In one way, there is a very simple answer to why we are scared of public speaking. We have fear because we feel threatened. This may be a conscious or non-conscious thought.
Our brain looks out for threat (real or imaginary), or remembers previous threatening times and kick-starts the flight, flight and freeze system and we get that sharp mix of physiological and emotional responses.
So, the simple answer to lessen the fear of public speaking is to reduce what we see as threatening.
And in order to do that, you need to
- change your thinking
- focus far less upon yourself
- have a different relationship to fear
- understand audiences differently.
- To understand that there is a lot of myths around public speaking that can trip us up.
- With this understanding and learning on the way, you gradually expose ourselves more and more to public speaking in small steps and in a safe space. Please note this is not the advice of practice, practice, practice – which can lock in the fear.
What I’m doing in this blog is to explore a little deeper into the reasons we feel scared. By reading this it may give you some clear pointers on what to change. Of course, this article is not the whole answer but I hope it’s a very useful starting point.
Another reason for writing this blog is that I want you to get the idea that it’s not just you who thinks like this. I’ve been running my trainings for 17 years. Last year I ran 60 courses. This is NOT just you. You share these feelings with lots and lots of people.
1. What thinking do we need to change?
This is where the core work is. How we think about public speaking makes a real difference. We put a huge amount of pressures on ourselves. We often think it’s just an irrational physiological reaction however in my experience there is always some problematic thinking going on behind that reaction.
The points in this section show where some of that problematic thinking is so you can start to change it.
A. We have a harsh inner critic
We give ourselves messages like “I’m boring”, “I’m crap, everyone else is ok” “I’m not worth listening to”. It's a really common thought.
You can feel yourself lacking so you may think
“I’m not ________ enough” (tall enough, good looking enough, prepared enough, intelligent enough etc.)
We compare ourselves.
“Other people are better than me”
We apologise for ourselves because we don’t think we are good enough.
“I’m sorry that I’m wasting your time”
After you have done the speech, you may beat yourself up for months about how bad that was. So, the next time you do a presentation, no wonder the brain goes into threat alert.
B. It’s just me who is broken
You can think there is something just wrong with you. “It’s just me who is especially scared, other people don’t feel like the fear, like I do”. “My fear is really obvious where everyone is calm”
For some it may lead to feelings of “I feel so alone”.
C. Impostor Syndrome
Thoughts like “They will find me out, I don’t deserve to be here, I’m a fraud”
(70% of us have some sort of impostor syndrome according to Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence)
D. The lack of compassion for ourselves
We are generous to other people, we give them space, we encourage others but we often have really harsh rules for ourselves. If you spoke to your friends like you speak to yourself, would you have any friends?
Just notice how easily we allow everyone else to be the centre of attention and how tough it is for ourselves.
E. We become overly self-conscious
When we are anxious, we often think that everyone is thinking about us. So, self-conscious really means “I’m aware that other people are noticing me”. Maybe you think that people are noticing your every fault. “They’ll notice my quivery voice, my big feet etc.”
Lots of us don’t like to be the centre of attention. It feels vulnerable, exposed and potentially shaming.
So, the focus is all about you. But not in a good way. (see also section 2)
F. We put unreasonable pressures on ourselves
We seem to be great at placing excessive demands on ourselves such as …
“I can’t show that I’m nervous” or “I can’t be red” etc
A common if slightly ironic pressure you may put yourself under:“I should be relaxed”. Pressurising yourself to be calm when all you feel is chaos!
That’s tough when our bodies are naturally reacting to the adrenaline surge. It’s what bodies do and yet we are war on ourselves. We give ourselves a hard time about having a hard time
Other unreasonable pressures include
“I can’t make a mistake”, “I have to be funny”, “I have to be dynamic”,” I have to be professional”, “I have to perform.”
We are fundamentally saying to ourselves “I have to be somebody I’m not”.
It’s no wonder we feel uneasy.
People who write a lot often put pressures on themselves such as
“I have to be eloquent” “I have to speak like I write” “
Preparation for a presentation is seen as a form of defence but it turns into huge pressures. “If I’m really prepared they won’t catch me out”, “I have to know everything”, “I have to be an expert”. So, people can spend weeks preparing everything but actually seem to be adding to their woes rather than feeling better.
You may also have a brain that is drawn to disaster
“One mistake and that’s me done forever”
And a final excessive pressure adds more misery
“I’m not allowed to pause”, “Other peoples’ pauses are fine, mine are hideous”
Pausing allows our brain to catch up, gives us and the audience some thinking time but somehow, we are not allowed to pause. “Pausing is a sign of failure”
G. Avoiding previous threats
You may have been shamed as children or in previous jobs. And our threat system remembers those events really well.
H. The Fear of fear
Fear is meant to be a signal to avoid or fight. That is its biological purpose. It’s meant to be unpleasant. But we develop of fear of fear. So, we want to avoid it all costs. We don’t want to shake or go red. We don’t want the anticipatory fear or that sense of doom.
But that means we are planning everything around avoiding fear. “What happens if…. there is a presentation” So in many ways we are dwelling in fear most of the time even though we are trying to avoid it
As Michel de Montaigne said
“He who fears he shall suffer already suffers what he fears”. Read that again, it does make sense!
The brain is also great at catastrophising from the smallest of events. In your heads, you perhaps have the cinema of failure, the cinema of humiliation going on. We are very good at future worries – anxiety and remembering past events that were shaming or threatening.
We also have the fear of losing control. Of saying the wrong things, of swearing, collapsing and even wetting ourselves.
G. Consequences of failure
You want to avoid the shame of failure, especially in front of your colleagues.
