Spiders are scary, snakes are frightening and the fear of heights can be terrifying! But, the number one fear, according to The Book of Lists is the fear of public speaking. How could public speaking rank higher than even the fear of dying?  What makes it so scary?

In this blog, I’ll explore reasons for this fear and approaches for overcoming them, but it’s important to realize that learning to speak confidently in front of groups is one of the best skills you can develop.  The ability to speak powerfully in front of groups of people – whether it’s facilitating a meeting, conducting in-firm training or speaking at an association or conference – allows you to develop yourself in your role, be positioned as an “expert,” and improve your skills while preparing your materials.  Ultimately, one of the biggest benefits of being an effective speaker is the ability to make a difference for your audience and if you make a difference for only one person, then you’ve done your job.

I understand that the prospect of standing up in front of a group of people tends to bring up a mix of emotions, physical reactions and insecurities.  When you engage in public speaking, you feel vulnerable and may experience a pressure to perform.  It is perfectly natural to be nervous about the prospect of speaking in public. The common physiological symptoms associated with it are part of the “fight or flight” response, which is designed to actually help us when we are faced with stressors.  The brain signals that begin to fire when you perceive a threat cause you to be more alert and attentive to your environment and the ability to be more alert and attentive is a very good thing when it comes to public speaking!

Let’s explore the most common fears associated with public speaking as well as some strategies for minimizing their negative effect on you:

  • The fear of looking bad in front of others is common because we are worried about what people will think and we want to protect our images and do whatever we can to “look good” in the eyes of others.  If the fear of failing and “looking bad” affects you:
    • Remember that audiences want you to succeed.  When people show up to hear a presentation, they do so with the hope that they will benefit in some way and typically, genuinely want the speaker to succeed.
    • Become an “audience-centered speaker.”  In his book, Working The Room: How to Move People to Action Through Audience-Centered Speaking, Nick Morgan recommends developing a “kinesthetic connection,”   which comes from listening to your audience with your whole body, through everything from eye contact to facial expressions to gestures.
    • Remember that it’s not “all about you.”  You are there to deliver a message and it is more about your audience getting the message than about you “looking good.”  You and your audience will be better served if you focus on making a difference for them rather than making yourself look good!
  • Another common fear of public speaking is that you are not good enough (or expert enough,) but luckily there are some ways to manage this type of fear as well:
    • Remember that you were chosen to conduct your presentation for a very good reason (even though you may not be able to recognize it).  I believe that the “universe” uniquely picked you (in addition to your supervisor, client or a committed) and that your unique approach and message is what your audience needs to hear.
    • Focus on presenting your own unique point of view. You have valuable insight and your own personal experience and viewpoint that others can benefit from. It is your obligation then, to be generous with what you have to share. Someone may have heard a piece of information a hundred times before but it may take hearing it from you – in the method you deliver it - for it to make a difference.
    • Do your homework but don’t feel like you need to have all the answers.  Effective presenters are always well-prepared but are not expected to have all the answers.  Do your best to anticipate the types of questions that your audience may ask but if they ask something that you don’t the answer for, you can always pose the questions to the audience, offer to find out the answer and get back to them, or talk with them “off-line” after the presentation.  Always be honest, however, and say “I don’t know” when that is the case – it is the best way to build credibility and trust with your audience.
  • Not wanting to be center stage is another fear that creates uneasiness for would-be speakers.  Instead of focusing on the eyes that are on you:
    • Focus on your message and the audience, which will naturally have you become less self-conscious.
    • Find ways to involve the audience and make your presentation interactive.  Ask your audience questions (both direct and rhetorical), poll the audience and incorporate relevant examples, exercises and case studies to make it more collaborative.
  • Not knowing what to say or forgetting what you were going to say is another common fear and here are some ideas on what you can do about it:
    • Recognize that nobody but you knows what you were planning to say and in what order you were planning to say it.  Don’t waste time beating yourself up if you forget something or go out of order.  Instead move on and return to your forgotten point if you remember it later.
    • Pause for a moment to find your place, put your thoughts together and remember where you want to go next.  A few seconds of silence may feel like an eternity to you but it may be just what you need to get centered.  It also gives the audience a mental break and a moment to absorb what you have already said.
    • Don’t underestimate the value of preparation. The best presenters make it look effortless but what you can’t see is the time that they spent preparing and rehearsing to make it look effortless.  In the words of actor Michael Caine, “Rehearsal is the work, performance is the relaxation.”
    • Know your subject well.  In Toastmasters International groups, the very first speech that new members are asked to give is an ice-breaker speech to introduce themselves to the group.  The idea is that it is easier to talk about something that you know very intimately (yourself), than it is to talk about a topic that you are not as familiar with.  Toastmasters International is non-profit organization designed to support people in developing communication and leadership skills through public speaking. You can find a location near you by clicking here.

When the nervous energy, doubts and negative thoughts start creeping in, remind yourself that most of what you fear is not real and is generated only in your own mind. Bring yourself back to reality before it takes over and inhibits you from delivering a powerful presentation – or volunteering to give one!

In our work at ConvergenceCoaching, we conduct training sessions and deliver different types of presentations in various formats on a wide variety of topics and we are always glad to share our insight on the topic of public speaking.  Please reach out to us if you have any questions about other speaking considerations and issues.  And, if you would like to delve further into this topic and learn how to create and deliver powerful presentations, consider attending the web seminar that I will be teaching for CPA Leadership Institute entitled “Conducting Powerful Presentations” on Thursday, June 17th at 1:00 PM Eastern Time.

Please also feel free to post a comment with any public speaking tips of your own!

Warm Regards,

Michelle Baca