If previous attempts to tackle your fear of public speaking have failed, this article is for you. It explains why learning public speaking skills, practice (preferably in a safe environment), and mindset shifts can work together to help you overcome a fear of public speaking. I like to think if it as a three-pronged approach. Like the legs on a stool, you need all three!
I have had clients who keep ‘putting themselves out there’ but find they are still highly anxious and can’t understand why – until I explain that they may need to examine some of their beliefs or mindsets about public speaking. I have had other clients who attend one of my courses thinking they can just take notes and be cured of their fear! Unfortunately, it does not work this way!
Let’s take a look at each of the prongs.
Prong one – Learn public speaking skills.
People often overlook that public speaking is just a set of skills that anyone can learn.
If you are a highly anxious speaker, the chances are that you talk too fast, have a nervous habit, use words like ‘um’ and ‘ah’ a lot and/or do not understand how to communicate a clear and well-structured message. And you can train yourself to change each of these things.
You can appear confident by learning how to craft an impactful presentation, use appropriate body language, reduce filler words, eliminate distracting habits and use your voice effectively.
Like any craft or sport, it takes time to learn these skills and at the start it feels overwhelming. But give yourself time and focus on one skill at a time. Initially your confidence might lag behind, but as you start to look more confident you will also start to feel it too. In other words, fake it until you feel it!
Prong two – Practice, practice, practice.
There is no way I know of overcoming a fear of public speaking without doing it! Practice helps you put into effect the skills that you are learning but it does more than that. The most effective way of dealing with any phobia is gradual exposure. What that means for public speaking, is finding a safe place to practice with a supportive and non-judgemental audience.
By practicing in a safe environment, you can make mistakes without the normal risks associated with failure. And when it goes well, you re-programme your brain to expect success.
Prong three – change your mindset.
Prongs one and two are enough for some people to get over their public speaking nerves, but if you are experiencing extreme anxiety you probably need prong three! You no doubt, hold a set of beliefs about public speaking which might look something like this:
I am not a natural public speaker
Anyone can learn public speaking skills. It is true that public speaking seems effortless for some people. Perhaps they have natural talent but maybe they were just lucky to have good experiences when they were young which gave them a good foundation.
Most people have not been taught public speaking skills – or if they have, it has been a tiny part of their education. But when they struggle with public speaking, they put it down to a lack of talent.
To challenge the belief that you have no natural ability, you need to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. Carol Dwerk’s work on mindsets explains this. If you have a fixed mindset you believe that your talents and abilities are more or less fixed – wheras if you have a growth mindset, you believe that you can learn the skills required to get better at anything. Dwerk’s research demonstrates that people with growth mindsets tend to do better in life.
One of my clients commented that he had always considered public speaking to be something mysterious. As soon as he realised it was just a set of skills that he had never learned, he happily set about acquiring them!
My audience is judging me intently
Really? Think back to the last time you heard someone present. How much time did you spend judging them? You would have formed an initial impression, but I bet you quickly moved on to listening to what they were saying, figuring out how it related to you, and daydreaming (what time will this finish? What are we going to have for dinner and do I need to stop the supermarket on the way home?!).
To challenge the belief that the audience is intently judging you, remind yourself of this great quote:
“We would worry less about what people think of us is we realised how little they did!”
In other words, you are the centre of your own universe but other people are not that interested!
Even if your audience is judging you, they will readily overlook a bit of nervousness as long as you are not wasting their time. When I think back on presenters I have seen in my professional life, the only people I have judged harshly, were those who were unprepared and clearly winging it.
Everyone will notice my nerves
As I have just said, people will overlook a few nerves, as long as you make an effort. But also, you are probably over-estimating how nervous you look. No one can see your heart pounding, or that knot in your stomach. They won’t even notice you shaking as long as you are not holding a piece of paper or a pointer!
To challenge the mindset that your nerves are obvious to others, watch yourself on video. It is the only way that you will believe me! I video people on my courses and strongly encourage them to watch as once they get over the cringe factor (we all cringe at ourselves!) it can be hugely reassuring.
