There have been repeated polls suggesting that 40 to 45 percent of people have a fear of public speaking. That’s nearly half!! The most common suggestions you will hear for managing your fear are “practice, practice, practice”, “know your audience” and “breathe deeply”. But is that enough? If it were, perhaps you wouldn’t be reading this article.
Let me share with you three core concepts and three practical suggestions that can help you lessen your speaking fear right away. I have found these to be very useful in my counseling and coaching practice helping people get over all kinds of stage fright.
1. Adrenaline does not automatically mean you have speaking fear – as in a phobia – the “fear of public speaking”.
Recently, I was standing in the wings of a small theater waiting to give an educational presentation on getting over stage fright to about 200 people at a district conference of Toastmasters International. I was standing next to a recent Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking who was going on before me. He was lost in his own bubble of thought, walking deliberately up and down the hallway. Every once in a while he would bounce up and down a little, shake off his hands, and then continue with his thinking and pacing.
He told me later that he does not have any fear speaking in public! So what was he doing pacing up and down like that?
The answer? Experiencing adrenaline does not mean you have stage fright, The mistake we make is thinking it does and then starting to believe we are afraid. That will only tell us there is something to fear. Then that belief can compound and we start to worry that our “fear” means we must truly be on shaky ground and it turns into stage fright.
But adrenaline (by itself) is not fear, it is fuel! You might feel a slightly rapid heart rate or a little electrical feeling throughout your body. It is natural for some adrenaline to kick in before speaking in public. It is your body fueling you for the upcoming event. You are about to go on a “ride” of sorts. There may be some mild uncertainty about how the ride will turn out, but if your feelings of adrenaline are not extreme, there is nothing to worry about. It’s just fuel.
The professional speaker I mentioned earlier was doing something very useful. He was aware of his adrenaline but he was not worrying about it. He was recognizing that adrenaline is fuel and was giving it something to do before it was time to channel it into his speech. His body movements kept the adrenaline from accumulating in his physical system. He allowed it to freely run through his body and then directed it into his performance.
What to do: Recognize that mild symptoms of adrenaline do not mean you are afraid. Your body is giving you the fuel you need to put energy into your presentation. Before a presentation or performance, keep moving and shake off the adrenaline until its time to use the energy to deliver your message. (Think boxer about to go into the ring.)
2. The cause of any true speaking fear is internal and individual.
But sometimes our adrenaline is extreme and is a sign of true fear. That can seriously affect our performance.
One of the most interesting things I have learned in helping people who fear speaking in public is that everyone’s fear is different. People tell me their version of what is scary for them as though the same must be true for everyone. But no. For instance, some people are comfortable speaking in public situations with more than a just few people and some not. Some fear speaking in public situations where they know the audience and some where they don’t. Some people are more afraid of prepared formal speaking situations and some are more nervous in a more off the cuff, casual setting.
Bottom line: the fear of speaking in public is not because the situation itself is scary. If it were, everyone would be afraid of the same situation. No, the fear of public speaking comes from the inside and is unique to us: something in the way we are thinking about it is making it seem threatening to us. In other words, it is not a real threat, but a perceived threat, that is triggering our fear. And that differs from person to person.
This is good news, because perhaps we can’t change the situation but we can change how we perceive the situation. We can shift from perceived threat to perceived safety (or really felt threat to felt safety).
What to do: Think back on past public speaking situations, or imagine a future one, and see if you can detect within yourself what is making it seem threatening to you? Is there a common characteristic of situations that trigger your fear? What are you assuming about the situation? Does that remind you of any early experiences that might set you up to fear a “repeat” of a painful situation? Is there a belief you hold about yourself that would conflict with easy public speaking?
3. You can lower your speaking fear by intentionally decreasing your “perceived threat” and increasing your “perceived safety”.
We have more control than we think. Once we can identify the elements in public speaking situations that are setting off our fear, whether it’s a characteristic of the situation or an internal thought or belief about ourselves, we can change those things. When we do, it will decrease our sense of perceived threat (our fear) and increase the sense of perceived safety (our confidence).
What to do: If you can pinpoint what is triggering your fear, find ways to change either the situation or your “take” on it so you are more comfortable.
“Practice, practice, practice” may be just what you need to feel more secure and less “out on a limb”. But on the other hand, I just spoke with a client and we determined that he was practicing too much! In his worry about not doing well he was memorizing every word. Then he would think he needed to remember every word or go into a panic if he lost his place. He is learning to absorb concepts and then offer those concepts in whatever way seems natural at the time.
Find the right amount of practice and preparation that makes you the most comfortable.
“Know your audience” is a great maxim if it’s possible. But on the other hand, how well can you know them? If you have some way to demonstrate that you relate to them, that’s great, but thinking you have to know your audience in order to be comfortable can also set up the idea that you can’t be comfortable if you don’t know them. That can turn into a feeling of being at risk.
Remember that knowing your audience is nice, but not necessary to feeling confident.
“Breathe deep” is great advice. In fact, here is a breathing exercise to try. I learned it from Stig Severinsen, champion athlete and creator of “Breatheology“. It is the 1-2 breathing technique. In this exercise you inhale through your nose for half the length of time that you exhale, either through your nose or mouth – letting the air out in a sigh. Breathe deep into your abdomen, opening your rib cage all around your torso to allow your diaphragm to move down and out and allow more air.
A more advanced version is to breathe in a ratio of 1-4-2. That is, breathe in for 1, hold your breath for 4 and then breathe out for 2. These are ratios – so you might breathe in for a count of 2 and out for a count of 4, or in for a count of 2, hold for a count of 8 and breathe out for a count of 4.
Use deep breathing to relax your mind and body as an ongoing practice, as well as before and during your presentation.
Put these suggestions into practice and see if they help.
PS: You will find lots more ideas and tips like this my book The Stage Fright Cure that comes with online video tutorials. You can learn more about it here.