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Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking

Whether speaking to a large group in a public setting, or presenting to a remote audience through technology, overcoming your fear of public speaking isn’t easy, but it is manageable. Here are some practical hints and suggestions to improve how you sell your ideas, recommendations or inspirations to your audience.

Glossophobia: Fear of Public Speaking

The fear of public speaking is well-documented as society’s number one fear, after death. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked, “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

I’d be lying if I said you can 100% conquer your fear of public speaking. For the vast majority of people – me included – the anxiousness never goes completely away. But, you can absolutely manage the fear. You can use it in positive ways, if nothing else to harness the anxiety and turn it into a positive motivator.

Before we go any further, we need to tackle the first hurdle.

Stop living in the future.

As a clever device, ‘fear’ is an acronym for two similar definitions:

  • Fantasized Events Are Real
  • False Evidence Appearing Real

When a person is faced with the prospect of public speaking, it’s almost second nature to think of all the things that might go wrong.

Here are some oft-used examples:

  • I’ll forget to say (something).
  • I’ll burp.
  • I’ll trip, stumble and fall over.
  • Someone will heckle me.
  • My laptop will freeze.
  • My brain will freeze.
  • The projector will burn out.
  • I’ll go over my allotted time.
  • My mouth will dry out and I’ll choke.
Don't Believe Everything You Think
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This type of future-telling can dangerously feed upon itself, because if a person can imagine one bad thing happening, they can imagine twenty more. This sabotage can be particularly evil because it’s just one easy step from turning an imagined thought into an actual event.

Whether your imagination is dreaming up reasonable situations or unrealistic expectations, the key is to get to the core of what’s causing your fear. Once you know what starts or sustains the fear, you can manage it.

Or, to use the FEAR acronym above,

  • Face Everything And Rise

The Five Most Common Aspects Causing Fear

In my experience, here are the top five reasons that cause fear. Which one might be yours? And, if you recognize yourself in one of these self-limiting beliefs, here are some practical suggestions to address them.

1. People won’t like me.

The key to addressing this belief is to look at the problem from a different perspective.

  • Start with a different focus:  not you, your audience.  The unbreakable rule of effective communications is you are always the least important person in any conversation. The focus should be your audience. What do they want to know? What do they already know about your topic? What do they expect to learn from you? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you will come across as insensitive, out of touch or, worst of all, irrelevant.
  • Ask them what they want to know, what do they expect to learn from your presentation.  You don’t need to poll the entire audience, just a few key objective people. Talk to whomever asked you to present in the first place. Why did you ask me, and do you think the audience may want to know? If you learn their mindset and expectations, apply their opinions and feedback to improve your presentation. You can’t help but be more relevant, and by extension, the audience will appreciate you and your work.

In other words, you earn their ‘affection’ from being pertinent to their success, not yours.

2. I won’t be engaging or interesting.

The key to addressing this problem is to tap into all of the possible ways to engage and stimulate your audience.

  • Engage your audience through .  Your  engages an audience more than your words alone. First, look at them with appropriate eye contact, and by appropriate, I mean in sync with your culture. Western eye contact is direct but non-confrontational, sincere but professional.
  • Engage your audience through body movement, above all, .  Gestures are king. They demonstrate:
    • Credibility and trustworthiness
    • Interest in your topic
    • Key messages, by punctuating and emphasizing the key words, and
    • Willingness to interact and welcome questions
  • Engage physically through your .  Did you know your personality is shared through sound? Your voice should be:
    • Loud enough for the farthest person in the room to comfortably hear you 
    • An easy speed (remember:  you might speak quickly but people do not listen quickly)
    • Natural as any hallway conversation with highs and lows

To know your own strengths and weaknesses for each of these three attributes, you might film yourself to learn precisely what is good, what needs work, what to stop doing. Even better, film and/or rehearse with a constructive coach or mentor to get direct feedback to improve your skills.

3. Something will go wrong.

The key with this natural fear is to ask yourself: What exactly could go wrong?

Start by writing down every single thing that could go wrong, even the scariest notion. Get it out of your head where it’s most dangerous. You may not finish the list in one sitting, but allow yourself however long you need to make the list complete. Then, ask yourself could this potential horror truly happen?

  • If you say no, draw a line through it, and stop obsessing over it
  • If you say yes, ask yourself how you’d handle it

Like people who manage crises, you can respond to any event if you determine in advance what you’d do when it occurs.

In the rare times that the ‘X’ event actually happened to me – and let me stress, they are rare – it was very powerful to react as I brainstormed I would, without hesitation, and move on. Or even better, ignore it and move on.

