. Because knowledge is power! Once you know how you respond to your fears, you can begin working to control and modify those responses.
How Does Your Body React?
First, let’s revisit that primal fear thing I mentioned in Chapter 1. When you feel that kind of fear, your body responds by jumping into fight-or-flight mode. Adrenaline and other hormones can cause your heart to beat fast and increase your blood pressure. Your face may become flushed and you may start to sweat. Before your big event, you may have trouble sleeping or feel nauseous too.
There’s nothing like a headache and an acid stomach to make you want to talk in front of a group of strangers, right?
But remember, these reactions are your body’s response to what your brain is telling it. Change your mindset and you may be able to make some, or all, of these symptoms, go away. I’ll talk more about that in the next chapter.
How Does Your Fear impact Your Speaking Ability?
The physical symptoms of anxiety are pretty easy to recognize, but you might not be quite as familiar with the verbal and non-verbal symptoms. According to glossophobia.com, verbal symptoms may include stuttering or stammering. Some people develop stage fright that is so severe that they can’t speak at all!
If you find yourself at a loss for words when you are asked to answer a question in a meeting or meet someone new, it could be your speech anxiety getting the better of you.
What Are You Doing Or Not Doing Because Of Your Fear?
Finally, there are the non-verbal responses to your public speaking fear. For most of us, this one is easy. You don’t like speaking to groups of people, you avoid speaking to groups of people. That’s just standard procedure for humans when we are faced with something we don’t want to do.
Think about it. Do you always recommend someone else when an opportunity to speak at work comes up? Why aren’t you volunteering? Do you explain away your reluctance to talk at social events by saying you’re shy?
To overcome your fears, you have to become self-aware. Look out for the symptoms and signs that your fear is holding you back. Once you know how you respond to your fears, you can start applying the strategies to manage them. Let's talk about that next.
Chapter 3: The Struggle Is Real
Speech anxiety, stage fright, glossophobia--whatever you call it, anxiety affects performers at every level.
Skilled actors, athletes, singers, musicians, public speakers, and thought leaders experience various types of public speaking or performance fears just like the rest of us.
In a 2012 article examining the phenomenon, The Guardian’s Matt Trueman tells us that Laurence Olivier is said to have called it “the actor’s nightmare.” Other performers called the sensation paralyzing and terrifying.
According to Scott Stossel in his article for The Atlantic, Performance Anxiety in Great Performers, Thomas Jefferson is thought to have suffered from social phobia and is known to have given only two public speeches during his time as president. Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi were notably affected by public speaking anxiety, too.
J.K. Rowling expressed her feelings about public speaking in a 2016 tweet writing, “Public speaking. I agreed to read live at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in the belief that it would either kill or cure me.”
So what do people who appear to take the stage with ease do to overcome their fears?
Let’s take a look.
How People In The Public Spotlight Manage Their Fears And Anxiety.
Envisioning success. Meryl Streep told People Magazine that while she doesn’t fear performing a fictitious role, speaking as herself is another matter entirely. Streep uses visualization to get past her fears, imagining herself speaking successfully.
Turning weaknesses into strengths. Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to his fear was to use it as a guide. In his book, An Autobiography Or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi says of his fear, “My shyness has been in reality my shield and my buckler. It has allowed me to grow.”
Gandhi explains that because he was reluctant to speak, he chose each of his words carefully. This thoughtful consideration allowed him to avoid “many a mishap and waste of time.” His words were all the more powerful because he allowed others to see his vulnerabilities.
Singer and songwriter Megan Washington chooses to speak through her vulnerability, too. In her 2014 TedxSydney presentation, she told audience members that her speech impediment caused her to dread speaking. Washington worked to overcome her fears through speech therapy and self-acceptance. She chooses to continue to speak, not letting the occasional stutter get in her way.
Blood pressure medication? Pianist Sara Solovitch, author of the book Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright, employed a combination of methods to overcome her fears. In her 2015 article for readers of The New York Times, Overcoming a Lifetime of Stage Fright, she writes that her efforts included exposure therapy and taking a beta blocker (a.k.a. “the public speaking pill”) to counter the very real physical effects of panic.
Get used to it. Despite recording over 200 live performances a year, late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon is no stranger to stage fright either. In an interview for webMD, Fallon says, “I get nervous all the time.” Continual exposure, or desensitization, plus attention to his physical well-being are Fallon’s secrets to beating speech anxiety.
Managing your thoughts and managing your mindset. The most effective way that most people don't know about is to manage your anxiety-provoking thoughts and mindset to overcome public speaking fear. Anxiety and fear are driven by your interpretation of the situations and events in front of you. By becoming aware of the thoughts and beliefs you have, you'll start working on the cause of your speaking anxiety. I have in-depth training that goes into this. You can register for it here.
Oh, and in case you are wondering how J.K. Rowling’s Olympian challenge turned out?
Well, she’s still with us.
