Fear of Public Speaking

The fear of public speaking (a type of performance anxiety), is very common. A lot of people fear public speaking more than death itself. For years I wondered why so many people, including myself, feared public speaking (whether that be in front of a very large or small crowd) so much. I wasn’t just scared of speaking in public, I was absolutely petrified of it. I did everything I could to avoid putting myself in those situations.

What’s interesting about most phobias, like stage fright/speaking in public, is that we do the opposite of what we should to correct it. Instead of facing the fear head on, we hide from it, which only makes it a bigger threat and increases the fear and anxiety we feel around that thing. We build it up in our minds until it’s this huge monster.

Many people just press on through life with this fear of public speaking and they manage to get by, but they make many life decisions with this fear in the back of their mind. These negative emotions and limiting beliefs impact us greatly. Instead of choosing the life we want, we go to great lengths to avoid putting ourselves in certain high pressure social situations like public speaking (or any type of public performance). We end up getting a career with no risks and living a life where we don’t challenge ourselves. In the end, we just become filled with fear and regret.

People who suffer from the fear of public speaking, performance anxiety, etc. don’t do what they truly want to in life because they don’t know that help is out there and that it can be overcome. This can range from a little shyness to full blown social anxiety and panic attacks. No matter what level you are at, the good news is that treatment is available.

For me, I was never satisfied with living my life this way. I was not happy living a life of insecurity and letting fear influence (and sometimes control) my decisions. Living in anticipatory fear and shame is no way to live. This fear mind-set was really holding me back from my full potential. I’m sure some of you out there can relate.

Again, the truth is that the fear of public speaking is treatable. Most of us don’t realize that we have a choice – we can overcome this fear if we see it as a challenge instead of a threat. It does require some work, but it can be done. You simply can’t let fear control your life.

Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

How do you get out of this fear of public speaking mind-set? Knowledge. First, understand why it’s happening and then take steps to correct the issue. Stage fright starts when you focus on yourself (or more likely your anxiety) too much instead of your performance or presentation. This was the case with me. I was way, way too wrapped up in my own mind (over analyzing, over thinking, worrying, etc.) instead of focusing on delivering the information I needed to my audience. I would focus on hiding my anxiety and fearing it would surface way more than the material. We have a huge urge to resist our anxiety. It seems logical to fight it, but unfortunately it’s the wrong strategy to employ.

Nothing brings on anxiety more than trying to fight it. Anxiety is a tricky weasel. Fighting it is the complete opposite of what needs to be done. Instead of fighting it, we must accept it. We must work with it. Instead of seeing the performance as a threat, see it as a challenge. This takes practice, but when you change it from a threat to a challenge, your mind switches gears. You no longer curl up into a shell (as you do around any threat), you open up (chest out, shoulders back) and face the challenge head on.

Even people who love public speaking get a little nervous before a big presentation. It’s natural to have a bit of nervousness. It spirals completely out of control when you try and fight it. Remember, fighting the fear of anxiety only reinforces it.

When I was talking in a meeting or presentation and I felt a bit of nervousness kicking in, I would immediately go into panic mode. I would think, “oh no, they are going to see that I’m nervous”. Even the slightest hint of it and I would quickly spiral out of control because I was so focused on the fact that I was feeling anxiety. I would resist it with all my might, but this just made it stronger.

If I instead accepted that there was a bit of nervousness and anxiety there and given it some space to simply be there instead of flipping out about it, I would have probably overcome it sooner. If I focused more on the other people and the material I was trying to relay to them instead of focusing on myself and the level of anxiety I was feeling, I would have been fine.

When you’re wrapped up in your own mind, focusing on yourself, instead of engaging with the audience, you not only lose the audience, but you also feel alone and isolated. That’s not a great place to be. I’ve been here countless times and it sucks! It’s like the whole room is spinning and you’re just trying to get through the material… hoping it ends soon! But, I want you to know that there is hope. Follow these tips:

Tips to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

Note – many of these will seem to be the opposite of what you would normally do. To be blunt, what you’re doing isn’t working, so it makes sense that the opposite would work, right?

1 – Breathe diaphragmatically – breathing isn’t just breathing. There is a lot more to it. Research this topic! In short, breath in slow and exhale slow (exhale should be longer than your inhale).

