Help! Will the fear of public speaking ever go away?
The Public Speaking Tips Series
I came across this very question on a public forum – “Help! Will the fear of public speaking ever go away?” It prompted me to write down again the common things that keep people trapped in the fear of speaking in public and avoiding giving presentations at all costs. So here is my answer for those of you who might have that question running in your heads and could do with some ideas on how to overcome that public speaking fear.
The most talented and articulate people can be stymied by their fear of public speaking. It is not uncommon to lock ourselves into a story about how we cannot speak in public. Even when there is more to be gained than lost by getting out there and taking the first steps to becoming better speakers. Yes it can be challenging. And, yes, it can go away! If you are one of these, you might find the coaching questions useful to get the root of what’s going on for you.
So what are the common patterns of the fear?
I keep a little track of what I see as the common patterns that stop us from sharing who we are and what we know in presentations. The way people think about their fear of public speaking is much the same. They often say to me. “I’ve been trying to understand this. Why I do this? What am I afraid of? I will just never get over it. I’m not going to be able to do this. People are looking at me. I will look foolish. I will forget what I am saying. I can’t handle the silence in the room.”
Here are the patterns I have found to come up over and over again. Are these familiar?
Fear of Humiliation
Nobody likes to feel humiliated. It’s like a raw, open wound. All we want to do is cover it up. Many of us in the past have been put in the spot light inadvertently and way before we wanted to be. We perceived it as the wrong kind of attention. Or the wrong time for people to see us at our most vulnerable. We equated it with making a mistake. It was about saying the wrong thing or just not being able to speak at all. We lock it in to our memory do whatever it takes to steer away from experiencing that feeling again. It becomes a permanent fixture in our minds, stored in the Do Not Enter Zone.
Coaching Question 1
Who or what in the past am I keeping the lid on to stop myself from growing? What story am I using to keep me from daring to do and be more? What if I allowed myself to be vulnerable and speak about it?
Public speaking means performing
This is about confusing information-sharing with “performing.” Proving to yourself how good you are and using the standards of high-profile actors and public figures out there, who have been doing presenting for years. You do not have to copy them, but you could dare to give it a shot! You are not an actor. You are not being paid to speak. You don’t have to be funny. You don’t have to impress. You just have to share your information. What if you gave it that meaning?
Coaching Question 2
Who am I playing my life or my presentation to? A parent, a school teacher, a boss, an authority figure from the past? Where did I confuse sharing information with being a performer? What if I called my presentation an ‘information-sharing session?’
Perfectionism and Over-responsibility
All of us run a level or perfectionism in our lives, where nothing can be short of 100% perfect. It is a strong point of view we hold when it comes to speaking in public. You think “I have to be perfect and right and know everything. I can’t forget anything or appear foolish in front of others.” We are also taking responsibility for making others create the ‘perfect’ impression of us, so we don’t feel those bad feelings of not being good enough.
Coaching Question 3
What if my audience wants me to be relaxed with being good enough as a standard? What if I can learn from this? Where am I trying to be over-responsible for the thoughts and feelings of my audience, as if I can control and manage them?
This to me is at the heart of the problem the fear. We grow up with external references from the day we are born. We grow up through a time when others tell us who we are and what we do. We confuse people’s judgements with what could be true for us. Instead of asking ourselves how we define ourselves, we take on the opinions of others as real. If other people think it’s great, then I must be ok. Thinking that they are the ones with the right point of view. They have a point a view, yes! It is just one of many.
Coaching Question 4
What if I created a point of view that people are supporting me, wishing me well and only want the information I am giving them?
Blind Spots and Focus
When we function from a state of fear, we do have blind spots and our focus is only on one aspect of the whole experience. Think about this from 3-5 points of view and focus on what you are not seeing. So think about what’s going through the mind of those your audience. If you were in the audience and any one of the people watching, what would you be really thinking about? Some might be doing their shopping list for the weekend, thinking about a loved one, or just how long it will be until they get back to the pressing work piling on their desk. You may well be the last thing on their mind. Doing this exercise lightens your thinking. It may even make you laugh. Your presentation is really not as significant as the meaning you are giving it.
Coaching Question 5
What if I am giving this more significance than I need to? What if the audience is full of a mix of distracted, attentive and supportive people? Will this matter in 20 years?
An Undeveloped Skill of Public Speaking
A default line of thinking around presenting is ‘if I can talk, I must be able to present.’ No, not true! Presentation skills are a whole different ball game. They are learned like anything thing else. Over the years I have learned that there is a structure to giving a talk in front of people. There is a way to put a message together in a simple way. Telling stories and using your body language and voice to get that across to people is part of the delivery process. It take understanding of how to do it and practice to get better at it.
Coaching Question 6
What can I do to start developing these skills? Where are the opportunities to speak in front of group where I can feel slightly comfortable? What would it take for me to take a chance and show myself to the world?
In the public speaking courses I have delivered over the years, I had to do it differently to get people out of the nervous states. This was even before they could look at putting a presentation together. No amount of well-meaning encouragement boosted confidence, without digging out the root cause of the fear. The number one thing for me is to show people what’s sitting underneath it first. Then we have to clear it out. That’s where coaching gets to the heart of what’s going on in a constructive, gentle way. It is only then that we can work on developing presentation skills in a course.
The good news is, you can get better, feel more at home at the top of the room and share yourself with the people in front of you. If you rebuild the foundations which are about beliefs and the meaning you give to presentations, you can become the speaker you want to be. It truly is possible.
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