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The Fear Behind Public Speaking

· public speaking,Confidence,How To Guides

If you ask people to start listing things they are scared of, eventually they will get around to public speaking (after spiders, heights and the word moist, right?) It seems to be a universally shared experience that public speaking induces some sort of fear in most of us.

Even people who do it for a living have their fears. I know many teachers who are confident with their age group, but when they have to speak in front of a different crowd they feel like jelly inside. Many of our training team love doing their thing in front of an audience of students, but we still get those belly tickles 10 minutes before showtime.

So what is it about public speaking that puts so many people on edge? And more importantly, how do we get past it?

High Stakes Environments

If I asked a room full of people when they last had to do some public speaking or a presentation I bet this is the range of answers I would hear:

  • a presentation for an interview
  • an oral exam
  • presenting research results / a viva
  • giving a speech at a wedding or family occasion
  • strategy / board meetings
  • sharing their work in front of classmates
Being exposed to an audience makes us feel vulnerable - a high stakes environment.

Looking at that list, they are all high stakes environments, which causes much of the panic. What I mean by high stakes is that there is a great deal of risk involved to the person doing the speaking.

Risk of failure (exams, interviews), risk of upsetting / offending someone (wedding speech, board meeting), risk of looking a fool. The main times we speak in public we are in a position of vulnerability where the outcome can have a significant impact.

Lack of Safe Practice

So, you have an exam coming up at the end of the year and the results will make or break your career. You fear failure… so you revise.

A medical intern knows their job involves working with real life patients who will live or die based on their decisions… so they practice on cadavers first.

Normally with high stakes events we spend a long time practicing in a safe way. This usually involves simulating the skills, knowledge and perhaps even task performance. Making sure that failure will have no long term results and can be learned from. The result? When the real event comes we know that we can confidently do a good job.

So ask people how often they practice public speaking at a time when there is low / no risk involved…

Not a lot to not at all.

There will be a select few who are particularly studious and go to events like Toastmasters, drama groups, career skills days etc in order to practice their public speaking. But they are among a rare few. Most people live in such fear that even the thought of practicing in a space where it doesn’t matter starts to generate a few wobbles.

But, as described with the student and medical intern – the only way to ensure success later is to get that practice in. Otherwise the risk can be greater on the day.

Tips for Reducing the Fear

Acknowledge why it scares you

Many schools of psychology say that labelling your emotions can be very beneficial to your state of mind, as can be understanding WHY things trigger emotions in you. Ten people can be equally scared of public speaking all for different reasons; fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of sweating too much, fear of their words being misunderstood. If you know exactly what it is that concerns you then you can take steps to minimise that particular risk when you are preparing for your speech.

Practice in a safe space

I cannot stress enough how important it is to practice public speaking at a time when you do not feel threatened. Getting together with colleagues, friends or even a group of strangers to practice delivering speeches will make it all the less scary when it does count. The emphasis must be on safety and feeling comfortable though – make sure that you all share the same ethos of positive, constructive feedback and that everyone is seeking to support each other. You could even make a game out of it to take the edge off the nerves.

Presenting in small groups can reduce fear of public speaking.

Start with a crowd of one

Many people who are terrified of public speaking can happily monologue to their friend about a film they saw last week. When I ask them why that is the answer is usually the same. “Yeah, but that’s different.” A presentation or speech is a one way delivery of information to an audience. Everyone can present confidently under the right circumstances and sometimes it takes a change of perspective to remind people what they can achieve. If you are really nervous about presenting to a large group, start with one or two people in your practice audience so that you are in your comfort zone. The more you present the more secure you will feel and then you can up the number of people in the crowd (willing volunteers permitting!).

Don’t stress over what you say

Most people get overly tangled in the words they are going to say – sometimes scripting in a way that is too rigid to be practical. When they don’t say exactly what they planned they get flustered and the vicious cycle of panic is fuelled. It’s important to remember that the audience don’t know exactly what you are going to say – so they won’t notice if your wording differs from your plan. Rather than concentrating on the exact words, focus on the meaning of your message instead. As long as that is true, a whole host of words can do the job for you.

Attend to your public

Inexperienced presenters get caught up in the notion that their role is to deliver information to an audience and therefore the words are paramount. But the best public speakers know that it’s all about communicating with your audience, taking them on a journey and that is about so much more than words.

When you smile at your audience, build rapport, gesture to them, take questions from them and involve them in the content you will find they engage better. When they engage you feel more confident and the fears subside because you know you are doing a good job in that moment.

Think about the rewards

Many people can clearly articulate why they shouldn’t be vulnerable in public, but they spend little time focussing on the payoff. If public speaking is making you fearful then reminding yourself what good will come of it can give you a boost of courage needed to follow through:

  • If I can present this idea well our company could meet it’s strategy targets.
  • I’m going to do my best to present my skills because I could get my dream job.
  • I want to tell them about my research project because I know it can make a positive difference to my field.

Focussing on these payoffs can remind our old brain that whilst we may feel a threat, risks do come with rewards and sometimes they make the fear worthwhile.

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