Fear exists either in reality or in our illusionary, frightened thoughts of the unknown future. Both types of fear can cause us to stand our ground, take to the wind, or freeze in our tracks.
With real fear, such as a close encounter with a mother bear, you’ll get a huge rush of adrenaline and, hopefully, toss the bear your picnic, back away slowly, and once out of sight . . . flee the area immediately
And you will take action in one of the following two ways:
A. You do what most people who’ve experienced speech anxiety do: don’t show up. Instead of making the dreaded speech, you decide to fall prey to public speaking avoidance and go out of your way to see to it that you never have to talk more than three people at a time.
B. You reluctantly make your way to the stage with your fearfulness in tow.
You know the feeling: your mind fogs over in a peculiar dizziness as your heart starts pounding, racing; your palms are profusely sweating, your mouth is losing moisture; it’s getting worse and worse as your limbs start shaking, you feel weak in the knees, your face is obviously red, your hearing is off, the sounds are somewhat muted—as if someone turned up the bass too high; your inner critic’s voice is screaming at you to leave the building before you make a fool of yourself.
Physically drained you feel like you’re being confronted by that growling mama bear who’s now swiping her claws in the air, showing her sharp, ferocious teeth. And you have nowhere to run. The show must go on.
Both A and B are very common occurrences for people who suffer from fear of public speaking, which is also known as glossophobia, speech anxiety, or Communication Apprehension (CA). Not surprisingly, this is one of the most common fears of our time. So if it includes you, rest assured . . . you are not alone.
In fact, a survey involving college students conducted by McCroskey and Richmond reported that almost three out of four students would say they are fearful or anxious when it comes to giving a speech in class. And in an oft-cited 1993 study done by the polling firm Bruskin-Goldring, over 25 percent of Americans surveyed said they feared public speaking. (Chapman University)
Here is the definition of public speaking anxiety from the Wisconsin Polytechnic University’s counseling center:
Public speaking anxiety, often referred to as stage fright, involves a central fear of being scrutinized or evaluated by others. This fear is often accompanied by a variety of physical and emotional reactions that can significantly interfere with a person's ability to successfully give a speech or presentation.
Fear is part of our neural circuitry and warns us of an immediate threat, floods our bodies with adrenaline, and enables us to react in split seconds. So if it is absolutely essential to our survival, why is it also keeping us from growth? Why do we let false, delusional, imaginary, illogical fear—our enemy—lead such a rich, full, life when it only causes us pain and strife?
Biologically wired with a longing to belong, we fear being seen in a critical way. We’re anxious about the prospect of being cut off, demeaned, or isolated. The depth and flavor of fear vary for each individual, although there are common elements at play. If we’re willing to look, what is our actual felt experience? What are we really worried about? Rejection? Failure? The unknown?
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
There is a distinct difference between real fear and irrational fear. But the thing most people don’t get is that you can use fear to your advantage and take action to achieve your goals. Both fears may include intense feelings of anxiety, worry, trembling or shaking, sweating, and/or dizziness, but false fear only subconsciously keeps us from branching out to explore what’s outside the comfort zone.
Fear avoidance may keep us from landing the career of our dreams or making the appropriate moves toward true love. We may end up wallowing in fear rather than taking action against the thinking mind. If we avoid the podium and do nothing, we may never know the joys and success that stem from a brain free of irrational fear.
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The successful entrepreneur, Warren Buffett, was once fearful of speaking in front of people. He was so nervous that he would choose his college classes to avoid having to talk in front of people. He eventually enrolled in a public speaking course, but he dropped the class before it started.
Later, he tried again and attended a Dale Carnegie public speaking course with 30 people who, like him, were “terrified of getting up and saying our names.”
When asked, “What habits you cultivated in your youth do you see as the foundation of your success?” Buffett answered, “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life. It’s enormously important. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.” (The Snowball).
From an early age, we begin our attempt to protect ourselves against the threatening occurrences that surface on a daily basis. And we continue to do so as we get older and transition into adulthood.