2 – People don’t care too much about the presenter, they care about the information that they are presenting. So, focus on the material and realize that they probably don’t care about you. More than likely they are thinking about themselves!

3 – Acceptance. You will get a bit nervous before a speech. Do not fight or resist it. Acknowledge it is there and say hello to it. Then move on to the thing at hand. This is probably the opposite of what most of us do in the face of anxiety. Our unsuccessful tactics keep us stuck in an endless loop. In order to prevent it from spiraling out of control, I suggest you try Mel Robbins 5 second rule.

4 – I’m sure you don’t want to hear this one, but you need to practice. Start with what you’re comfortable with and move up from there. Make a list of things that scare you (in terms of social anxiety). Put them on a scale from 1 to 100. Start with something you think you can do and then continue to move up in difficulty. You will need to move out of your comfort zone little by little and it will take a consistent effort to improve. Additionally, I’ve found that watching others speak also helps. Practice might not make you perfect, but it will make you more confident in your ability.

5 – Don’t try to hide and cover up the fact that you may be feeling shy or anxious. That will only compound the problem. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Be okay with it being there and if you’re open about it in a genuine way, people will actually be able to relate to you more. People are usually very empathetic when you’re honest and open.

6 – Examine any fears you might have and label them. When you clearly identify them, it takes a little bit of the oomph out of them. They don’t seem so ambiguous and threatening once you label them and discuss them with yourself or someone else.

7 – If you’re an introvert (shyness, social anxiety, and being an introvert are not the same thing), then make sure you charge your batteries before the big event. Get some alone time in a nice quiet area so you can get your energy levels up before the big event.

8 – Bring humor into the mix. Life is too short to take everything seriously. I suggest writing some things down you find hilarious along with some funny memories. When you’re in a stressful state and feeling anxious, think of these humorous moments and it will lighten the mood. It’s a bonus if you can get the audience to laugh during your presentation. Don’t forget to smile! This will definitely lighten your mood and make you more relaxed.

9 – Take your time and don’t rush through the speech. Pause. Use a good tone and emphasize the last sound of each word! Often times, we speak too fast in public because our mind is racing at a thousand miles per hour. Slow it down, pause, and relax.

10 – Turn that fear you are feeling into excitement. Channel it into your performance. Physiologically, there is not difference between fear and excitement. The only difference is how our mind labels the event. Our mind gives the event context, so instead of seeing it in a state of fear (threat), see it as something exciting (a challenge). Do this enough times and you will have reprogrammed you mind.

11 – Focus on the material you are delivering and focus on the feedback from the audience. Engage and connect with the audience through your body language, eye contact, moving around the room, and talking directly to them (pretend you’re talking to one person at a time). Once you get the audience involved, you will feel less anxious.

12 – Believe in yourself. If you can talk to one person, you can talk to hundreds of people just as effectively. The only difference is how your mind labels the situation. In your mind one is super laid back (one on one conversation with someone you’re comfortable with) and the other is a super high pressure, stress inducing nightmare. It’s all about the mindset. See it as a one on one conversation.

13 – Remember that the audience is with you. They are rooting for you and actually want you to succeed. Have you ever observed a speaker that is visibly nervous? It is actually a bit uncomfortable for the audience as well. So, reinforce the idea that the audience wants you to do well (unless it’s some kind of debate of course!).

14 – Do not fear that you’re going to embarrass or humiliate yourself. Accept that you may mess up. You shouldn’t aim for perfection. When you aim for perfection, you’re going to put too much pressure on yourself and when you mess up, you will become flustered. But, when you allow for mistakes and accept them, a mistake won’t be a big deal.. they will be accepted and you will continue on without a hiccup. You will have removed the anxiousness associated with being perfect.

To wrap it up, let me hit on the one thing that helped me the most – acceptance. Have the courage to do it and accept the outcome no matter what happens. Take the pressure off and let what ever happens, happen. You’re going to make mistakes and that is perfectly fine! We all make mistakes – life is a learning experience.

Be in the moment and engage with your audience instead of focusing on yourself. Be courageous, do your best, and forget the rest.

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