Updated: May 20, 2022
Public Speaking Fear vs. Public Speaking Desire
We’ve all heard this stat by now:
“For most adults, the fear of public speaking ranks higher than the fear of death.”
This sort of implies that most of us speak in public because we have to. Not because we want to. But I think that statistic must be pre-internet. It’s definitely pre-YouTube.
While public speaking fears still plague a lot of people, the burning desire to speak is what makes YouTube exist. It’s what makes Ted Talks a fantasy gig.
I mean, what if you want to be a thought leader and you fear public speaking? What if you have a story to tell? What if you want to make a toast at your brother’s wedding without looking like an ass?
Anxiety over public speaking doesn’t mean you don’t want to do it.
I get this tension. I definitely felt the grip of it when my old public speaking fear kicked in. And it kicked in a LOT. Nausea, shortness of breath, insomnia, dry mouth, lack of appetite - all of it.
But I still had a lot I wanted to say. I cared about speaking - even if I wanted to get out of it in the short run.
Your Public Speaking Fear is Kind of Normal
So...good news. You’re normal. Or if you’re a weirdo then, I guess, you have lots of company.
There are a lot of great hacks too - stand up straight, take a moment before you start, slow down.
All good ideas. You should definitely do all that. But...
There’s something else.
Some other stuff you should know about public speaking and fear. Stuff that’s essential but...I don’t know...it’s harder to nail down.
What I’ve written here is sort of...the finicky knowledge. The stuff that sneaks up on you from behind. I want to give you here three tested methods to experiment with. You see what sticks.
No one hack or technique is going to do it. Unfortunately, most of life is too nuanced for that. Don’t you hate that about life?
But if you do your usual prep, join something like Toastmasters, and experiment with the concepts below, I think your public speaking fear could flip into your personal superpower.
In this article, I want to address three ideas that have been helpful to a lot of people who struggle with the fear of public speaking.
We’ll call them:
The Messenger Method
The Mentor Method
The DARE Method
You can do more than just keep it together when you speak. You can actually enjoy it. Yes, seriously. It’s possible to love public speaking.
But enjoyment won’t come from standing up straight. The joy’s going to happen when you graduate from being a competent speaker to an electric one.
How to Overcome a Fear of Public Speaking: Be a Messenger, Not a Speaker
So it goes without saying - or maybe it doesn’t - that preparation is a big part of dealing with your public speaking fear. Knowing your speech backward and forwards will help you sound better, be clearer, and keep you from wetting your pants out of fear.
But there’s a danger in just attending to the words.
If you just learn the words, you’re kind of at the mercy of them. Stumble or lose your place and your public speaking fear takes over.
So instead of just being the speaker, consider being The Messenger.
Using The Messenger Method basically means investing as much effort in the clarity of your message as you do in the words of your speech.
The key to the Messenger Method is to learn your speech. Know it. Then...let it go a little.
Try talking about the point you’re making in the speech, without using the exact speech.
Instead, try paraphrasing it.
If the sentence you wrote is:
“The best way to lead is by example.”
Try saying it:
“The great leaders teach by example.”
Nothing drastic, don’t dismantle the whole speech over and over. And be sure to practice it “correctly” too, alternately.
But if you want to overcome your public speaking fear, try practicing your speech “wrong” once in a while. Do it creatively, curiously, all kinds of ways.
Being word perfect isn’t what creates presence. It’s not what connects you authentically to your audience. It’s not what makes you memorable.
It’s your passion for the message.
Stumbling or losing your place may seem like a catastrophe now. It can awaken your public speaking anxiety and short circuit your brain. But if you’ve invested in the message beneath your script, a stumble is just a normal blip in a meaningful conversation.
It’s your meaning and presence that matter. Bring the audience your message and you’ll be a speaker worth listening to.
Public Speaking: It’s Not About You
It’s pretty easy when you get up to talk to feel like it’s all about you. That’s what repels people who have a public speaking fear. It’s also what attracts people who battle an addictive need for attention.
But a way to dismantle both the anxiety and the ego is to remember who it’s really all about.
It’s about them. Your audience.
The Mentor Method is rooted in the notion of service. You’re here...as a favor. A facilitator. You’re providing help, service, and support.
From the back of the audience to the people on the front row, consider them your students. And think of this presentation as their night - not yours.
This re-frame - turning your speech into a simple giving act - can weaken the sense of threat audiences sometimes trigger.
Don’t think, “I hope you like this.” Think more, “How can I help you?”
