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How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

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This post is part of a series called Presentation Fundamentals.
Writing Speeches That Grab Your Audience from the Opening Sentence
PowerPoint 101: Everything You Need to Make a Basic Presentation

In the early 1990's, comedian Jerry Seinfeld added a joke to his stand-up routine that has since become something of a legend, at least in public speaking circles.

"According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking," Seinfeld's gag began. "Number two is death."

"Now this means, to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."

The idea that public speaking is more scary than death has become common lore. But is it really true?

The first point to note is that even if it is true for most people, it doesn't have to be true for you. All of us have within us the power to confront our fears (and typically our phobias too) until the level of anxiety associated with them becomes manageable. Even if right now you'd rather jump off a cliff than speak on a stage, you have the power to change that (and please, stand back from the cliff edge).

Second, it's worth noting that what Seinfeld called "most studies" was most likely just a single study conducted in 1973. Researchers asked 3,000 Americans the question "What are you most afraid of?" Many respondents named more than one fear.

The results were as follows:

Speaking before a group came top, cited by 41% of respondents. Next came heights, with 32%, followed by insects and bugs at 22%. Then financial problems, deep water, sickness.

Death came in seventh place, cited by 19% of respondents, and was marginally ahead of flying.

So what does this mean? Notice that the study isn't particularly scientific. It asked people to list fears off the top of their heads. It didn't ask respondents to rank their fears. And it didn't test their anxiety levels when confronted with those fears.

Even taking the study at face value, it's not as drastic as Seinfeld makes out. Public speaking might have been higher on the list than death. But then so were heights, insects, sickness and deep water. What's more, the majority of people surveyed (59%) didn't even name public speaking as a fear.

If you're one of the 41% of people for whom public speaking is a major fear, this article is for you. I'm going to show you a series of small steps and mindset tweaks you can make to develop your public speaking skills. By following these strategies, you'll gradually grow in confidence.

But first, let's look at why you might want to learn public speaking. Is there any reason to challenge your fears when your life feels comfortable as it is?

Why Speak in Public?

So you want to speak in front of a group? Or perhaps you've been asked to do so as part of your job. Either way, that's great!

The road to learning public speaking isn't always a smooth one. Knowing why you want to challenge yourself in this way will keep you going when things get tough. Let's look at some good reasons for learning public speaking

Suitcase Entrepreneur Natalie Sisson writes:

There are many benefits of public speaking as it’s a great way to gain exposure, self-confidence, and success. Every great speaker started out as a poor one, what made them a success was their willingness to take a chance, try again, and view every opportunity as a learning experience to becoming great.

Here are some more key benefits of learning to speak in public:

  • Public speaking is good for your career prospects. It's a tough jobs market out there, and to get work, you've got to know how to sell yourself. Employers typically have their pick of equally qualified candidates. Stand-out candidates are those with soft skills  such as verbal communication skills, a positive attitude, self-confidence, and the ability to perform under pressure. Speaking in public will help you develop a range of soft skills.
  • Public speaking is good for your personal development. When you give presentations, you'll challenge yourself by stepping outside your comfort zone. As you do so, you'll grow in self-confidence. In giving presentations you'll also develop a range of useful life skills, including storytelling, persuasion, and critical thinking skills.
  • Public speaking can give you the confidence to pursue your business goals. If you dream of being an entrepreneur, you'll need to present your business plan to investors. If you already run a business and you want to grow your revenue, then you'll need to be adept at sales. Public speaking skills will help with both of these.

Now you know the benefits of public speaking, are you ready to give it a try? Or does the thought of giving a presentation leave you with butterflies in your stomach? If the latter, let me ask you a question...

What if it was Okay to Be Afraid?

What if you could feel afraid speaking in front of a group, and that was okay?

My first presentation in front of a group was a disaster. It was an assignment for my high school English class. In most classroom situations, I felt confident speaking out. I was happy to answer the teacher's questions whenever I was asked to do so.

But standing in front of class to give a presentation threw me off balance. I was so anxious to get the whole thing over with, I rushed through my presentation as quickly as I could. I didn't remember once looking up from my notes. When the grades came in, I barely scraped a pass.

In the past few years I've started to confront my fear of public speaking. It's been a bumpy ride, but I am gradually growing in confidence. I still feel anxious when I'm at the front of the room speaking, but I've come to realize that it's okay to feel nervous. I don't have to let my fears derail me.

I've also noticed that my biggest fear is the fear of anxiety. I'm afraid of feeling afraid! As such, my natural instinct is to avoid situations where I know I'll feel fear. What's more, this fear about fear becomes a downwards spiral into anxiety.

The way out is to step back, take a deep breath, and remind myself "It's okay to feel afraid." In fact, your feelings of fear can actually be helpful. Let's take a look at how your fear can make you a better public speaker.

Could Fear Be Your Friend?

"You were so confident, calm and relaxed." I've been told that a few times after speaking before a group. On other occasions I've been told I was "clearly nervous".

The weird thing to me is that in both situations I felt at least a little anxious.

The difference between the two situations is this. When I try to push away my fears, they push back even harder. The more I try to escape fear, the stronger it grows.

When I accept my fear as a potential ally, it adds to my performance. Fear fades through acceptance.

