“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.
"Nervousness is natural and even desirable (in small doses)
Most people claim to be nervous public speakers. And there is a good reason for this. Public speaking is a performance. We all get nervous before we perform, and that is how it should be. Imagine an athlete at the start of a race. If they were relaxed, they would not run their fastest. They need some adrenalin to be at their best.
I do my best public speaking when I have a few nerves. I am probably a little too relaxed at my Toastmasters club, but when I speak to a larger group or a new audience, I feel nervous, yet often, I speak better. I surprise myself by finding the right words and precise ways to express myself. The nerves give way to a general sense of well-being, and I am “in the zone”.
As someone who used to be highly anxious about public speaking, I can hear your objection. How can nervousness help you when it comes to public speaking? I go bright red, my mind goes blank, and I start waffling. How is any of that performance-enhancing?! Bear with me…
It is your reaction to being nervousness that matters
The difference between people who dread public speaking and people who enjoy it, is not their nervousness per se but their reaction to those nerves. Once upon a time, feeling nervous would have sent me into a state of panic, and I would have started to catastrophize ("This is going to be a disaster. I will forget what I want to say. They are going to wonder what has happened to me" – etc., etc.)
And this becomes self-fulfilling. While nervousness can improve your performance, panic definitely won’t!
So how can you stop yourself panicking?
Here are a few things that have helped me and helped my clients.
Allow yourself to feel nervous
Firstly, try to separate the feelings and the thoughts. As explained, the problem is not the initial nerves but thinking yourself into a state of high anxiety or panic. As soon as you start feeling nervous, observe it curiously. Where do you feel anxious? In the pit of your stomach? In your chest? What does it feel like? A knot? Pressure?
Now just allow those feelings. Rather than trying to suppress them, let them be. Even let them overwhelm you – the feelings, that is, not the thoughts.
You might find that they start to dissipate a little - or to wash over you. Telling yourself to calm down won't help much, but you may find yourself feeling slightly calmer when you stop battling the nerves.
Monitor your self-talk
It is negative self-talk that turns nervousness into panic, so try some neutral self-talk. Instead of worrying that the audience will notice your nerves, tell yourself that you are well prepared and that looking a bit nervous is not the worst thing that could happen. If you are worried about forgetting what to say, you can remind yourself you have backup notes that you could read if you have to.
Notice I am not suggesting that you use positive affirmations or forced positivity. It is a big ask to trick yourself into believing something you deeply disbelieve! But it is a little easier to put things in perspective. See this article for more suggestions about self-talk that actually helps.
There is a close relationship between excitement and anxiety. If you like roller coasters, you will get this. Excitement and anxiety feel similar physically, and they are both the states of arousal where the sympathetic nervous system takes over. But they are opposite mindsets. Excitement is an opportunity mindset, while fear is a dread mindset.
I have already said that some nervousness is desirable to perform your best. When you start feeling nervous, remind yourself that your body is getting ready to perform. Telling yourself to “get excited” might sound like a stretch, but it works for many people. It is a lot easier to change your mindset about your nerves than to talk yourself into a state of calmness.
Focus on your audience
Here is another paradox. The less you worry about what others think of you, the more they will like you! When you speak, it is always for a reason – often to inform or persuade your audience. If you can think of your audience as people who have needs you can meet rather than worrying what they think of you, the audience will respond positively.
Most of the public speaking I do these days is about helping others improve their public speaking. It is easy for me to think about their needs because I understand them and have even been them.
Try adopting a service mindset. Think about how you can serve rather than how you can avoid embarrassing yourself!
If you are overwhelmed by public speaking anxiety, take some pressure off yourself and stop trying to overcome your fear. Fear doesn’t respond well to being controlled. Instead, try separating your feelings from your thoughts. Allow the feelings without judging them. Neutralise damaging self-talk. Welcome the adrenalin and think about your purpose – not your performance.
Finally, please don’t read this article and decide it is too hard. It is written by someone who used to be in your position and knows how it feels. These strategies have worked for me and others that I work with, and they can work for you too.
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.