How Susan Cain overcame a fear of public speaking to give a TED talk that has been viewed more than 25 million times
Susan Cain, author and celebrated TED talk presenter, once had a crippling fear of public speaking. Her TED talk, The Power of Introverts, has more than 25 million views and is one of my all-time favourites.
I am also a big fan of Tim Ferris, and so when he interviewed Susan Cain in this podcast, I had to listen. The first 40 minutes is about her fear of public speaking. Her experience closely mirrors my own and that of many of my clients.
Her main points are:
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 had to improvise a scene playing the part of Lady McBeth in an English literature class. She described herself as a shy person in a new school. She blanked out, stood there dumbly, and then sat down red-faced without saying a 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. For example, one of my clients had a lot of experience of speaking at social occasions and had even been an emcee at weddings. But a single bad experience at work triggered a fear for him that then escalated into a full-blown phobia.
For other people, it’s a series of smaller events rather than one traumatic experience. What everyone has in common is that past bad experiences fuel anxiety about these experiences being repeated.
Having something important to say
Susan explains that she decided to do something about her fear after 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.”
I have written a previous article about how finding something important to say can be a powerful incentive for addressing fear. The benefits to others become more important 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 was to sign up for a seminar series in New York for people with public speaking anxiety. On the first day, all she had to do was stand up, say her name, 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 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 experience can set you up for future failure, a series of positive experiences can build confidence.
This is the basis of Toastmasters. It is also the approach I take at Fear-less public speaking with a smaller group and even more gradual steps than Toastmasters.
She also says that 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.
Almost everyone is nervous about public speaking. It does not need to stop you performing well 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 is hard to control. But performing well, despite your nerves, is a realistic goal.
Tim has an interesting take on this too. He also once 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 the symptoms that made 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 the podcast is about the benefits. Susan says that for anyone 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 says that 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 25 million times! But I agree with her. 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 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 life-changing leadership roles, 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
Updated September 2020
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