From our first red face and shortness of breath during share and tell in kindergarten, to our inaudible voice during our short stint on the high school debate team, to feeling our voice tremble when we finally spoke during a meeting . . . to when we believed we will never be good at making a presentation during the final group interview for our dream job.
The burgeoning field of neuroscience is discovering, practically on a monthly basis, how certain genes are switched on or off, and that experience can influence the expression of genes. Psychologists are starting to connect some of this research with the kind of applied research that traces how certain cognitive-behavioral skills actually affect a person’s brain.
For example, even if a child has been genetically loaded for anxiety, the right kind of parental interaction on a regular basis may be able to reinforce desirable pathways in the brain and discourage other, less desirable pathways.
This false fright of speaking on stage is a natural, human reaction. Everyone feels some level of anxiety when standing in front of a crowd to give a speech. Even if the thought of speaking in public doesn't terrify you, you can understand the fear. On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps you can feel the beginnings of that fear in your stomach right now, just by thinking about being on stage.
The cave you most fear to enter contains the greatest treasure.
The author and Zen teacher, Ezra Bayda, reminds us that much of life is about dealing with fear. “Fear tells us to close down, not to go beyond the protective outer edge of our cocoon. But by giving in to fear, we make it more solid. We strengthen our cocoon, contracting and limiting our existence.” (Being Zen)
In fear, we create limiting beliefs to avoid some terrible imagined outcome that only exists in our minds. And there are many types of fears that afflict us individually, depending on how our personality has developed.
We all have limitations. The limits are set from the moment of conception—our DNA has limitations: we are white or black, we are male or female, we have mutations, we are prone to certain diseases or bodily malfunctions. All the genetic strands come together to produce a certain temperament.
But—hand’s down—no matter what genes we are dealt, as humans, our neurons are prone to overreact to anxious feelings and thoughts.
There are different levels of severity in glossophobia. Maybe you will gamely accept an assignment and show up to give a speech when it's important to your career—even though you are totally beside yourself and have no idea how you are going to get through it. You tell yourself you can get through those situations without feeling afraid.
You focus too long on what you feel, rather than on the message you want to deliver. This is often the case with people whose fear of public speaking developed later in life. The more successful they become in their career, the more they are called upon to share their expertise with groups, and the more anxious they become.
At first, we may think the most effective way to eliminate the fear is by taking the route of avoidance, but the thing is, avoiding speaking in public may hinder your growth as an evolving human being. Public speaking may be scary, but it is not dangerous. It’s just an illusion—a silent force that keeps us down. We must learn how to win the mind game in order to overcome psychological fear.
We can control our false fears with the help of cognitive restructuring. This system was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis in the mid-1950s, based on the earlier work of others, and it's a core component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. According to some experts, cognitive restructuring helps you to change the negative or distorted thinking that often lies behind our fears.
It is a technique for understanding and challenging the sometimes wrong "automatic beliefs" that can lie behind our irrational thoughts. This may help you approach situations in a more positive frame of mind.
You may have heard a few of these common worry statements when it comes to this type of fear:
The audience will think my speech is boring. I will be so nervous and speak so fast they won’t be able to understand me. I could lose control or faint from the anxiety. Someone will ask a question I cannot answer.
Pretty self-defeating, right? Notice that all of the above statements are based on a worry that takes place in the future. They have been created before the speech has even happened.
The area of the brain called the amygdala is a limbic system structure involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. When you have a negative what if thought, the amygdala sends a signal to the rest of the brain, telling it that there may be a potential threat. It’s as if your frightened what-if thoughts are happening in real time.
In the fear caused by our thoughts, there’s no room for
If we can truly be aware of what the root cause of our fear is, we can begin to understand why we have the reactions we have. When we acknowledge fear and see the difference between real and imaginary threats, it’s possible to retrain the brain and turn our fears into allies.
During childhood, experiences begin to shape us into who we are and what we are capable of. They also transform our perception and create new ways of thinking both in the realms of adventurous discovery and on the other end of the spectrum, unwarranted fear.
