How Susan Cain overcome a fear of public speaking to give a TED talk that has been viewed more than 20 million times
I am a huge fan of Tim Ferris podcasts and I was so excited when I found out that he had just interviewed Susan Cain because her TED talk, The Power of Introverts, is one of my all-time favourites. I am an introvert by nature and so her message resonates with me but I also love her delivery style.
I was thrilled to discover that the first 40 minutes of the podcast interview is about her fear of public speaking! If you have time I highly recommend that you listen for yourself.
My interest grew as I listened because her experience closely mirrors my own and many of my clients and her approach to tackling her fear was the approach I use at Fear-less Public Speaking.
The main things I took out of the interview were:
Fear of public speaking triggered by an event
Susan can trace her fear back to an event at middle school (years 7, 8 and 9 in New Zealand). She was in an English literature class and was asked to improvise a scene playing the part of Lady McBeth. She described herself as a shy person in a new school. She totally blanked out, stood there dumbly, and then sat down red-faced without saying word.
She explains that an experience like that becomes “coded” into the amygdala – the part of your brain that registers fear. Any time after that when she had to speak (presumably often as she was a lawyer!) she would suffer terribly.
Many people can trace their fear of public speaking back to a traumatic event. I came across someone recently who was very comfortable speaking at social occasions and had even been an emcee at weddings. One bad experience at work triggered a fear for him that had escalated into a full-blown phobia. For other people it’s a series of smaller events rather than one traumatic experience. What almost everyone has in common is that past bad experiences fuel an anxiety about those experiences being repeated.
Having something important to say
Susan explains that she decided to do something about her fear because in writing her first book “Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that won’t stop talking” she had something to say that she “really, really, really cared about.” She didn’t want her fear to get in the way and so she decided to do something about it. I have written a previous article about how finding something important to say can boost your confidence. As well as providing an incentive for addressing fear, having something important to say takes you out of yourself because the benefit to others becomes bigger than your fear. Later in the interview she talks about using this as a strategy if she gets nervous now. She says it shifts the focus away from being nervous about being judged to how she might be helping someone.
Susan’s first step in tackling her fear was to sign up for a seminar series in New York for people with public speaking anxiety. She said on the first day all she had to do was stand up, say her name, and sit down again and declare victory! The next steps were to do things like stand up and answer easy audience questions about herself. Eventually she progressed to Toastmasters and then had private coaching before she delivered her TED talk.
Gradual or progressive exposure is a proven method in overcoming any phobia and it works brilliantly for a fear of public speaking. Just as one bad one bad experience can set you up for future failure, a series of positive experiences can build confidence. This is the basis of Toastmasters and is what I do at Fear-less public speaking with a smaller group and even more gradual steps than Toastmasters.
She also talks about how therapy didn’t help. While she is a great believer in therapy for other things she says talking about her fear and how it may have come about didn’t help her address it. I agree that there is no substitute for practice. If you want to get better at public speaking you need to do it – even if you have to start with baby steps.
Public speaking can be learned
Susan describes public speaking as a skill rather than an attribute. She says that when you see a polished presenter it is easy to assume that it comes naturally to them. But she comments that so often when you see someone who is really good at something it is because they started out exactly the opposite and they cared so much about fixing the problem.
From terrified to nervous
Susan talks about how the nerves have not disappeared. She still gets butterflies but says she can now manage her nerves and the difference between manageable and unmanageable is ‘gigantic’ in terms of its effect. This is such an important point. Almost everyone is nervous about public speaking. It does not need to get in the way of a great performance if you can manage those nerves. I like how she uses the word ‘manage’. I try to avoid using terms such as ‘overcome’ and ‘conquer’ because it sets you up to do battle with something that you can’t beat. But managing your nerves and being able to perform well despite them is a realistic goal.
Tim has an interesting take on this too. He has also struggled with a fear of public speaking (and joined Toastmasters). I like his quote “there is no courage without the presence of fear”. He explains that he now sees those symptoms that used to make him panic as simple precursors to a performance. This is a helpful way of interpreting nerves. A little bit of nervousness triggers the adrenalin that helps ensure you are at your best on the stage.
Public speaking has enormous benefits
The last segment of the public speaking discussion in this podcast is about the benefits. Susan says that for anyone who is listening and is in the grip of this kind of fear, what is waiting for you on the other side is ‘so gigantic’ (she likes that word!). She now makes a living out of public speaking, usually in a corporate setting. She points out that there is something about public speaking that seems disproportionate to its value. If you can speak well, people regard you as a leader and someone who they can turn to in a way that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been willing to put yourself forward. Perhaps that is easy to say for her after giving a TED talk that was viewed more than 20 million times! But I understand her point. Being an effective speaker grows your credibility much faster than communicating your ideas in other ways.
Tim takes this even further by saying that addressing a fear of public speaking is one of those things that can really help your personal growth on many levels – not just public speaking. I have seen this too. People who learn to manage a fear of public speaking make career moves or take on leadership roles that are life-changing and the benefits go way beyond what they imagined when they first decided to tackle their fear.
For those of you still struggling with a fear of public speaking I hope this article has given you the inspiration and motivation to take the first steps - whether that is enrolling in a Fear-less course, joining up for Toastmasters, or something else!
Article written by Catherine Syme
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.