Microphones

How to conquer your fear of public speaking

It is often bounded around that on the most common list of fears, public speaking comes in at number one. Death comes in somewhere below it. This sounds plausible: you are more likely to get embarrassed about a speech than you are as you die. In death, you have other things to worry about.

The technical term for fear of public speaking is glossophobia. How do you get over it?

Cognitive reminders

When we worry about public speaking, we are usually worried about two things:

  1. That we will embarrass ourselves
  2. That the social consequences of that will be severe

There is a real fear here. Not being an engaging and coherent presenter will cause the audience to be less interested and become more restless.

However, the consequences of this are rarely as bad as you expect.

Most people are not naturally gifted orators. It takes time and practice and many people simply never manage it: how often have you seen someone give a less-than-perfect speech at an event, wedding or work presentation?

They survived, right? As with all anxiety, these fears come from spending too much time in our own head.

That feeling you get in your stomach

Knowing that it is not as bad as all that is once thing. But your fear does not come from your thoughts: it comes from that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you step to the front of the room.

Our body reacts automatically, without checking with the mind as to whether it is safe.

How do we get over this? We need to re-train our body that it does not need to go into fight or flight mode when we get up to speak. The way we do this is with exposure.

But that means "just get up and do it", right?

Not exactly, no. We wanted to use graded exposure. This means aiming for something that feels just a little bit out of our comfort zone and then repeating it until we feel a little better. Then we step up the challenge and repeat the process.

It is true that the only long-term way to conquer your fear is to get up and speak. However, this can be done in steps so that you never feel overwhelmed.

At each point, we pick a challenge, do it over and over again until it feels a little better, and then move on.

How do we break down public speaking?

The key to any graded exposure is to create a hierarchy of fears. We will not be starting by giving a talk to a room of 1,000 strangers! We will start with something easy.

Here are some options:

  • Speak in front of family and friends
  • Speak in front of a small group at work
  • Speak at a local public speaking club designed for beginners
  • Give a presentation to your therapist
  • Record yourself on video and post it online
  • Start with a pre-written script you read out
  • Start by doing a reading from a book

Break the task down to a level you feel you can do. If it makes it easier to take the first step: use it. It does not have to be an amazing presentation.

For example, starting with a pre-written script. This does not make a great talk. However, if it allows you to get the talk done the first time, use it. You can work on being more natural later.

Similarly, recording yourself on video without anyone there is an excellent way to start. It's surprisingly difficult: as soon as there is a camera pointed at your face, you will feel some pressure. However, you can have unlimited do-overs and nobody needs to see it except you.

How to get support

The best way to find support and encouragement is by joining a local public speaking club. There are many different clubs around, but the two I recommend are The Association of Speakers Clubs (UK) and Toastmasters (worldwide).

Both of these clubs are specifically designed for beginners with a fear of public speaking. I have seen people at my local clubs with speech impediments, who freeze up, or who did not even dare come in the door the first few times they came to the venue: but eventually overcame their fear and are now excellent speakers.

This video explains what a Toastmasters meeting is like.

Both of these networks allow you to visit and see what you think before joining. Typically, you will not have to say anything (other than maybe your name) when you visit as a guest.

Conclusion

Public speaking is a huge fear for many people. However, it is hard to avoid: work presentations, job interviews, weddings and other events all conspire against you. As with most sources of anxiety, the best way to tackle it is to use graded exposure. This method allows you to break the task down into manageable steps and slowly conquer your fear.

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Published 24 July 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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