The fear of public speaking is still one of the biggest and most debilitating fears. Public speaking fear causes competent professionals to miss out on fantastic opportunities to persuade and win people to their way of thinking. So where does this fear come from? Better yet… How does the average person get rid of it? The truth is that public speaking is a skill just like any other skill in that the first time that you do it, you will be nervous. However, if you are still feeling the fear time after time, it’s probably caused by some of the things that you are doing to try to eliminate that fear. That’s right… Often the things that you do to try to reduce public speaking fear actually end up CAUSING this presentation nervousness.
Where Public Speaking Fear Comes From?
Anytime a person tries something for the first time, he or she will feel nervousness or anxiety about it. Remember back when you got on a bicycle for the first time? Or the first time you tried to drive on the freeway? We tend to remember situations like riding a bike for the first time or driving a car for the first time because in those situations, we felt an imminent threat to our safety -- the bigger that threat to our safety is, the more intense the fear or nervousness. For instance, if you have ever been sky-diving or bungee jumping, you probably felt a lot of fear.
Last week, I took a trip to London with my wife, and since we had been to London a few times, we decided to do some of the things that we always wanted to do, but just never got around to it. So we ended up going to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is the big architectural centerpiece of London that the US Capitol building was modeled after. On the tour, we got to walk up over 500 stairs up to the very top of the dome. When we got to the top, an usher was sitting in a chair and looked at us and pointed to a small peek-hole built into the floor. My heart started racing as I leaned over and peeked through. Now I knew that there was a solid floor between me and the cathedral floor hundreds and hundreds of feet below, but that didn’t really help. I could feel the room start to spin a little as I got just a little queasy. Somehow my sub-conscious mind came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t careful, my 225 lb body was going to squeeze through this four inch hole and fall to my death on the hard stone surface below. It was a crazy thought. I quickly looked up and realized that I was still in the safety of the confined room, and I started to think more clearly. When I looked a second time, it was still scary, but not nearly as debilitating. Fear when you attempt something new is normal, and if it’s NOT there, you’re likely to have a much bigger problem than if it IS there.
To a lesser extent, though, we feel this fear constantly when we try something new even if the threat of bodily harm is not apparent. For instance, when I got my first Smart Phone, and I accessed the App Store, I was really nervous about downloading that very first “Free App” because I was scared to death that I’d end up with a recurring charge on my phone bill that I’d never be able to get rid of. I felt the same way years ago the first time I entered a credit card number on Amazon.com and bought a book. Nervousness is normal when we try something new. The more imminent the threat to our safety, the more nerve-racking the activity will be. For instance, my heart beat a lot faster when the first time I went bungee jumping than it did the first time than when I bought a book on Amazon.
I good analogy for this fear is when you are walking down a lonely street in a big city. If you see petite woman in a white lab coat walking toward you, you may not feel a lot of fear. However, if you see a teenage with tattoos and gang paraphernalia, you might start to experience a bit a anxiety. If you see four people dressed the same way, and two of them are carrying baseball bats, you will likely feel great fear. The more that you are threatened by an experience, the more fear you will fear during the experience.
Public speaking fear comes from an internal sense of a threat. The more that you see the speaking activity as a threat, the more fear you will feel. So, the key to lowering the threat is to lower the risk. For instance, in the analogy above where a gang of hoodlums is coming at you with baseball bats, if you happen to be accompanied by a couple of armed bodyguards, you will probably not feel nearly as much fear as you would if you were alone and unarmed.
Lower the Risk, Lower the Threat, Lower the Fear
When the risk of harm is lowered, the fear will diminish pretty dramatically. When I was high above St. Paul’s Cathedral, and I took that second look, I had consciously reassured myself that it would be impossible for me to fall. So the second look was not nearly as shocking as the first look. The first time I drove on the expressway, I was a nervous wreck (no pun intended), but after years of success driving at fairly fast speeds, now when I drive on the expressway, it’s almost second nature.
There are times that I’ve driven to the store or my office, and I put my car into park at my destination and think, “How did I get here?” The process was so second-nature to me, that I didn’t even have to think about it.
The skill of public speaking can happen in much the same way. Public speaking training with a good coach can ensure that you gain confidence in a step-by-step fashion so that as you get up in front of the next group, you have a pretty good shot at having a successful experience. Since the risk of failure is now lower, your fear will lower as well. The lower that your risk of failure becomes, the lower your fear will be as well. So after you train with a good coach, and you deliver your next presentation, because you are better prepared, you’re more likely to have a successful experience. The fear may still be there for this first run, but once you complete the presentation, and you have performed well during the speech, you’ll feel more confident about what you’ve accomplished. So the next time that you stand up to speak, it should be much easier. And the next time, easier still.
Are You Growing as a Speaker?
The point is that every time that you speak, you should have a success -- You should set yourself up for success. And every time that you have an additional success, your confidence should grow. If that is not happening for you, then something is interrupting this cycle. For instance, some public speaking classes have a teacher or an instructor who uses constructive criticism as a coaching tool. Typically, the class member will deliver the speech, sit down, and receive a critique of his/her performance.
So instead of the teacher helping the class member deliver the initial speech better (helping the participant succeed), the teacher waits for the participant to fail and then gives a critique that reinforces that failure. As a result, when the class member stands up to deliver his/her next speech, instead of confidence, the person is experiencing a higher risk of failure. “I failed last time, so I’m likely to also fail this time… As soon as I sit down, I’m going to get another critique.”
A good public speaking coach will help a speaker deliver a better speech in the first place and then build on each of these successes. The difference in styles would be like letting a four-year-old get on a new bike and pedal and fall… pedal and fall… pedal and fall, and then once the kid is really frustrated coming over and critiquing her performance by telling her the three main things that she did wrong. Then waiting a week or two and repeat the process again. Although the fear would be high on the first attempt, the fear would be even higher the second time this new rider tried to get on the bike. A good coach will hold the seat for the child and then praise her performance once she has a small success. Once she has even a small success the risk of failure lowers, and although she’ll still be nervous, she’s now willing to attempt something more complicated. As the successes grow, the confidence will grow as well.
Get a good public speaking coach, and your confidence will grow. The Leader's Institute® offers Fearless Presentations® Public Speaking Classes in cities all over the world. Click the link to access a class schedule or to request information.