Develop Your Public Speaking: A Few Thoughts on Fear

I’m developing a keynote speech and agonised for a long time as to what topic I would address. In recent days, however, as I have been privileged to share and receive insights from a range of teams and individuals on public speaking, one topic has become prominent:

Fear.

We all know the feeling from a terrifying experience at some point in our lives; intriguingly, however, research suggests that three-quarters of us experience it as a direct consequence of the experience (or even proposed experience) of speaking in front of a group of people.

From many hours of reading and conversations too many to mention, I have been able to condense the observations individuals have shared into four main areas. Conveniently enough, each one begins with a letter of the word FEAR. Using the FEAR acronym, I will now present four main reasons as to why we experience this dread of public speaking and some practical tips on how to combat them.

Failure

Never mind public speaking, we hate getting anything wrong. The fear of failure can deter us from any number of things, beginning in childhood. We dread raising our hand in class in case we give the wrong answer. We dare not learn an instrument or a language for fear of hitting a wrong note or mispronouncing a word. We sometimes avoid social situations or entering a relationship for fear of things ‘not working out’.

Little wonder, then, that the idea of speaking in front of a group of people fills many with such terror. An extraordinary trend I see is that of teachers; scores of these professionals speak daily with confidence and clarity in front of groups of students, but ask them to deliver a training session to a staff body and senior leaders and they leave a trail of dust as they scarper out of the room.

Why is this? One possible explanation is this: we are social animals. Our survival once depended on our ability to speak and work collaboratively within a community. Exclusion from such a group would result in almost certain death at the hands of starvation, the elements or predators.

Time and sociality have shifted immeasurably, but our biological make-up has not. You’ll have heard it as the fight, flight or freeze. In our perception, standing in front of a group of people separates us from them, placing our reputation and standing under an imaginary microscope. Our biological system treats this event the same way as a life and death situation. There is a rush of cortisol, the stress hormone. Muscles tense up, the pulse races, the mouth goes dry, the palms sweat and pupils dilate, affecting our ability to see, focus or read note cards. Vital systems, such as digestion, are suspended, forcing chemicals to the muscles in the event of a sudden need to flee.

Public speaking induces fear as we believe our reputation is on the line. We fear making a mistake, stumbling over words, missing our place or appearing incompetent. The best way to counteract this is to do two things: isolate the source of the fear and practise working through it. Once you gain control of your mind, the rest will follow. Reading and watching videos is useful, but working with a coach is invaluable and offers insights you may not get anywhere else. This is what benefitted me and what I now offer to others. A well-chosen coach will help you identify the source of your fear and work closely with you on directly confronting it.

The first thing to be mindful of, though, is what you define as success when it comes to public speaking. Fear of failure suggests you have some sort of expectation you are worried about disappointing. Are you envisioning a standing ovation, a spellbound audience or a massive pay increase? Conversely, do you think you will be sacked or ridiculed if you struggle? Setting realistic expectations is the first step to overcoming fear. None of these things are likely to happen in the first instance. If your initial expectation is simply presenting the information concisely, you will be less likely to be paralysed by the fear of failure and more empowered to speak according to what is achievable based on your current level of experience.

Experience

It is perfectly natural to be discouraged or disheartened by a previous setback. A painful break-up makes us more wary of relationships. A burn on a kettle incites a cautious attitude to hot items. A bad day at work can erode morale.

However, one bad experience need not define our entire lives. If we gave up on everything the first time we got something wrong, we’d never become proficient at anything! I certainly wouldn’t be reading, writing, driving a car, tying a tie or playing the piano. I would have quit every job, left every relationship and given up on all my dreams.

You may have had a previous setback with public speaking. I know one man who struggled with a presentation at work and avoided speaking in public for the next twelve years. This does not need to happen. I had a day at work some time ago that I would describe as a ‘bad day at the office’. I made some mistakes. I underperformed in certain areas. However, when I discovered I couldn’t have twelve years off, I slept on it and tried again the next day, and the next, and the next. Eventually, I refined the areas of weakness and became stronger as a result.

Public speaking is the same. The more opportunities you give yourself, the quicker you will improve. Don’t let one difficult moment erode your resilience. It will get easier and better with practise, but don’t quit before you’ve started.

JK Rowling didn’t get Harry Potter to a publisher at the first attempt, or even the first several attempts. She later said: It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.’ Sort of says it all, really.

Adequacy

We live in a world of comparison. We can barely make it through a minute, never mind a day, without weighing ourselves up against someone or something else and giving ourselves an inferiority complex. Whether it’s looks, cars, money, education, talents, houses, holidays or jobs, we only need to look around or open our social media feeds before we start putting ourselves down.

Social media is a minefield. I love it as a tool for keeping in touch with people the world over, but sometimes it can be anything but social. People can control what they want others to see. They can exaggerate, manipulate and filter information and photos to present the illusion that their life is perfect, their job is perfect, their house is perfect, their partner is perfect, their children are perfect and so forth. It is all too easy for us to become depressed as we wonder why our own lives don’t match up.

Public speaking can be another form of comparison. We might see someone that appears engaging, charismatic and confident and wonder why we don’t measure up. We feel like we don’t have as much to offer, less value to add and we can’t measure up to the opportunity. This comes back to setting realistic expectations and not quitting before we’ve started. Everyone must start somewhere. There was a time that Michael Jordan couldn’t hold a basketball, Beethoven hadn’t touched a piano and Da Vinci hadn’t held a brush. Give yourself the time, space and exposure to speak and practise; you might just surprise yourself, then everyone else, then the world.

Ridicule

What if people make fun of me?

On 23rd April 1910 in Paris, Theodore Roosevelt delivered one of his most oft-quoted speeches. The following quote forms the basis of Brené Brown’s excellent book, Daring Greatly, and summarises this concept profoundly:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I’ve often heard it said that you will never be criticised by someone working harder than you. I used to be deeply affected by bad press, but I now realise it often comes from insecure individuals looking to plaster over their own glaring deficiencies. I am working towards a place of quiet confidence where I am happy to try, learn and repeat. It’s a wonderful process once the shackles of fear have been discarded and you listen only to feedback intended to support your development.

Conclusion

In many conversations, people ask me if I’m still scared of public speaking. I’m certainly not ‘scared’ in the way I used to be – there was once a time when I was physically ill for weeks in the run-up and aftermath to any presentation because of the anxiety I felt. Am I still nervous sometimes? Absolutely. It’s the kind of wariness that spells a desire to perform well, to inspire others and capitalise on opportunities for growth, but I am no longer paralysed with terror in the way I once was.

Can I promise you that you will someday feel no nerves at all? No, I can’t. Nerves are useful and, when properly channelled, improved performance. However, can I promise you that you can work yourself into a position where you can seize an opportunity instead of fleeing from it? Undoubtedly. If I can do it, you can too.  

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