Maybe you have a mind-set that tells us that “People can’t change, it’s too late for me to learn, I will always be a bad public speaker, Always scared of public speaking”
I. Perceived threats from the outside
Somehow, we think we know what everyone is thinking about us. And this is without any proof. And it’s always negative.
So, we know that the audience is bored, hostile and doesn’t like me. All the eyes are on me. (See the section below)
You may think that there are pressures to succeed from the outside
“People have great expectations on me” “I have to be a professional presenter to fit in”
And of course, we also have perceived unwanted supported from the outside!
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me”
J. Your brain in general
The human brain is really wired for struggle and survival. It’s still fighting stone age battles. We over- see threat – that’s how we survived in the past by anticipating dangers. But as a result, we try to predict our future by what has happened in our personal past. We only see 10% of reality so we are making a lot of what we see up. So, we see the world not really with our eyes but with our brain. And if our brain is full of fear – guess what we see? Large dollops of fear and threat!
And when our brain is full of fear, we find it hard to think properly. We are concentrating on all the fear rather than the task in hand. So, we lose our focus, forget words and get flustered really easily.
K. The language that we use
Sometimes it’s simply the language that we use which triggers the flight and fight reaction.
“I’ve got a big presentation coming up”
“I’m in the spotlight”
“it’s going to be a massive event”
Sometimes it’s about self-fulfilling prophecies in how we speak to ourselves
“I’m going to be really nervous” – you are literally telling yourself that you are going to be scared. So, what does the body do – it becomes scared!
J. Conclusion to section 1
All this over-thinking means we are creating a really tough world for ourselves. We need to change our tendency to over-think threat. We need to calm things down.
Some of the solutions to all of this over-thinking is in section 2, 3 and 4. and the rest of the blog. It may also be about developing skills in mindfulness and how we interact with our own thoughts. And part of the work to change your thinking could be done in a course.
2. We are too focussed on ourselves
Just look at how long the previous section is! And it’s all about our thinking about ourselves. Our anxious brain is busy trying to protect us but it’s often just seeing the world from our scared point of view.
I think this quote sums it well:
“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action.”
― Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
Good speakers understand that it’s not really about themselves at all, it’s about the audience or the subject or who they are representing. I’ve written a blog on how to shift our focus.
3. Our relationship to fear needs to change
We know that fear does unpleasant things to us. It may make you feel sick, your heart thumping so much that it hurts, your vision narrows, you get clumsy, need the toilet, you feel surreal, your words and knowledge go. You may also shake and have shallow breathing. Not surprisingly, we think that fear is wrong. In the previous section I talked about people wanting to avoid fear at all costs.
And it’s the completely wrong strategy.
We need to accept fear. Fear is a normal human being thing. It is unpleasant but its normal. It’s a myth that confident speakers don’t feel fear. What they do is change their relationship to fear. They accept it, they know it goes with the territory.
Nelson Mandela said: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
I’m not talking here about the kind of fear that is overwhelming and panicky. We need to reduce that fear to manageable levels. To a place where we can function well. But the idea that physiological reactions can go away completely is a myth. But what confident speakers do is to accept it, re-label it and call it excitement or perhaps “in the zone”.
4. Not understanding audiences
Audiences can be tricky. They listen in a different way to people listening to us in a conversation. Conversational listeners are active. They nod, and make approving noises and often mirror your body posture.
Audiences however don’t do that. They listen passively. They looked bored. And they have blank faces. It’s normal but it catches us out. We think they are judging us. They are just listening. But our brain is good at threat so we often see them as hostile.
5. Misinformation don’t help
You can read the “fact” that “93% of all communication is through the body”. If you think that is true you are going to be worried about what your body is saying. By believing this, we again, become overly self-conscious and become worried about what bits of your body are saying. I have read that 200 ways to move your eyebrows! I joke about this but people can be really worried about body language.
Luckily that “fact” is rubbish. If it was true, we wouldn’t ever need to learn languages at all. (we’d only miss 7% of their communication). There is a very small, tiny nugget of truth here. The only time it’s true is in this example.
If I am a speaker and shaking and nervous and I say “I’m really happy to be here” the audience doesn’t believe the words.
So, when there is a mismatch between the words and your body then it’s true.
But please remember it’s only then.
The other myth “Public speaking is scarier than death” again is rubbish. It’s from a 1973 survey that just counted what people are scared of. More people put “public speaking” down on the survey than “death”. It was a poor survey. It didn’t get people to rank fears. It just counted more people were scared of public speaking than death without asking “which is scarier”. But now this survey has done its damage. It’s a very sexy headline “More scarier than death” People now believe it and think they should be really scared. And I bang my head on the desk. It’s so frustrating. If there was just one story that all good public speaking trainers would like to banish from their part of the world, it would be this one.
I started off with the simple answer to public speaking fear – to see it as less of a threat.
We’ve seen just how much gets in the way.
We need to make it far simpler
If we understand that:
- Your brain is geared to over-reading threat and you make a lot it of this up,
- Audiences are not really thinking that much about you, audiences are not doing all that nasty stuff you think they are. They are individuals worried about themselves and their mortgage/athlete’s foot/overdraft/sex/food.
- Public speaking is a conversation, a chat, rather than a performance.
- You need to accept the fear as normal human being stuff (having done the work to hugely reduce it by changing your thinking).
- You need to shift your focus away from ourselves. We are way too focussed on ourselves.
- To develop and practise these skills in a small ways, in safe places such as speaking courses and groups or small meeting
Then public speaking becomes more possible, less threatening.
I had a client, on one of my courses, was very scared at the beginning of the day. At the end of the day, when various pennies had dropped, she said “Oh, public speaking……. It’s just normal speaking to normal people”.
That’s what I want everyone to experience.