Overwhelming anxiety is never helpful. But a certain level of fear is helpful. The tinge of fear you feel makes you more alert. It gives you a powerful stage presence, and it helps you deliver your speech in an engaging way.

Accepting that fear can work for you rather than against you will help you deliver confident presentations, even when you don't feel confident inside.

What's more, confidence isn't something you always feel, even when you've got it. Often, you'll appear confident to others despite feeling shaky inside. Does that mean you're not confident? No! It just means your feelings have yet to catch up with your performance.

Research backs this up. Psychologists have found that people notice their own mistakes and shortcomings much more than other people do, especially when they're on stage. Psychology researchers call this the spotlight effect.

A small level of anxiety is helpful to your performance. But it's always better if it's accompanied by a deep seated confidence. How can you learn to feel confident in public speaking?

Here's the Real Key to Confidence

I'm going to let you in on a secret. Perhaps you've heard it before, or perhaps it's new to you. Here it is:

You are a confident person.

You're not sure about that? Let me explain further.

Confidence is contextual. That means all of us are confident in some situations, and anxious in others.

One person might fall to pieces at the prospect of meeting new people, but enjoy taking a math test. Another person might spend weeks dreading the math test, but be in their element at a party.

Look over your life, and the different roles you have. There will be situations where you are confident, and situations where you are nervous.

What's the difference between the two situations? Partly it's about natural ability. The math whiz likely has a high IQ, while the social butterfly is probably an extreme extrovert. But that's only a small part of it. Mainly, it's about learned associations. Subconsciously, you've taught yourself to be afraid of certain situations, and your fear is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Your lack of confidence means you underperform.

What's the solution?

Remember when you learned to drive? It was nerve racking, right? Being in charge of a big vehicle, so much could go wrong. And there was a ton to think about.

But now, you can drive with your mind distracted by other things. You've mastered the skill, and gained confidence at it. You do it without thinking. All your fears are gone.

That's the secret. Start practicing speaking in public even though you're low on confidence. As the title of one personal development book puts it: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. And don't just do it once, but do it repeatedly. To begin with, it will be tough. Over time, it will become something you do with a natural air of confidence.

Dale Carnegie, author of the 1915 book The Art of Public Speaking, put it this way:

Did you ever notice in looking from a train window that some horses feed near the track and never even pause to look up at the thundering cars, while just ahead at the next railroad crossing a farmer's wife will be nervously trying to quiet her scared horse as the train goes by?

How would you cure a horse that is afraid of cars — graze him in a back-woods lot where he would never see steam-engines or automobiles, or drive or pasture him where he would frequently see the machines?

Apply horse-sense to ridding yourself of self-consciousness and fear: face an audience as frequently as you can, and you will soon stop shying...

Practice, practice, PRACTICE in speaking before an audience will tend to remove all fear of audiences, just as practice in swimming will lead to confidence and facility in the water. You must learn to speak by speaking.

With that in mind, what can you do to practice speaking before an audience?

How to Practice Public Speaking To Grow in Confidence

Here are our top tips on growing in confidence as a public speaker through practice:

Have a good reason to learn. I made this point earlier, but it's worth repeating. Without a good reason to learn public speaking, you'll stall when you face a big challenge. Perhaps you want to get better at job interviews. You may have an idea you want to share with the world. Or it could be that you want to take up a hobby that involves public speaking. Whatever your reason, set yourself a goal you can hold yourself accounable to.

Find a safe space to get started. For some people, this could be in front of family and friends. For others, it's better to start presenting with a supportive group of strangers. Most big cities and many towns have a public speaking group, so look for one in your area and go along to a meeting. Typically you can attend as a guest to see how it works before you sign up as a member.

Don't be afraid of using training wheels. You can use slides to guide you through your presentation. You can wear your lucky shirt or read from a script. Using these tools to help you get started isn't a crutch. They're there to help. Just be aware that one day you'll want to let them go, so you can experience the thrill of riding without training wheels.

Be a storyteller. Stories make for better presentations. Stories are also easier to remember than lists of facts. So if you're someone whose mind goes blank under pressure, incorporate a lot of stories into your presentation. You'll find it easier to stay on track.

Put yourself into situations where you must speak. Once you've found your confidence in a safe environment, it's time to take a further step outside your comfort zone. They key here is to find situations where you're committed to giving presentations in public. 

This could mean applying for a new job that involves giving presentations. It could mean getting more involved with a nonprofit or faith community and offering to give a talk or lead a workshop. It could involve starting a new hobby  such as theatre or stage magic  that puts you in front of an audience. The more contexts you practice in, the more confident you'll become.

Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking (Key Takeaways):

  • Public speaking doesn't have to be more scary than death. At least, not for you. You have the choice to confront your fears.
  • Know your reasons for wanting to learn public speaking. Then you'll stay motivated, and you'll keep going when things get tough.
  • Remember, it's okay to feel afraid. You don't have to run away from your fears; you can embrace them. Fear can be your friend.
  • Confidence comes through practice. That means you'll have to start practicing before you feel confident. Also be aware that you may appear confident to others even if you don't feel it on the inside.
  • Start by practicing in a safe place. This could be with family or friends, or in a public speaking group.
  • Keep pushing yourself to grow in confidence. The more situations you practice in, the higher your confidence will soar.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Presentation designed by Alexander Bickov from the Noun ProjectSuperhero designed by Simon Child from the Noun Project.

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