In a follow-up post, she told her followers that, as an introvert, speaking still isn’t easy---but she no longer shakes uncontrollably when asked to speak.
In the next chapter, let's work on some solutions to help you ease your fear of speaking.
Chapter 4: Your No-Fear Speaking Plan
At the beginning of this ebook, I promised to help you not just understand why you fear public speaking but also show you what you can do about it. Now it’s time to make good on that promise.
We know that feeling anxious before giving a speech or public performance is natural. And, we know that if you are one of the people who dreads speaking up in a group, whether large or small, you aren’t alone.
Now, what are you going to do about it? The answer to that question depends on what is causing your fears and how your body and mind are responding.
I’m going to offer solutions to the common causes and reactions that I wrote about in the previous chapters. Then, you’ll need to match your personal situation with the best solutions for you.
Throwback fear counterattacks
This fear is almost instinctual. Your brain is sending out signals and telling your body how to respond without consulting with you about it first. To overcome this fear, you have to interrupt that signal. Treat this fear as you would any phobia.
Practice mindfulness and relaxation exercises that help your conscious brain regain control of the situation. Begin to desensitize yourself to your fear of speaking in public by taking small steps toward your eventual goal. And, help your mind face your fears by imagining the worst-case scenario and how you would work through it.
Vulnerability fear counterattacks
Since this fear is similar to the throwback fear, the methods for overcoming it are also similar. Visualizing your worst-case scenario and telling yourself it’s not so bad is particularly effective for this fear.
Self-acceptance is important too. To be able to stand on a stage and say what you want to say, you have to accept that not everyone will agree. You have to decide that you are okay with not pleasing everyone.
Giving your self-confidence a boost will help defeat this fear as well. Prior to taking the stage, practice your power pose and pump up your energy. Give yourself permission to engage in a little vanity. Go ahead and buy that outfit that makes you look your best. Get a fresh haircut, manicure, or facial (just do it a week or so before the event--you don’t want a styling catastrophe to happen the day before you take the stage!)
And, remember, your willingness to be vulnerable will power your message.
Uncertainty fear counterattacks
To overcome fears caused by uncertainty, give yourself permission to ask questions. Maybe you feel like you shouldn’t bother an event organizer because they are busy--organizing an event.
It is the organizer’s job to make sure you know everything necessary for you to appropriately prepare for your appearance. So, ask away. Ask about your audience, the backstage setup, anything you need to know to feel secure. And if you have time, visit the venue in advance.
What if you are asked to speak without advance notice? Come up with a plan for impromptu requests. Similar to an elevator speech, this plan should include your pre-memorized selection of stories and quips that you can use to speak on the fly. Practice general conversation skills such as asking questions and active listening. Then, when you are put on the spot, deploy those skills with confidence.
Unpreparedness fear counterattacks
How do you overcome the fear that wells up inside you when you just aren’t ready for your big day? Get ready!
If you are a procrastinator, implement a strict regimen to put a stop to your stalling. Give yourself pre-deadlines and reward yourself for staying ahead of schedule. If you are going to speak without notes, practice until you no longer sound as if the speech has been memorized. Whatever you plan to do, make sure you have plenty of time to practice and revise. That should keep the I’m not ready!!! fear in its closet.
Now, about those responses to fear--the physical, verbal, and non-verbal.
Addressing The Symptoms Of Speech Anxiety
How you manage your physical symptoms of anxiety will depend on just how severe they are.
There are various medications used to treat general or specific anxieties that can help you as you work to overcome your fear of public speaking. Some medications affect how the brain processes your fears. Others, such as the beta-blockers mentioned in the previous chapter, treat the physical symptoms of your anxiety. Cognitive behavior therapy and other counseling methods can also help you learn to remain calm when taking the stage.
For less severe anxiety, simple solutions include keeping a cloth in your pocket to dry your sweating palms or sipping water to quench your dry mouth.
Verbal symptoms of anxiety may include speechlessness or stuttering. You may want to enlist the assistance of a speech therapist or other counselor to help you work through these reactions. Some speakers have been able to loosen their tongues with hypnosis or other deep relaxation techniques.
Now, about those non-verbal reactions to your fear. Countering these is a matter of mind over matter. Once you recognize that you are avoiding situations as a result of your fear, you have to actively choose a different reaction. Again, mindfulness or cognitive behavior therapy may help. Or, maybe you’ll just make a deal with yourself and agree that the next time you start to say no to a speaking opportunity you’ll say yes instead. After all, J.K. Rowling survived.
Of course, this is just a sampling of the methods you can use to overcome your fear of public speaking. Even though the fear is common, your fears are unique to you and will require a personalized approach. If you’d like to investigate further, there is an extensive collection of suggestions for treating phobias at HelpGuide.org.
As a public speaking coach, helping my clients overcome their fears is part of what I do. So remember, you aren’t alone and you can overcome your fears. I hope this book helps you do just that.
To Your Speaking Success,
- Kit Pang
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