Every time I managed to save my own face, my confidence soared. Afterward, I found it amusing how many people said, “Wow, you handled that so professionally.”

Here are some additional thoughts to consider.
  • Know your surroundings.  Not only should you familiarize yourself with your audience, you should do the same with your presentation area. Stand at the front of the conference room or the theatre when it’s empty to get a sense of space. How far or close are the audience? How loud must you need to speak? For stages, I specifically want to rehearse with the lights on so I get used to the glare. I want to know how far I can move about without walking into darkness.
  • If you’re speaking online via Zoom, Skype or similar, try it out with a colleague first so you know how it feels to speak when you are in front of a camera and can only see your audience by screen.
  • Few people remember innocent accidents after the presentation is over.  After helping a colleague through a presentation, she remarked afterward how humiliated she was that she sneezed on stage in the middle of her speech. In reality, no one remembered. The same is true of momentary lapses of thought, an awkward silence, or a word flub. Don’t focus on the small things. Focus on the big things, like did you deliver your key messages?
  • How effective you are is in direct proportion to how much you rehearse.  I’ve been giving speeches for nearly 40 years, and I always rehearse before the important presentations. Only you can decide which speech is vital. For people just starting out, I suggest treating every presentation as important.

After all this, maybe you’re simply a natural worrier. That’s OK. Use your worrying to prepare for the worst, not prepare for the best.

4. I’ll forget something.

The key to addressing this belief is to stop pretending you’re an actor on stage reading a memorized text.

  • Get your thoughts organized in advance.  Most people fear forgetting a key message. Most presentation are written by stream-of-consciousness. There’s no repeatable flow, order or priority, so of course it’s easy to forget something when you haven’t planned.
  • Most presentations have just three core messages. That’s right:  If you feel you must memorize anything, memorize those three sentences so you can say them without prompt or notes. Say your messages out loud, never in your head because you always sound good in your head. Prior to your speech, say them over and over, while you’re alone, perhaps in the car driving to work, in the shower, or to your cat while getting dressed.
  • Of course you’re going to forget something, so plan for it.  Again, most people are afraid they’ll forget a key message first, or a key fact second which supports their hypothesis or recommendation. If that’s true for you, make sure the statement is prominently written in your slides, if not used as the title of the slide. If this message is important to you, it’ll be important to your audience, so feel free to highlight, colorize or underscore the statement on a slide or in your notes. At the very least, your key messages might even be your last slide as a summary of everything you’ve said in your presentation.
  • Who cares if you forgot?  Don’t focus on the past. Use it as a positive way to follow-up or re-connect with your audience afterward. Send an email. Post the forgotten item on your socials or blog.

As a final point in this section, put your mistake in perspective. Only you know what you forgot.

5. Total silence.

The key to addressing this belief is to stop believing silence is an appropriate barometer of an engaged audience.

  • Many people listen by sitting still and staying quiet.  It’s very possible they’re thinking about what you are saying. If your audience is typing and texting, they might be multi-tasking. Yes, it’s liable that they forget one of your key points if they’re doing something else, so repeat your messages at the end of your speech or in a follow-up email. Having a hard copy of a presentation is very helpful to some people so offer your speech in slide form after the presentation, or invite them to download it from a server or website.
  • Ask thought-provoking, purposeful questions of the audience.  There’s nothing wrong with turning the tables at the end of the presentation. Don’t ask irrelevant questions, such as Did you enjoy that? (You’re only reinforcing #1 above in your mind.) Your point is not primarily to entertain your audience as much as deliver key, insightful information.
  • Remember that the key to asking a question is to think about what answer you want to get from your question.  Start with the answer, then frame your question. That way, your query elicits the response you want to allow you to springboard to a key message.

Two Pieces of Advice to Close

Fear is always worse to you than to the audience.  By and large, most audience members don’t care if you’re nervous. It’s not they’re rude or inconsiderate. They merely want to get something thoughtful and relevant from you, delivered as if you’re excited by your own topic. The best tip: get started. The faster you get through it, the faster you’ll be able to relax.

Not to play into your fears more, but f you’re concerned about rudeness, try this article:   

Don’t demand perfection of yourself.  There is plenty of research which states that if you force yourself to reach an unattainable goal, you will fail. Worse, when you do make a mistake, it will very likely throw you off and make you even more fearful, if not make even more mistakes. The best tip: perform to the very best of your abilities. That’s a goal you should and can reach, and when you do, you’ll be an even better presenter next time.

Finally, you might look at another post related to this topic:  .

What other tips or suggestions do you have? Are there any other self-limiting beliefs to discuss?  Please add your comments or thoughts below.

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Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking

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