Suffering from public speaking anxiety? Here’s what others just like you, have to say about their fear.
I have written this article for people who want to do something about their fear of public speaking but need encouragement to take that first step.
Many people hesitate because they know that taking a course will require them to do the thing they dread. Often they worry that they will be the most nervous speaker there!
Before starting a Fear-less public speaking course, I ask my clients to complete a questionnaire. And I hear similar stories over and over. I want to encourage people to tackle their fear of public speaking by sharing some of these stories and using my client's words.
Most people have had bad experiences of public speaking in the past
More than 80 percent of my clients tell me that they have had bad experiences of public speaking in the past. For some people, a particular experience stands out – often dating back many years, although sometimes it is recent.
"A bad experience at school when I experienced tunnel vision."
"My first awful (life-changing) experience occurred when I was about 12 years old. I auditioned for the school orchestra and experienced my first panic attack. I had no idea what happened, but I just felt so embarrassed. I didn't get into the orchestra, and I've avoided any similar situations since."
"The core of my issues come from when I was young at school. I would try and participate in answering questions during class, but other kids started bullying me for it being a know-it-all and teachers' pet etc., and this made me less confident."
"At a wedding, I was meant to speak, said two words, then burst into tears."
"My worst experience was at the age of 16 at a leaders' retreat when we had about 20 minutes to prepare a short speech. I mucked around, thinking I would make it up on the spot. Problem was I realised I had no content and froze. I went lightheaded, like I was about to faint. … since then, I've been worried that it will happen again - freezing, feeling like I'm going to faint and bailing out."
"I used to teach for a while and had to give a big presentation to launch a new course - there were newspaper people and lots of cameras. I was totally relaxed prior, as it didn't bother me, but when I got up there, I could hear my voice getting shaky, and my legs actually tremble! It really scared me!"
"I had to pitch my start-up to a group at an event and got so lost in the detail it all came out in gibberish. I am putting it down as a funny experience, but I don't want it ever to happen again."
"Yes, I had a terrible presentation early on in my career, around three years ago, where I was extremely nervous and lost my voice. Since then, I have had a lot of anxiety with presenting in front of groups and tend to panic, which leads to losing my voice or my voice cracking."
"My worst experience was recently when I was presenting to about 30 people. My voice kept breaking in and out, and I was shaking. It was very embarrassing as they were colleagues from the wider business. "
Others perceive all or most experiences to have been bad.
"Almost always. I literally freeze up, my voice wavers, and I lose my train of thought - forgetting what I had planned to say, regardless of whether I have prepared notes or not... I tend to keep things short and sweet - including when discussing subjects that would benefit from elaboration / providing more in-depth detail. Sleepless nights, cold sweats etc., are common prior to delivering a speech/presentation."
"There hasn't been a particular experience that has put me off public speaking; I've been hesitant to do it from a young age. I consider all public speaking a bad experience."
For the small percentage of clients who have not had a bad experience, it is often because they avoid it.
"I have mostly escaped from such opportunities, so there has never been a bad one, to be honest, as I haven't had many."
"I cannot recall. It's been a long time since I have been on the stage."
I will return to avoidance later in the article, as it is widespread amongst my clients!
Many have also had some good experiences
Perhaps surprisingly, two-thirds have also had good or OK experiences, but the bad ones stick in their minds much more than the good. If they have had good experiences, they often downplay them. And even if most experiences are OK, they can't trust themselves.
"When well-prepared, there have been a couple of good experiences, although in these cases, I have had to practice a lot."
"Sometimes in my team meeting at work, I feel confident, and I don't have the heart racing panic, but I always put it down to just having a good day and getting lucky with that one."
"There have been a couple of times where I have been OK, which is a huge relief!"
"When I'm in a group of people I am really close with, and I have had a few drinks, things tend to go a lot smoother."
Some of my clients are OK with speaking in social situations (especially with alcohol!). However, others have had traumatic experiences speaking on social occasions.
