Public speaking is a performance, but it is not the same as acting. There are two main differences. The first is fairly obvious – as an actor, you are being someone else, but as a public speaker, ideally you are being yourself. Many people struggle with being themselves in front of an audience. How often do you hear people go into 'presentation mode'? They take on a professional persona that is an unconscious form of acting.
The second difference is about your relationship with the audience. An actor pretends that the audience is not there. But as a public speaker, you are there to engage directly with the audience – you acknowledge your listeners. To the audience, you are the whole point – and vice versa. Otherwise, you may as well just hand out notes!
“Overcome”, “conquer”, “kill”, “get over”, and “cure the fear of public speaking” are all terms that people google. I know – I have done the keyword research!
If you are anxious about public speaking, you probably see your anxiety as a big problem. You worry that others will notice your nerves, that your mind will go blank, and that your audience will judge you harshly.
All this is understandable. But this article explains why seeking to fight, eliminate or fix the fear is unrealistic and counterproductive. It suggests other strategies, such as shifting your focus and adjusting your self-talk.
Remember learning to ride a bike? You probably started with training wheels. What happened when your parents removed the training wheels? Perhaps you went, wobble, wobble, wobble, splat. The next time the wobble lasted a little longer before the splat, and then maybe by the third or fourth time, you went wobble, wobble and then took off. You were away!
Would you have ever learned to ride a bike if you had kept the training wheels? Unlikely. Training wheels don’t teach you to balance; they just give you a feel for sitting on a bike.
Relying heavily on notes when you are learning to speak publicly is similar to using training wheels on a bike. You will never be able to deliver a speech without notes if you always read your notes. But unlike training wheels, you may not need to ditch your notes altogether. But you will need to stop reading them!
The short answer is most people! But some people have extra high levels of anxiety about public speaking. This article explores how different personality types or attributes can affect people’s anxiety levels.
You have heard of 'Zoom fatigue' - the experience of feeling exhausted from being online all day. But have you experienced 'Zoom panic'?
I have had a spate of recent calls from people who have had a bad experience presenting online. Some of them tell me they have never liked public speaking, but presenting online has made it worse. Others are puzzled and concerned because they have considered themselves confident speakers until now.
A typical example was a call from a young woman who recently ran an online webinar for 50 people. The experience had been traumatic for her. She described having a panic attack and then having a similar episode a few days later.
A quick google tells me that these experiences are not uncommon. 'Zoom anxiety' is a thing.
Before the COVID19 pandemic, most people's experience of public speaking was to live audiences.
For people who have a fear of public speaking, you might think that the shift to Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other online platforms would have been a welcome relief. But, for most people, the nerves are just as bad online and sometimes worse.
A 2013 study (pre-pandemic obviously) verified this. The study's 70 participants gave a speech twice – once in-person and once online. The students' anxiety levels were assessed by a survey and heart rate monitoring.
The students expected to be more nervous in-person. But their heart rates were just as high online as they were in person. Self-reported nerves, surveyed post-speaking were also just as high online.
The study concluded:
"Based on results using both instruments, there were no significant differences in the amount of anxiety between delivering a traditional face-to-face speech and a speech given using web-conferencing technology."
Here are some reasons why I think that presenting online can be as anxiety-inducing as in-person.
Lack of non-verbal feedback
You probably feel more relaxed when you see your message resonating with others. Perhaps you get a nod or a smile, which can be very encouraging. But you don't tend to get the same non-verbal feedback online.
People react less when they are not physically present. Some will have their cameras off. And even if they are responding positively, you should be looking at the camera most of the time, which means you won't see their reactions.
Talking to a screen feels unnatural
Have you ever felt disconnected or had an out-of-body experience when presenting to an audience? You can hear yourself talking, but you feel like you are an observer, not a participant? Online presenting can exacerbate such feelings because there is nothing natural about sitting in an empty room and speaking to a screen! Seeing yourself on the screen can also be disconcerting.
And then there is the newness of the experience if you are not used to presenting online. I remember, many years ago, leaving a message on an answer-phone for the first time. I rambled and felt ridiculously self-conscious because I had never done it before!
You have an added worry – will the technology work?
As if worrying about what you are going to say is not enough! Now you also have to worry about things like screen-sharing and whether your Wi-Fi connection is stable enough.
It doesn't help that all of these online platforms all work a bit differently. Perhaps you are used to screen-sharing on Zoom, but now you are on Teams which is not quite the same.
It is harder to retain the audience's attention
As I said at the start, we are now all familiar with 'Zoom fatigue'. There is just something about staring at screens that makes it more tiring for the listener.
Most of us sit when presenting online, even in situations where we would stand if presenting face-to-face. But this tends to make us less engaging. And audience members can be easily distracted by checking their phones or what is happening in the background.
