I re-wrote this answer for Quora today and I thought I would share it. It’s an overview article and a good place to start thinking about how to change.
If you are afraid of public speaking you probably recognise some of the following points (if not all of them).
1. We over-think public speaking in a massive way. We catastrophise, ruminate about past failures and are anxious about future events. Our brain is evolutionary biased to the negative, so ancestors survived the threats of the stone age
2. We mistakenly think that people are nearly always thinking negative things about us when we stand in front of a crowd. We think people will be judging that we are boring, or fraudulent. We truly misunderstand what is happening in an audience and that is absolutely crucial to re-thinking public speaking
3. We often think that everyone else is better than me when it comes to public speaking
4. We put massive performance pressure on ourselves to be one or all of the following; I have to be funny, profound, impactful, dynamic, professional. Or we put negative pressures on ourselves “ I can’t make a mistake”, or show that I am scared, I don’t want people to see me fail etc. Putting these sort of pressures on ourselves is not very helpful. It adds to the thinking over-load. Not surprisingly, we then see public speaking as a performance.** We tell ourselves we have to be better than we normally are
5. Adding to all of this we are self-critical. I’m not good enough, I’m not thin enough, I’m not clever enough. So feelings of shame are not that far away from the surface.
6. We also may think that people can see all our anxiety.
7. It’s no wonder then that we hate being the centre of attention. We feel vulnerable, we feel exposed, we feel all eyes are on us.
When you look at that list, we are doing it to ourselves. The answer is about changing how we think. It’s not about tips about how to stand.
It’s really about understanding that it’s an inside job. We need to change how we frame public speaking. The blank mind, the fear, the shakes are an adrenaline reaction.
We feel under threat. The trouble is that our brain sees those inner pressures as threats and kicks off the dry mouth, the brain freeze.
We need to make public speaking simpler because the less pressure we put on ourselves, the less adrenaline we get. But that is the opposite of what most people do.
How do we change how see public speaking?
a) Strangely first seek understand audiences
To understand public speaking more, you have to understand audiences, NOT from the speaker’s point of view. But from when YOU are in the audience.
So next time you are in an audience of over 10 people, I want you to notice what you do and what other people around you do when you listen to a speaker.
I’m going to bet that;
You listen passively, you nod far less than when you are in a normal conversation. Your face tends to show few approval signs so your face looks blank.
•You just allow people to take the space when they speak– without too much thought at all. Other speakers can just have their turn without you going “They don’t deserve that space” or “They are not worth it”.
• You listen to the speaker for a while but you also think about other things. “Do I need to shop on the way home?” “Do I need to apologise to my wife when I get home?”. (yes is the answer btw) and other thoughts. We occupy a private world in our heads.
• We are not thinking poisonous thoughts about the speaker. Not usually. We might get bored or frustrated with them but we are not wanting them to die, to fail. We are not criticising their body parts. (By the way I’m not talking about listening to the likes of Donald Trump here but a normal business/organisational presentation).).
Being in an audience is a relatively benign place. We just listen or we don’t
**But when it’s YOUR turn to speak, suddenly everything changes.
The audience has become hostile, judgemental, bored, is staring at you, is thinking bad thoughts, they have massive expectations of you. Audiences have angry, blank, judgmental faces.
But the audience hasn’t changed – YOU have.
We assume we can read any audience without any actual proof. If we are afraid we assume they are ALL thinking negative thoughts about us.
And yet moments before we were just in a gentle audience.
We misread the audience massively. We interpret lots of signs as threats. We forget that we have brains that are hard-wired for spotting threat over millions of years. When we speak we are suffering from evolution! We are operating on false information about the audience because we are anxious. So a yawn is because I’m boring, not because they had a bad night.
So when we speak we need to understand that speaking to audiences is different from a normal conversation.
Audiences have blank faces – and that is normal. We may need to practise seeing audiences in this different way before a big event.
You can start of course by looking at what you do when you are in the audience.
The idea then is to understand more deeply what is really happening in an audience.
b) so once you understand audiences you can then change how you see public speaking
• Don’t avoid it but take small steps first. Avoiding public speaking tends to make the whole problem bigger. We develop a huge anxiety radar and we build up the threat. Often I get people who have been avoiding it for ages then have to sort public speaking fear out by next week because they can’t get out of it.
• See it as a conversation, a chat, like you would chat around the kitchen table. And chat to one person at a time for 3–5 seconds. Even if they have a blank face.
• Change how you see fear. It’s not a signal to run away. It’s a signal that this event matters. Experienced speakers see it as excitement. You may not be able to go anywhere near this yet but fear is normal. There is nothing wrong with you if you are feeling fear. The shift is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Accepting those feelings as being unpleasant but there is NOTHING wrong with you. You are not broken
• Learn to love blank faces in the audience (see above)
• Allow yourself to be present. Practise just being there, slowing down, not rushing. Allow yourself to pause. If you can slow down, you can get your brain back. You can think normally
• What the audience wants is you being you. Rather than you performing. They want authenticity, otherwise they won’t trust you. So be yourself, not perfect, and slightly nervous
• Learn to be far gentler on yourself. We undermine our own confidence by always judging ourselves harshly and forever noticing the negative. Confidence grows if you can be friendlier to yourself, like you are with your friends. I’ve worked with 7000 people since 2000. 99.9% of them have critical inner voices. It’s normal and I think it’s about self-shaming to keep ourselves small (for evolutionary reasons)
• It’s handy to understand our brain more. It’s really good at threat, we are thinking way too much about ourselves (in a negative way), we think we know what people are thinking. But it’s us distorting our world because we anxious. So if understand the brain more, you won’t be so harsh on yourself and you would realise that we need to manage it in a different way
• Get better at recovering from mistakes. “I can't make a mistake” when we speak is way too much pressure. It’s far less work if you are relaxed when a mistake happens. So you fell over, so what! It’s how you recover from a mistake which is important. If you handle a mistake well the audience will have more confidence in you. So its the opposite of what we normally think
• learn to love pausing. Pausing helps the audience to take what you are saying in. Audiences need that space. And if you get comfortable with pausing then you can think in those times too.
• find a place to practise these skills out of work. You know by now that I run courses but I’m not the only trainer in the world. It’s best to find a group where it feels safe to explore being the centre of attention and blank faces. There are speaking clubs around the world but you may want to think about a course first where the trainer is experienced in helping people with public speaking anxiety.
this answer was first written for Quora