Certain audiences are more threatening than others
I ask people if any audiences worry them the most. Some people say all audiences, but most people have specific fears, which include:
"Audiences I knew were (or believe to be) the sharpest—I'm always scared that my argument wouldn't be airtight, or that I will be putting forward a clearly flawed argument, only I couldn't see, thus exposing how incompetent I actually am."
"Seniors at work. Or when I need to explain my work to more experienced individuals in the industry."
"Presenting to any large group - work colleagues, senior management - even the thought of doing a speech in front of my extended family and friends is terrifying."
"The more formal the presentation/speech, the greater the fear. Particularly public speaking with a microphone."
A couple of differences come through. Some people are more comfortable with audiences of people familiar to them (close colleagues and friends), while others prefer audiences of strangers. Some people are OK when they are speaking on something they have prepared but struggle to respond, 'off the cuff', while others hate the pressure of having to pre-prepare something.
Some people don't mind presenting online – because they can pretend the audience is not there! But others find online presenting as bad, if not worse, than in person. I have previously written about zoom panic, as it is common!
"Yes, probably a very serious audience and people I don't know."
"Any audience where I am not very close friends with the majority of people. I am a confident person in front of my friendship group and completely fine when meeting new people in groups."
"Probably in front of friends and people I know."
"I worried most about my classmates - how they were going to look at me when I screwed up the presentation. I felt less worried if those people were strangers."
"People I work with and see again, strangers - I don't mind so much as if I make a dick of myself, I won't see them again."
"I am OK speaking up ad hoc in a meeting-even if a big meeting. It is the pre-prepared presentation that makes me so nervous."
"My anxiousness does mainly stem from knowing I need to talk for an extended period of time. I seem fine with short back and forth and if I get going off the cuff. It's more of the being in line to talk and knowing it's 'coming to my turn' that seems to bring on the anxiety. I want to be better at controlling this."
"In-person audiences vs online video audiences causes more adrenaline and nerves for me. In front of work colleagues and my managers for fear of looking stupid, nervous and unprofessional in front of them."
85% of my clients avoid public speaking whenever possible
Most people are actively avoiding public speaking as much as they can. Some avoid it by choosing careers that don't require it, while others have to invent excuses every time they are expected to speak. As you can imagine, this has become stressful in itself!
"Since I was a school kid, I have actively avoided. And as a result, I have done very little public speaking for someone of my age and profession."
"I didn't speak at my wedding or anyone's weddings. My Dad had a significant birthday on the weekend, and though prompted, I didn't say anything. I'm realising it's a matter of time before I will need to speak at a funeral or something like that."
"Sometimes, I will put my hand up to speak to try to get practice. Then I will be terrible and regret doing so. Other times I will avoid it, like say I'm unable to make a meeting because I don't want to present in it."
"If I can get away with it, I'll delegate to others in my team and/or won't attend meetings if I think I'm likely to be put on the spot..."
"Always try to avoid, if I can; however, now, in my new role, I have no choice."
"Every Monday we have a team meeting where I have to speak to provide an update to the company, every Monday I think about ways how I can get out of it."
"I avoid it all the time - at work and socially. I didn't give a speech at my 21st birthday due to my shyness, and I have always regretted it."
"I will do anything to get out of it! Pretend I'm ill or whatever it takes."
Two-thirds say it has affected their careers
Some of these stories are heartbreaking. Some people have designed their whole job to avoid public speaking. Others decided not to apply for roles that interested them. Many are aware that it has affected promotion opportunities.
To give a good feel for the range of responses, I have included a lot of quotes here – and could have added more!
"I feel that I would have more opportunities for my work as an artist if I did more artist talks. I do them if asked by the gallery, but never volunteer."
"Didn't apply for a job (EA to CEO role) where regular presenting and providing updates to team members on projects was required. I also left a job where I was sole charge Flight Attendant and had to do a lot of announcements to passengers and felt it made me anxious and fearful every day."
"I have been looking at possible career changes recently (in case the events industry takes a dive) and find myself steering away from roles that look to be presentation heavy."