And as your brain developed, you began to speak in a new language and your cognitive capacity increased—which allowed you to further reason, think, and form opinions. This may or may not have led to the same fears you are faced with today.
Once you see your fears as the major cause of constriction in your life, it is not enough to fight to eliminate them. Making the fear conscious, practicing with the awareness of false fear, and recognizing the difference between real fear and false fear, are all steps toward change and victory over our personal anxieties.
The first stage of practicing with fear is to gradually become aware of how much fear there is in almost everything we do. And as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck pointed out in one of her talks on fear, false fear is merely the result of the thoughts that we create—based on our past experiences and worries of future events. Beck reminds her students:
Our practice is about making our fear conscious, instead of running around inside our cell of fear trying to make it look and feel better.
When we bring self-awareness to what’s happening around fear, there is a shift. By becoming aware of our feelings and reactions, we can begin to increase what Daniel Goleman calls our emotional intelligence (EI), or emotional quotient (EQ). Awareness can help us to override our conditioned thought patterns and rewire our brains for success.
Once the awareness of the fear is present, we begin to notice how fear is merely a thing that exists in the human mind.
Right now, someone somewhere is about to go on stage to deliver a speech or read a poem that may change their lives forever, an event that may make or break their career. They are simultaneously having an intense moment with their fear of rejection, failure, or fear of appearing weak. They cannot do it. They cancel their performance. They avoid their fear.
They're already aware of their fear and know that the speech anxiety is just something they are creating in their minds because they do not want to fail. They want to do a good job, so they are prepared for this moment. They know their audience and that the words they’re about to deliver
Imagine if MLK decided he was too scared of death to face the crowd? And if Sojourner Truth and Gloria Steinem made the choice to stay at home instead of speaking to the masses about women’s rights? What about FDR? What if he never delivered the famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Our lives would not be the same. These leaders persevered for the people, for their audience, and for the greater good—not for themselves.
In order to free yourself from fear of public speaking, we must shift our level of consciousness and start to put others first. The speech is for the listeners, not for the speaker. To persevere, we must stand tall instead of shrink down when the negative voice in our head tries to tell us we’re not good enough to speak about our ideas and areas of expertise to a nice group of fellow human beings.
The public speaking truth is, the audience that in front of you contains the pleasant, supportive people who can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And you know your audience is supportive because you already did your research or you personally know many of them. Yet, for some primal reason, you are shaking in your boots.
Your brilliant idea may just be the next catalyst for change in the world. And we, as your audience, need you to tell us what it is. Now is the time to get over your fear of public speaking and step into the arena.
We’re often not aware of what extent fear plays a part in our lives, which means that the next stage of practicing with fear requires acknowledging its presence. The acknowledgment of what’s happening to our mind and body when we feel speech anxiety take over is another important step.
It's important to feel the symptoms and name them as “symptoms” rather than as part of you. When you have a sudden onset of unwanted feelings, take the time you need to relax your body by using breathing and other techniques used for stress relief and coping with anxiety.
We must also recognize and acknowledge the voice in our head (created in the right prefrontal cortex) that is directing us to enter the dark side—fear. Acknowledge that the voice of your inner critic is lying to you . . . and notice what that sounds like. Over time the voice of your inner critic will become weaker and weaker, no longer able to use language that translates to negative self-talk.
Now that you are fully aware of your fear and have acknowledged your body’s and mind’s response to the fear, it is time to establish deep acceptance for the fears you have created, and begin to build an alliance with your new, fearless self. Clinical psychologist and lecturer, Dr. Tara Brach, tells us that when we meet and accept our fears as they are, the anxiety trance begins to lose its power over us.
This is when we can take back control and manage our emotions. “Such acceptance is profoundly freeing. As we learn to say yes to fear, we reconnect with the fullness of being—the heart and awareness that have been overshadowed by the constriction of fear.” (Radical Acceptance)
During the transformation from fearful to fearless, it is important to repeat positive affirmations and coping statements out loud to yourself. In acceptance and alliance, we begin to come to grips with who we truly are. . . a wonderful human being! This is crucial when taking the steps toward rewiring your brain and creating a sustainable, acceptable allegiance with your true, public speaking self. Here are some statements of positive reinforcement to practice:
Keep returning your attention to your dedicated, daily practice to overcome fear. Your nervousness may not go away overnight, so the more attention and self-care you give your transformed, fearless self, the better.