“Focus on the audience. See them, hear them, look out at them…” outlines Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, “Remember that your performance is just one aspect of the audience’s experience, which is also colored by the people they’re with, what else they’ll do with their day, etc...Manage stage fright by thinking about others’ experience, instead of your own discomfort.”
Care and consideration for your audience could begin to crowd out your public speaking fears. So stop thinking of them as one judgy mass.
Consider them as wide-eyed seekers who came to you for guidance. Mentors don’t fear their proteges.
Hotwiring Your Brain: A Public Speaking Fear Bypass
Fears are hard to dislodge because they’re usually linked to an evolutionary need. A bazillion years ago there was some problem - usually having to do with saber-tooth tigers - that fear helped humans survive.
Um no, I’m not saying your fear of public speaking is linked to tigers.
More likely it’s a very old, hardwired fear...of rejection.
Buuut in evolutionary terms that would mean “rejection from the tribe” which for our ancestors, yeah, could actually result in being eaten.
So that public speaking fear? It could stem from some pretty old and extreme hard-wiring.
If only we could bypass this system. If only we could sort of...hotwire your brain. Start it up without using that old petrified ignition.
But wait. Maybe we can.
“ You need to ‘rewire’ your brain...When your brain is calm and alert, you’re more able to handle the difficult people in the audience and more able to connect with the people who are receptive,” says Dr. Pat LaDouceur, mental health and anxiety expert.” ‘Rewiring’ is not as mysterious as it sounds, but it does take some curiosity, thoughtfulness, and determination..”
This idea led Dr. LaDouceur to create the DARE method for her patients struggling with public speaking fear.
DARE stands for Decide, Acknowledge, Respond, Evaluate.
To state the obvious, the dialogue below is for you to do alone - or with a coach, friend, or mentor. Don’t make this part of your actual speech.
Decide: What’s the whole truth?
Where are the reasonable concerns? Ask yourself out loud the whole uncomfortable but reasonable truth about your anxiety over speaking.
The truth is...maybe I’m not the greatest speaker yet, but I do know my message.
Maybe some people don’t care about this subject, but there are some people who really want the information.
Maybe I’ll screw up a few times. And someone’s going to be bored. But even if I were an amazing speaker, that’s just how these things go. You can’t please everyone.
Acknowledge What’s True.
“Look I get it, audience. Maybe you think this is lame, and you’re hungry, and ‘why do we have to do this?’ I’ve toooootally been in your shoes.”
Respond to What’s Not True. Here’s where you push back on what’s "true.”
“Hey wait, I do have something here that’d be good for a lot of you to know. I’ve put together some objectively useful ideas. I’m going to give them to you in bite-sized chunks. And a lot of you are going to be glad you have them. Check it out.”
Evaluate...and Repeat. Do a check-in on how you feel now.
Has your public speaking fear gone down at all? Do you feel a little better? Calmer? More present? How did saying all this make you feel as you spoke it out loud? Can you think of any ways to improve your work.
“Mmmmm, I feel better. Not all the way, but I definitely feel like 45% better, maybe even more. I think if I stood a little more like this, more straight, and took a breath so I could speak louder that would be even better.”
Dr. LaDouceur’s clients who did this found their public speaking fear dropped a LOT in a matter of weeks. And in a few months, it was all but gone!
Do It Before You’re Good
In the end, there’s one best practice for getting over a public speaking fear, you have to do it. Again and again and again.
Crap! I knew there was a catch.
I know. It sucks. I get it. You want to be good before you step out in front of an audience. But there’s no way around this standard advice.
It’s kind of like getting into shape. No matter what program you go with, in the end, the answer’s always going to be diet and exercise.
So my advice is to do it before you’re good. Act in spite of whatever public speaking fear you have. That’s the key. Period.
Think of the purpose behind your speaking - to inspire action, to create connection, to answer a question. Aim to be of service to your listeners. And throw away the boring, brittle concept of perfection.
Just talk to them. Put some structure behind it so you’re not totally rambling. But ultimately just give them the help that only you can give.
Breathe. Talk. Give. And then give again.
This is what people who shine on stage really have in common. They’ve done it a lot. They’re there for you.
Yeah, your public speaking fear is totally normal, but it’s not inevitable. Do it a lot. Let go of being so self-focused.
Think of your speech as a gift that you worked long and hard on. Give it with generosity, and give regularly. Then, as with all gift-giving occasions, each speech won’t be a chore. It’ll be a celebration.
Have we connected on LinkedIn yet? I’m a hoot if I do say so myself.