"I didn't apply for a leadership position because the application process involved presenting to senior management."
"Yes, I could be applying for lots of Board appointments, but inferiority complex lets me down."
"I've been approached a few times to join other companies or take on a more senior role within my current one, but the thought of having to lead and talk continually in front of bigger teams has always kept me from proceeding with these opportunities."
"It has impacted my career in many ways. I am very good at working one-on-one with people; however, when I have been offered side projects or more responsibilities, I have always turned them down for fear of having to talk in meetings etc. I have had opportunities to take on team leader positions, which I have the skill set for; however, the fear of addressing a group prevented me from doing so."
"Years ago, I turned down a promotion and ended up resigning a few months later because I couldn't bear having to present my work."
"Yes, I was always encouraged to go into TV and radio journalism, but I avoided it due to the heavy presenting component."
"I am probably around 10-15 years behind in my career because of this fear."
"I own my own business, so no impact on career advancement but no doubt negatively impacts business growth."
"I've quit jobs due to the fear of presenting and expectation of speaking in meetings. I have never wanted to be promoted to higher positions. I also changed my career path in the hope I could avoid it, but now it turns out I still have to do it!"
This really is a massive waste of talent. Most of the people who do my courses are motivated, well-regarded people who would undoubtedly do very well in the roles they have turned down or avoided.
For one-third of respondents who say that it has not impacted their career, many comment that it will in future unless they do something about it.
"I am, however, very aware that the higher you progress, the more important it becomes to be a solid presenter. I worry my lack of confidence in this area could affect my future promotion prospects."
"Not yet, but I can see how it would adversely affect my career if I don't start working on my communication and public speaking skills right away."
"Looking at a promotion at work which is why I want to build my confidence. Also, a lot of friends are getting married, which requires public speaking."
People worry most about looking nervous, feeling anxious, and being unable to communicate
Although I don't ask this question directly, most people comment on why they see their public speaking anxiety as a problem.
Some people worry about looking nervous and how this influences the audience's impression of them.
"I tend to speak too fast. I've developed an anxiety around the fear that my audience won't want to listen to me talk, so I try and get lots of information out quickly. Slowing down would be the first thing I need to work on."
"Any tips to avoid going red in the face, shaky voice and hands would be great! Haha"
Others are more concerned about the feelings of anxiety – especially leading up to a presentation.
"I'm getting married in March next year and will be needing to speak in front of 140 people. The thought of it is constantly on my mind, and I'm dreading the day because of it."
"For work talks, I use Valium or things similar, but my anxiety is so bad that I feel the effects of this are getting less."
"I'm ill and don't sleep when I have to speak in front of people, but I am a very outgoing person and like people."
A third concern is the impact of anxiety on their ability to communicate clearly.
"Yes, I just want to be able to be articulate. Often when I am nervous, and I try too hard, I am lost for words, and there are these awkward pauses."
"Everything I do requires crisp, clear, concise relay of information, and I just freeze up and can't get my ideas across, causing everyone to lose confidence in me, including myself, over time. I used to like presenting. But now it's very daunting."
"I'd really love to be able to speak eloquently and not stumble my way through explaining things."
And for many people, all of these issues are a concern!
At the first session of every course, I summarise these responses for the group, and I ask if any of it sounds familiar. The answer I invariability get is "all of it!"
If you have got this far in the article, I bet it is because you have recognised yourself. Many people share your anxiety about public speaking – it is much more common than you think. One reason is that it is not something that we talk about. How many people have you told about your anxiety? Also, people look less nervous than they feel – which can easily make us believe everyone else is super-confident.
I hope that recognising yourself has helped motivate you to do something about your anxiety and take a course (or join Toastmasters). I suggest you read this article to ensure you get the most from your course. And I promise that you will find others who share your struggles and are willing to support you as you take this big step. Good luck!!
Article written by
Can't attend a course? Find out how private one-on-one coaching could help with your public speaking anxiety.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more, please register for our newsletter and you will receive a free eBook with our five most popular articles in 2022. You can unsubscribe at any time.
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.