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Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

Numerous studies confirm what we already know: People fear speaking in public. In one academic study, over 40% of people claim public speaking is their biggest fear. This post addresses two important questions:

  • Why do people fear speaking in public? 
  • What can you do to overcome the fear?

To overcome the fear of public speaking, we must first understand the root cause.

Why the Fear of Public Speaking?

Scott Berkun, a best selling author, offers an excellent explanation:

The design of the brain’s wiring—given its long operational history, hundreds of thousands years older than the history of public speaking … makes it impossible to stop fearing what it knows is the worst tactical position for a person to be in.

That “worst tactical position” is standing alone, in an open place, facing a large group of creatures staring at you. As Berkun puts it:

Being in this situation meant the odds were high that you would soon be attacked and eaten alive … Our ancestors, the ones who survived, developed a fear response to these situations.

Fear Public Speaking

Understanding that our brain can’t tell the difference between a real threat (a pack of wolves chasing after us) and an imagined threat (the audience watching us present) is important when it comes to analysing the cause of public speaking fear.

Another point to consider is that a certain amount of fear just occurs naturally. When the human body gets ready for any big event, it starts sending out signals which cause bursts of adrenaline to be released. And it’s this adrenaline which causes the symptoms associated with fear, for example, feeling flushed or nervous before a presentation.

Breaking the Cycle

Here are 7 practical techniques you can apply to help you manage performance anxiety, so you can focus instead on the key messages in your speech:

Fear Public Speaking

1) Spend Time Preparing

The first thing that you can easily do to tackle any fear of public speaking is dedicate some time to effective preparation. It’s a simple fact that the more you know about the presentation, including your target audience, the topic, the speech structure and physical venue, the more relaxed you will feel while standing in front of the audience and delivering your speech.

2) Practise, Practise, Practise

Along with effective preparation comes practise, and lots of it!

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail – Benjamin Franklin

Numerous research has shown that practising what you plan to say during the presentation helps to eliminate fear. Practising in front of other people is the best way, but rehearsing in front of a mirror is also useful.

Fear Public Speaking

Learn more in the Speech Preparation Series

3) Visualise Success In Advance

Yet another useful piece of advice related to the preparation phase is to visualise success in advance. Visualisation is a powerful mental rehearsal tool that you can apply, by picturing yourself successfully delivering the presentation, from introduction to conclusion. Closing your eyes and concentrating on all the positives of the presentation, you can literally trick the brain into believing you’ve been in the exact situation of making that same preparation before.

4) Adopt a Positive Mental Attitude

Attitude is an important factor when it comes to public speaking. It’s important to adopt a ‘Positive Mental Attitude’. In preparing for a speech, you may have a tendency to ask yourself negative questions, such as “What will happen if I forget my material?” or “What if I mess up?” This only serves the heighten the fear. To be effective you must replace negative vibes with positive ones.

Fear Public Speaking

5) Power Pose Before the Presentation

‘Power Pose’ is a phrase coined by the Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy. In her hugely successful TED video, Cuddy explains how striking a number of expansive poses, such as the CEO pose (legs resting on desk, and arms behind your head) for as little as two minutes before you head for the stage, results in a higher level of testosterone in the body.

Testosterone is the hormone linked to power in both animals and humans. These poses also serve to lower cortisol levels, the hormone of stress.

You can easily apply Cuddy’s ‘Power Pose’ technique to the benefit of your public speaking skills. Practising some of these poses before making a presentation will help to lower stress levels and anxiety and give you an overall boost in confidence before taking to the stage.

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6) Take Some Deep Breaths and Pauses

Now that you’ve made it to the actual speaking stage, what can you do to perform at your best?

An interesting way to overcome any nerves is to regulate breathing. When we’re nervous, we tend to breathe rapidly and shallowly. When we’re in control, we breathe slowly. By simply taking a few deep breaths during your speech you can come across confident and in control – and this will impress your audience.

In ‘The King’s Speech’ a movie about the true story of King George VI and his journey to effective public speaking, one of the strategies the speech therapist uses to help the king overcome his stuttering is the use of pauses. Pausing helped the king regain his composure whenever he was gripped by anxiety. We can apply it in the exact same way. Coupled with slow breathing, pauses will have a calming affect and instantly improve the delivery of your speech.

7) Think of it as a Conversation With Friends

The final piece of advice is to treat every presentation as a series of person-to-person conversations. By reminding yourself of this you can shift the focus away from the fear-inducing thoughts of the chasing pack of wolves that was mentioned earlier.

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Final Thoughts

The reality is that no matter how much you prepare and practise, some fear will always exist. As mentioned at the beginning of the post, a certain amount of fear is natural. It keeps the juices flowing.

There are however some steps you can take to minimise the effect of fear on your public speaking. It all begins with effective preparation and practise. A positive attitude will go a long way. Visualising success and power posing will build confidence. Deep breaths and pauses will add control and clarity to your speech.

As a final note, I firmly believe that the best way to overcome a fear of public speaking is to actually speak more often. My advice would be to seek out opportunities to speak publicly. Practise helps us improve, day by day.