Understanding and coping with fear of speaking in public

The fear of speaking in public was spelled out to me this week by someone who has something important to say, but is prevented from saying it by performance anxiety.

In a very honest conversation, the person told me how stage fright stopped them from sharing their expertise with audiences. This person felt acutely aware of the physical manifestations of nerves, believed that the nervousness prevented them making an impact on, or connection with, the audience, and was afraid they wouldn’t be taken seriously (even though they had great credentials).

This person is not alone. We hear many such stories at our Podium Coaching workshops. But knowing the vast majority of the population is afraid of speaking in public is of little consolation. So let’s do a deep dive into stage fright, what causes it, and how we can come to terms with it.

First, let’s look at performance anxiety from different perspectives:

1 – It means you are alive… your body is working as it should. It’s doing what it’s been doing since we first set foot on earth – protecting us from threats.

2 – It’s natural… as Mark Twain once said, “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”

3 – It’s not necessarily a reflection on your speaking skills… according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America it may reflect the deeper fears related to being seen and heard by others, showing vulnerability, and being considered less than perfect.

Let’s look at those in more detail.

1 – It’s just your body doing what it’s built to do

Mikael Cho gave a great TEDTalk about the science of stage fright, and how to overcome it. Here’s part of his opening comments: “To start, understand what stage fright is. Humans, social animals that we are, are wired to worry about reputation. Public speaking can threaten it.

“Before a speech, you fret, ‘What if people think I’m awful and I’m an idiot?’ That fear of being seen as an awful idiot is a threat reaction from a primitive part of your brain that’s very hard to control. It’s the fight or flight response, a self-protective process seen in a range of animals, most of which don’t give speeches.”

And what happens next? Here’s how Cho lists the body’s reaction to the perceived threat:

  • Your hypothalamus triggers your pituitary gland to secrete the hormone ACTH, making your adrenal gland shoot adrenaline into your blood.
  • Your neck and back tense up, you slouch.
  • Your legs and hand shake as your muscles prepare for attack.
  • You sweat.
  • Your blood pressure jumps.
  • Your digestion shuts down to maximize the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscles and vital organs, so you get dry mouth, butterflies.
  • Your pupils dilate, it’s hard to read anything up close, like your notes, but long range is easy.

That’s how stage fright works. So how do we fight it? 

According to Cho, the first stage is to accept that the problem isn’t you… that it isn’t ‘all in your head’. He says: “It’s a natural, hormonal, full body reaction by an autonomic nervous system on autopilot. And genetics play a huge role in social anxiety. John Lennon played live thousands of times. Each time he vomited beforehand. Some people are just wired to feel more scared performing in public.”

So focus on what you can control. Practice a lot. Try to rehearse your presentation in an environment similar to the real performance. And you must read out loud…. don’t just glance over your notes, or recite the words under your breath. That’s a waste of time. 

Cho says: “Practicing any task increases your familiarity and reduces anxiety, so when it’s time to speak in public, you’re confident in yourself and the task at hand. Steve Jobs rehearsed his epic speeches for hundreds of hours, starting weeks in advance.”

And Mikael Cho has one more tip: “Just before you go on stage, it’s time to trick your brain. Stretch your arms up and breath deeply. This makes your hypothalamus trigger a relaxation response. Stage fright usually hits hardest right before a presentation, so take that last minute to stretch and breathe.”

2 – You are not alone

It’s been estimated that 75 per cent of people suffer from glossophobia – the fear of speaking in public. 

Chris Anderson has worked with hundreds of speakers since he became the curator of TED in the early 2000s. In his book, ‘TED Talks: the official TED guide to public speaking’, he discusses the many nervous speakers who have found success on the TED stage. 

In particular he talks about the struggle Monica Lewinsky had when, after years of public ridicule and shame, she decided to speak out. She wanted to set the record straight, but she was nervous. Would people’s preconceived thoughts drown out her words? 

Monica Lewinsky believed that what she had to say mattered. In fact, she wrote ‘THIS MATTERS’ at the top of the notes she brought on stage. 

Every time Lewinsky glanced at the music stand that held her papers, she saw, ‘THIS MATTERS’.

Realizing the importance of your message minimizes your fear. You shouldn’t be nervous – your audience wants and needs to hear what you have to say. Your message is more important than your fear.

When Inc Magazine looked at how Lewinsky overcame her fear of speaking they concluded: “Write down your specific message and why it is important. This will be your fuel to power through fear.”

3 – Dig deeper

In an article for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Janet Esposito wrote: “Learning to improve your speaking or performance skills is good, but it’s generally not enough to substantially reduce your fear. You must address and revise any negative perceptions, beliefs, thoughts, images, and predictions related to public speaking or performing. 

“And it’s often helpful to uncover the deeper fears related to being seen and heard by others, showing vulnerability, and being considered less than perfect. 

“Learning to accept yourself and not feeling that you have to prove yourself to others is at the root of healing.”

Esposito recommends these 10 tips to help reduce your stage fright:

  1. Shift the focus from yourself and your fear to your true purpose—contributing something of value to your audience.
  2. Stop scaring yourself with thoughts about what might go wrong. Instead, focus your attention on thoughts and images that are calming and reassuring.
  3. Refuse to think thoughts that create self-doubt and low confidence.
  4. Practice ways to calm and relax your mind and body, such as deep breathing, relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation.
  5. Exercise, eat well, and practice other healthful lifestyle habits. Try to limit caffeine, sugar, and alcohol as much as possible.
  6. Visualize your success: Always focus on your strength and ability to handle challenging situations.
  7. Prepare your material in advance and read it aloud to hear your voice.
  8. Make connections with your audience: Smile and greet people, thinking of them as friends rather than enemies.
  9. Stand or sit in a self-assured, confident posture. Remain warm and open and make eye contact.
  10. Give up trying to be perfect and know that it is OK to make mistakes. Be natural, be yourself.