It is possible to retrain the brain.
Believe it. The best thing to do to override the ingrained program in your brain that has you triggered for fear of public speaking is to talk about it! In fact, if you stand in front of a group and tell them about your fear, they’ll most likely empathize with you . . . and your fear will quickly vanish.
So, let’s keep talking about it.
Would you be able to give outstanding presentations during the interview process for your dream job?
Make much more money than you are making now?
Would you be able to promote your book by reading and talking to people from a stage?
Be the poet you’ve always wanted to be?
Breathe yes, but calm down—no. In her research at Harvard, Alison Wood Brooks asked people to give a public speech on what would make them good colleagues. She told them they would be videotaped and evaluated by a committee. Talk about anxiety.
More than 90 percent of people said the best strategy was to calm down. But it didn’t work. When independent raters evaluated the speeches, people who tried to relax ended up giving speeches that lacked persuasiveness and confidence.
Later Brooks reported that instead of saying “I am calm, I am calm . . . I am calm . . . ” over and over, people gave more compelling speeches when they said “I am excited! I’m really, really excited!”
Every communication is a conversation, no matter how many people may be listening. Everything you say and do when making a public speech should meet the one-on-one conversation norms. So, once you are on stage, pretend that you’re having a one-sided conversation with one of (or many of) your closest friends: a conversation where you will do all the talking. (There’s No Such Thing as Public Speaking)
Feeling nervous right before going onstage? Yawn a number of times; it eliminates mental stress. Run in place; this eliminates stress chemicals in the brain. Think of the value of your message and how it will illuminate your audience.
Acknowledge your audience. This is the first door to open any communication. Acknowledgment is the first essential and mandatory need, for both the speaker and the listeners, which must be satisfied prior to the advancement of any personal contact.
Acknowledgment in humans always begins the same way: it requires that both parties turn their bodies to face one another, shoulders squared, looking at each other straight in the eye. This is known as a full-frontal stance. Regardless of culture, the full-frontal stance is the universally understood way that humans initially acknowledge each other. Take another deep breath—through your nose.
Since you cannot shake hands or hug your audience, simply accept them into your space by nodding your head and smiling. Thank them for their applause and/or thank the person who introduced you to the audience. Pick someone out of the audience, who is seated somewhere in the middle, and nod to that person.
Every other member of the audience will see that nod and will accept it as the most practical form of acceptance available, thus satisfying them. Continue to acknowledge them by saying good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. Use the normal greeting for the culture. Bow, if you see fit.
You have done your research, you know your audience, so now it is time to establish an alliance with them. You want them to trust you and to relate to you, so use a little humor, tell them a little bit about yourself, include a brief story.
Start with your catch. Get the attention of your audience with an interesting fact, anecdote, or question. Once you have their eye and ears, begin your speech.
1. Dress the part.
Make sure you are dressed like your audience, maybe slightly more dressy, but remember, you can rarely overdress. Wear minimal jewelry, especially anything reflective. Wear something that doesn’t distract the audience or clash with the backdrop; it is best to contrast with the backdrop or wall behind you.
2. Stand tall and proud as if to say, “I am an authority on the subject.”
Know that you are totally in control. If standing, do not lean on the podium and be aware of your posture. Speaker and coach, Jenni Prisk, suggests standing with both feet firmly grounded on the balls of your feet and imagine there is a string coming down from the ceiling that is attached to the crown of your head and you are being pulled up. This will lengthen your spine.
3. If you
Don’t’ waltz around nervously. Move forward once in a while to engage with your audience during an especially powerful point. Move sideways to indicate a transition in your presentation. If after lots of practice you cannot do this, don’t try, just stay planted center stage—as you will do for the opening and closing of your speech.