Even worse than getting little positive non-verbal feedback, you might think your audience members look bored! If that is true, it is probably not your fault, but it is natural to feel put-off by seeing people yawn!
You may be feeling more anxious generally
I often find that people who fear public speaking have some other sources of stress in their life that exacerbates their issues. And right now, the pandemic may be making everything worse for you.
Lockdowns have affected people in different ways, but perhaps it has been stressful for you due to loneliness, having children at home all the time, having to work in less-than-ideal conditions, or some other reason.
This is a significant factor, and it may explain why some people find presenting worse even online than face-to-face.
That is quite a list!
Of course, not everyone gets nervous about online presenting. Some people may even prefer it. But for many people, the lack of non-verbal feedback, worry about the technology, and oddness of talking to a screen can make online presenting feel uncomfortable. And more generalised anxiety that some people are feeling right now, can make things worse.
Eight things you can do to make it easier
Here are eight practical suggestions to make things a little easier for yourself. If you are usually a confident speaker, these things might be enough. But if you have always been a nervous speaker, you should also consider taking a public speaking course.
If you are experiencing 'Zoom panic' you are not alone. I have anecdotal evidence that lots of people are going through something similar. And research appears to back up that people find presenting online just as stressful as in-person – even without the stress of a pandemic!
Hopefully, you will find some of these suggestions valuable. Remember to check out that public speaking course as soon as this is possible! It will get better the more you do it. It is tempting to make excuses and try to avoid it, but this will make it worse in the long run.
Article written by Catherine Syme
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?
How to share something personal with an audience without oversharing! Seven questions that will help if you are unsure
On the first night of my public speaking course, I tell people the story of my epic public speaking fail. You can read all about it on my Medium site. The short version is that I had a panic attack in front of the senior executive team of the organisation I was employed by. Six months later, I joined Toastmasters. Twelve years later, I became a public speaking coach.
I tell this story to every new group without hesitation. My clients have a fear of public speaking. It is a perfect way to start the course because it helps reassure them that they are in a safe environment with a coach who understands how they feel. It also gives them hope that it is possible to move past a crippling fear of public speaking.
The first time I told my story, I looked for reasons not to. I was concerned it would make me look weak. And I did not want to re-live the shame! I wondered if I could get away with something vague like, “I used to be a bit anxious about public speaking, and so I understand how you feel.” But I realised that would be dishonest and not nearly as powerful as sharing that I once was them!
Although it is the right thing for me to share my story, I was justified in hesitating. I have been on the receiving end of speakers who have overshared — and you probably have too!
Have you had an epic public speaking fail? Here is how to stop berating yourself and practice self-compassion instead.
Many of my clients come to me after an epic and humiliating public speaking fail – or a series of more minor fails.
I spend the first half of the course explaining the reasons why we are hypercritical of ourselves and why they have probably overestimated the extent of their failure. With public speaking, we judge ourselves more harshly than the audience does. We make inaccurate assumptions about what the audience is thinking, and we focus too much on our mistakes.
I explain that it is important to recognise these errors in our thinking (known as ‘cognitive biases’ by psychologists) and adopt self-talk to neutralise them. For example, we can remind ourselves that the audience’s attention is not entirely on us as the speaker. The chances are that no one will remember the occasional fumble! In other words, that epic public speaking fail usually is much more significant in my clients’ minds than in anyone else’s.
But in the second half of the course, I offer some tools for people who have had a genuinely bad experience. Perhaps they completely froze in front of an audience, and their manager has told them they have to do something about it, or someone tells them afterwards that they looked incredibly nervous.
One of the most effective tools I can offer is self-compassion.
This email arrived in my inbox today,
"Hi, I am terrified about public speaking and the panic attacks that come with it! I go to great lengths to avoid these situations, and it's having an impact on my life. Is this the sort of course that can help me? Thanks."
I highlight it not because it is unusual but because it is typical.
Nearly 90% of people who sign up for our public speaking courses report that they actively avoid public speaking. And almost half of them say that a fear of public speaking has affected their career. Some have not applied for a promotion or their dream job. Others have designed their whole career around avoiding public speaking - or so they think!
I'm sure you have people with an intense fear of public speaking within your organisation. And you probably don't know about them. You may be thinking that excellent communication skills are essential for your staff and the people I describe if they exist, don't have much of a future in your organisation.
But what if I were to tell you that people who dread public speaking could be some of your highest achievers? And they may already be in senior roles in your organisation? Now that you think about it, perhaps you have noticed that Susan always sends her team leader to board meetings rather than fronting herself. And maybe I have you wondering whether Neil really was sick when you had to step in and cover for him at a big presentation recently!
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.
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.