Surveys show that most people are nervous about public speaking and around 10% of people have an extreme fear. Glossophobia is the term used to describe persistent and excessive anxiety about public speaking.
I have written before about why people fear public speaking. It is primarily a fear of being judged. But self-doubt is also a factor. Confident presenters don’t worry so much about being judged!
This article is about how glossophobia comes about - what are the factors that cause nervousness (experienced by most of us) to morph into something more extreme?
No good at public speaking? Six reasons why improving is just like learning to play a new sport (or any other complex skill)
I recently heard someone describe the three phases he goes through when learning a new skill. The first stage is fear. The second stage is grit – the hard work that goes into getting good at anything. Thirdly, there is mastery – the feeling of being highly skilled.
I found this relatable. I started my public speaking journey 17 years ago as an extremely nervous speaker. It took me eight years of consistent effort to feel proficient. Mastery is a strong word – especially when there is always room for improvement – but when things go well, I feel proud of what I have achieved.
I took up yoga around the same time as public speaking and have established a consistent practice that serves me well. I can identify the three phases too. The fear wasn't intense but I had nagging self doubt about whether my body was right for yoga (a baseless concern but very real!)
However, I can think of many things I have started but not achieved mastery or even proficiency.
Languages, for example! At various times in my life, I have studied Latin, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Māori – but have not become fluent in any of them. I don’t have a gift for languages – but nor do most people. I am not fluent because I never persevered long enough to achieve that level. In fact I have never really progressed beyond the fear stage - fear that I sound terrible!
Back to public speaking. Like any sport, craft, or even a language, public speaking is a skill-set that anyone can learn. No one would expect to be instantly good at a new activity requiring complex skills, but for some reason, we don’t view public speaking the same way. Many people are quick to judge themselves as just not suited to public speaking.
You are a bundle of nerves. You have an important presentation to give. You have been dreading it for days. You barely slept last night, and you can feel your heart pounding and the panic rising.
You look in the mirror, smile, and repeat three times, “I am a calm and confident speaker, and I am going to be amazing.”
Instantly you feel calm and reassured. Two hours later, you give your presentation. It is a huge success!
That’s great! If positive affirmations work for you, by all means, keep using them. But if instead, you have an inner critic that responds, “You liar. Don’t fool yourself. Last time was a disaster and this is going to be just as bad,” you need to try something else.
There are plenty of useful articles about public speaking, but many of them repackage similar tips. Remember to pause; practice your presentation thoroughly; maintain eye contact; focus on your audience; tell stories; and so on. Don’t get me wrong — it is all great advice! But I get excited when I stumble upon new insights.
In this article, I have put together five less-known tips. Some of these I have discovered through my own practice and all of them I have put into effect or tested for myself.
It is easy to recognise an “authentic” speaker but unpacking what this really means can be confusing. Public speaking is a performance; so how can you perform and be authentic at the same time?
Although public speaking is a performance, it is not the same as acting. As an actor, you are pretending to be someone else, but as a public speaker you are yourself. In fact, the trick is to come across so naturally that it doesn’t look like you are performing!
But this highlights a problem for inexperienced speakers. The advice to “be yourself’ is not helpful when you are trembling bundle of nerves.
“Be yourself” does not mean for you to stand up and tell everyone how nervous you feel, then waffle on about your topic! You might look “real” but in a raw, uncomfortable way that lacks professional credibility and leaves the audience squirming.
Instead, you need to bring your best self to the stage – you “on form”. A high energy version of yourself. The self that you might bring to a job interview! And it takes much practice to achieve that. Being “real” is not quite enough. An authentic speaker also has confidence and credibility.
Let’s take a look at what an authentic speaker does – and how you can do the same.
How to become a more confident public speaker by moving outside of your comfort zone (and why public speaking courses get results!)
More than half the people who register for Fear-less public speaking courses are actively avoiding public speaking. Some have chosen their career to avoid it. Others have turned down a promotion. Many palm off every speaking ‘opportunity’ to someone else. As well as being highly stressful (it is harder to avoid public speaking than you think) this means that they don’t improve. In fact, the harder they work to avoid it, the greater the fear becomes.
Inconveniently, to get better at public speaking you have to do it! – which means moving outside of your comfort zone. This may seem obvious however there is a bit more too it. You get the best results by moving just outside of your comfort zone. While you will never improve by staying inside your comfort zone, being forced to move too far out of it can also be detrimental. For example, if you were forced to give an important presentation to a large audience with little experience and feeling terrified, the chances are it will go badly. And this will just make you dread public speaking even more.
Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance when public speaking is the key to managing your nerves but it doesn’t come naturally.
When you are standing in front of an audience it is very easy to think that it is all about you. And that makes you anxious because you feel as if you are being judged. However, it is more than likely that the audience is paying very little attention to you personally! Hopefully they are listening to and processing what you have to say. But they are probably thinking about dozens of other things as well, such as what they need to do next, how long the talk is going to last, and the email they forget to send…
Of course, if you are amazingly good or incredibly bad, they will form some judgements about you as well, but you are not their focus. For each individual member of the audience it is very much about them, not you.
I recently had a client who was worried about speaking at his daughter’s 21st. I reminded him that at a 21st function people are focused on his daughter, not him. All they expect from him is to hear how much he cares about his daughter and a couple of entertaining stories. To anyone else this is obvious but many of us would react the same way as my client. It is very easy to slip into ‘what will they think of me?’ rather than ‘how can I best acknowledge my daughter?’
Thinking about your purpose rather than your performance is a powerful concept for three reasons.
Everyone wants to look confident when they are presenting. We also want to feel confident – but most people can handle feeling a bit nervous as long as they can hide it from others!
This in itself is interesting and I touched on it in a previous blog article (“Public speaking and the shame of looking nervous”). But this article is about how you can employ some techniques to look confident even if you don’t initially feel it. Or to put it another way, how to ‘fake it until you feel it.’
Before we look at the five tips there is some good news. You probably already look more confident than you feel. Surveys indicate that over 70% of people have some level of fear of public speaking. But most people look reasonably confident when they speak. So how can this be? Either fewer than 30% of the people are doing all the talking (unlikely) or most people don’t show their nerves (more likely).
Watching a video of yourself presenting can help reassure you that your nervousness is not on full display. You may feel your stomach churning, your palms sweating, your heart pounding – but these symptoms are not visible to your audience.
Recognising that your nerves are not as visible as you imagine can be a huge relief in itself. But there are additional things you can do to look more confident.
I had a cooking teacher at high school who told us that “good cooks are born, not made” which left me confused about why she had decided to become a cooking teacher!
This is a perfect illustration of a ‘fixed mindset’ described by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. A person with a fixed mindset believes that qualities such as intelligence and talent are innate and can’t be developed. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset has a thirst for learning, loves a challenge, and believes that they can improve by commitment and hard work. Carol’s research demonstrates that having a growth mindset is a better predictor of success than natural talent.
You may have heard the expression 's/he has the gift of the gab' meaning someone is naturally good at talking. But this reflects a fixed mindset towards verbal communication and public speaking. While some people probably do have natural talents in this area, it is possible for anyone to become a strong public speaker.
Research shows that 70% of people will experience the 'Imposter Syndrome' at some stage in their life.
There are conflicting statistics about how many people fear public speaking. But we know that it is a common fear. And I am willing to bet that there is a significant overlap between people who experience the Imposter Syndrome and people who fear public speaking.
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.