4. Make gestures with your hands and face.
When you talk to your friends and family, your hands are probably moving, supporting your spoken words and expression—use these same natural gestures during your presentation. And strong eye contact bonds you to your audience and makes your speech more personal as well as believable.
HINT: Your voice is linked to your hands. If you tend to speak in a monotone or with a flat voice, incorporate more gestures into your talk. The broader and more emphatic your gestures, the more dynamic your voice will sound.
1. Speak conversationally.
People don’t like to be lectured. Speak to your audience as though you were discussing issues at a dinner party.
2. Highlight important words with your voice.
Identify and emphasize the important words in your message. Vary your sentences, and when you have something important to emphasize, say it in 10 words or less.
3. Vary your volume.
Switch it up. Speed it up or slow it down to add interest. Speak loudly at times, and softly to keep your audience attentive.
4. Pause before . . . and after . . . important ideas.
You don’t want to race through your important ideas, so pause while silently counting “one, two” to give your audience the chance to take in the words. As you pause, take the opportunity to breathe—through your nose. NOTE: The pause will seem longer to you than to your listeners.
5. Speak with ENTHUSIASM! Please!
This is one of the most powerful things you can do with your voice. You cannot expect your listeners to be enthusiastic about your ideas when you sound indifferent.
Even after years of human evolution, it is still almost impossible for some people to tell the difference between an encounter with a mama bear and a supportive audience waiting to hear their brilliant speech.
The fear of public speaking is often the result of defeating ourselves with inappropriate goals and standards. Fears of failure surface when we settle for nothing short of a magnificent performance in anything we do. Consequentially, we often have to settle for doing just that—nothing. And it’s possible we just may be prone to perfectionism or another limitation such
Dr. Susan Jeffers gives insight into the truth about fear. She emphasizes the fact that fear exists because we are afraid to face the unknown. Jeffers writes, “Every time you take a step into the unknown, you experience fear. There is no point in saying, ‘When I am no longer afraid, then I will do it.’ You'll be waiting for a long time.” (Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway)
The world can be a worrisome place. But when worries turn into anxious thoughts centered around the events of the future, a false fear is created. And false fears can paralyze our growth as human beings. Irrational, false fears are just a horrible game the mind plays to trick us into believing we are truly in danger.
But there is hope.
You have the power to conquer the fear, and all it takes is a little discipline, practice, and determination. You can learn to use the latest brain research to master your fear of public speaking. It’s totally possible. As you turn your fear into fuel, there’s nothing that you cannot do. And once you commit to overcoming your deep-rooted fear, you will begin to remember what it’s like to be brave.
From an experiential or existential viewpoint, working with our fear of public speaking involves opening to our felt experience. If we can have a more aware, friendly, accepting relationship with the feelings that arise within us as a result of speech anxiety, then we can transform our fears into goals and move on with our lives.
Do you want to learn neuroscientific ways to uncover and overcome your conscious and non-conscious fears . . . and turn them into fuel for your success? Click the button below to register for the free training on Winning the Game of Fear.
Please leave your comments, reflections, and/or questions in the space below.
Bayda, Ezra. Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life. Shambhala, Boston & London (2003).
Beck, Charlotte Joko. Everyday Zen: Love & Work. Harper, San Francisco (1989).
Bargh, J. A., & Morsella, E. (2008). "The Unconscious Mind". Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 3(1), 73–79.
Dwyer, Karen. Conquer Your Speech Anxiety. Thomson Wadsworth. (2005).
Croston, Dr. Glenn. The Real Story of Risk. Prometheus Books. (2012).
Greenberg, David. Simply Speaking! The No-Sweat Way to Prepare and Deliver Presentations. Goldleaf Publications, Atlanta (1997).
Henderson, Jeannette. There’s No Such Thing as Public Speaking: Make Any Presentation or Speech as Persuasive as a One-on-One Conversation. Prentice Hall Press. (2007).
Jeffers, Susan. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Fawcett Books, New York. (1987).
Schroeder, Alice. The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. Random House. (2008).
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Denise Kinsley is a writer, consultant, and practitioner dedicated to the healing arts and sciences.