Here is a snippet from an email I received recently:
“Your course really did change my life. I had a panic attack the first time I spoke at your course but you filmed it, and it didn’t seem anywhere as obvious as I thought. That was very empowering.”
I have dozens of similar stories. One young woman even told me that she cried for 15 minutes after watching her video as she realised how unnecessarily hard she had been on herself for years! Another client emailed me to say he was thinking of withdrawing from the course as he was struggling. I asked him whether he had watched his video– he hadn’t. I strongly encouraged him to watch it and he was blown away. He completed the course, went on to do an artist talk soon after, and was even interviewed on the radio!
Other people are way more confident than me
Without seeing yourself, you are comparing what is on your inside with other people’s exterior – and it is not a fair comparison. You are no idea what is going on internally for them!
To challenge this belief that you are the most nervous person in the room, remind yourself that surveys suggest that a fear of public speaking is common. I have asked audiences of more than 50 people for to raise a hand if they have never felt nervous before speaking – it is unusual to see a single hand raised!
If you have watched yourself on video (see previous point) and realised that your nerves are less noticeable thon you imagined, this might also help you accept that other people also experience anxiety.
People will realise that I am not an expert on the subject
Some people who suffer from public speaking anxiety also experience the Imposter Sydrome. If you worry that others believe your to be more capable than you know yourself to be – you are probably suffering from the Imposter Syndrome. You feel a bit of a fraud and you are just waiting for others to find you out. You may feel this more acutely in an audience of subject matter experts who potentially know more than you.
To challenge this belief that you have to be an expert, remind yourself that you can have a point of view worth sharing without being the expert. I have practised yoga for many years and I know a bit about it – but I don’t know nearly as much as a yoga teacher. If I was talking about the benefits of yoga to an audience that included yoga teachers, I might find that intimidating. But none of those yoga teachers have had my experience of yoga. I am not an expert on yoga but I am an expert of my experience of yoga – and as long as I stick to that, I can’t go wrong!
I have a poor memory and won’t remember what to say
If you are an anxious public speaker you probably worry about going blank as you speak. I have had plenty of clients tell me that they have a poor memory and need extensive notes to make sure they don’t forget.
If you are trying to memorise a script then you do need a good memory, but it is much easier to remember key points and how those points fit together. And that is all you should be trying to do!
When you draw a blank under pressure, it is because your nerves can trigger a flight, freeze response (which is a primitive response to danger.) Your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear to protect you – and remembering is not important when faced with a predator! The dangers that we face today tend to be more psychological than physical -but unfortunately our nervous systems have not evolved and we still respond as if the danger is physical. I have written previously about this if you want to know more about why we go blank under pressure, and what you can do about it.
To challenge the belief that you have a poor memory, try telling your partner or a friend the content of your presentation – without actually presenting it. Do this sitting as if explaining what you would say if you were presenting. That should reassure you that there is nothing wrong with your memory!
A small aside here. If you can't do this, I am willing to bet that it is not your memory. It is probably because you have not organised your thoughts clearly or you are not comfortable with your content.
I have to remember everything and get it exactly right – otherwise the presentation will be a failure
This is similar to the previous belief, but instead of (or as well as) worrying about going blank, you might worry about remembering all the detail and “getting it right”.
The belief that you have to get it exactly right is one of the hardest beliefs to shake. That is because it comes from a desire to control. Yet the best public speakers sound like they are speaking ‘in the present’. They know their stuff well, but they have not memorised a script.
To challenge the belief that you have to get it exactly right, you have to be prepared to let go and relinquish some control. Try speaking about something you know very well but without notes. I have no objection to using notes - in fact I usually use them myself – but I like to ditch them now and again to prove that I am not depending on them. And if you are going ‘note free’ don’t try to memorise – that is another form of control!
I hope that I have convinced you of the value of mindset shifts and challenging your often long-held beliefs about public speaking. If you have practiced and practiced and it doesn’t seem to get any better, this is probably the prong that you are missing. I bet you hold some of the beliefs I have mentioned – and you may have others.
Take some time to examine those beliefs – what proof do you have? Are there other possible explanations? Try some of these:
Blog post written by Catherine Syme
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