Public Speaking Anxiety Isn’t The Same for Everyone
If you had to paint a picture of your fear of public speaking, what would it look like? A troll? An eerie shadow? A dark cloud hovering over you standing in an otherwise sunny location?
Your fear of public speaking may be as common as its symptoms (rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, etc.), but it’s very much your own. No one can know exactly how you feel or what you’re thinking when you’re forced to confront your public speaking anxiety. But as Eleanor Roosevelt said: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I’ve lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”
We really hope you don’t see public speaking as a “horror,” exactly—there are far worse things in life—but we can tell you the best thing you can do to overcome your fear of public speaking is learn how to transform that fear into energy. And it’s a lot easier to do than you may think.
Fear of Public Speaking is Learned
Humans are born with just two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. We are also born with the ability to fear, which means your fear of death, fear of public speaking or fear of spiders is learned. They are natural fears that people develop—usually in their youth—in response to their environment or culture.
Think about it: Children love an audience. They dance and sing and talk all the time and they don’t care who’s watching. In fact, they want you to watch them. It’s not until they are told people are watching (and judging them) that they stop. They don’t suddenly develop a fear of performing; they are conditioned to fear being judged by others.
Would you say the same is true of your public speaking anxiety?
Talking to other people probably isn’t a big deal to you. You talk to people every day. It’s having all eyes on you, being the center of attention—wide open to judgement—that you fear.
Fear is a chemical response in the brain. When your brain perceives something to be a threat, the adrenal glands on your kidneys flood your body with adrenaline, your pupils dilate, and your blood flows to the large muscles in your extremities. This is nature’s way of preparing you to take action to survive.
Unfortunately, this chemical response can be so strong that it can override your ability to rationalize the reaction. Rather than look objectively at what’s scaring you, you’re overcome by your need to survive. If you’re in a situation that genuinely requires you to fight for survival, this is beneficial. In the case of public speaking, however, this fear is unnecessary. The people in your audience—the ones listening to you—pose no physical threat.
Did You Learn to be Afraid?
Knowing that your fear of public speaking is a natural fear (one you’ve developed or learned) is an important piece of information. For some, being able to identify how their fear of public speaking came to be can hold important clues on how to overcome it.
Also, if you break down what, specifically, frightens you about public speaking, you may find the fear was self-created for a specific purpose (to get out of doing a presentation you weren’t prepared for, for example) or for no reason at all.
Whatever the reason for your public speaking anxiety, it’s keeping you in a state of negativity:
- You can only see the bad that will come from public speaking
- You reject public speaking invitations without thinking how they could benefit you
- You stay quiet rather than speak up about a situation, even if it’s awful
- You avoid making new connections in case it’s awkward
- You let your fear override your instincts, instead of the other way around
The bottom line is when you allow fear to control your actions, you lose out—at work and at home.
Here’s something else to consider: Everyone in the world, without exception, has fears, anxiety, worries. Some people are afraid of flying, some people are afraid of water. You’re afraid of public speaking. You don’t overcome those fears by simply pushing them out. That never works. Instead, acknowledge the fear. Examine it when it happens and deal with it. Because quite often you’ll find the thing you fear isn’t really a problem—or it’s a problem that can be easily overcome.
Fear is Not the Enemy
It sounds inconceivable, but fear can be a pretty great ally. The adrenaline coursing through your veins can make you more energetic in your presentations. Think of it this way: Both anxiety and excitement are considered “aroused” emotions and therefore have the same effects on your body.
Whether you feel excited or you feel nervous your heart rate increases, your adrenal glands kick into high gear, and you’re ready to take action. Why, then, would you try to bring yourself down from that before a presentation? Deep breathing exercises may slow your heart rate a bit, but it’s smarter to move to a state of excitement from a state of fear than to try to force yourself from a state of fear into a state of calm.
A professor at Harvard Business School did a study that reached the same conclusion. Her study showed that reframing your fear (something negative) as excitement (something positive) can improve your performance because you are taking yourself from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. No one in the study said they were less anxious; they simply performed better because they changed how they viewed the activity.
Here’s what else you can do to transform your fear of public speaking into energy:
Talk yourself up… to yourself. “You can do this.” “You’re going to do great.” “This is going to be a great presentation.” If someone were to say those things to you, you’d probably feel pretty good about walking into a presentation. Who says you can’t pump yourself up with the same phrases?
Find your incentive. Too often, people think of the bad things that will come of facing their fears, and most of the time those outcomes aren’t even very likely. Instead, think of all the great things that will result from facing your fear of public speaking. Just the rush you’ll get from knowing you did it will be amazing.
Keep doing it. The more you do it, the easier public speaking will be—in theory. You may become more articulate and better skilled at speaking techniques, but the rush of adrenaline will probably always be there. You’ll grow more comfortable with it over time—as long as you keep doing it.
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
Fear of Public Speaking is Not the Problem
The problem with fear is not the fear itself, it’s how you react to it.
When you give in to your fear and run away from situations that trigger it (like public speaking), the result is always lost opportunities. Public speaking is one of the most beneficial soft skills you can possess in any job, in any industry.
Reframe your way of thinking to see public speaking as an opportunity rather than a fearful and unpleasant experience. You may never love public speaking (we hope you do, though), but you can at least make it something that’s positive.
Could you use some help working through your fear of public speaking and finding ways to create opportunities from it? We’d love to show you at one of our Effective Presentations workshops. Check out our Calendar of Events for a live workshop in your area, or talk to us about our virtual training programs.
Very interesting and engaging topic here. I like the way ‘fear’ can be used as a positive. On my next presentation I will try to get excited about this dreadful task!
I learned a lot from this article. I like the way the highlighted words or phrases led me to other relevant articles.This has made me aware of the fear I have when I make presentations and how to overcome them.
Although I don’t agree with the theory behind the fear of public speaking (that there are only two universal fears), you bring up some great points about our fear of public speaking. If it is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned. I know people who have no fear of public speaking wherever they go or whom they speak to. I used to fear public speaking but practiced and followed some of the tips you mentioned. The best approach for me has been turning the anxiety into positive energy. Good advice here about public speaking and I think there’s something for everyone here ranging from the petrified to the fearless.
When I was younger, I remember having issues with talking in front of my class. This was as early as 2nd grade. I got in trouble for it actually. I had no idea this is a learned fear. It makes sense though because I didn’t like attention being on me as it was usually something bad. My mother hardly ever gave me compliments, she just criticized me so I liked to be invisible. I have a job interview that will require me to be in front of a group and I have been nervous all week but this article really helped me out!
I always have that sick nervous feeling before I have to speak. I am going to take the advice and try to change my mindset.
I will have to try to use that painful sick feeling I usually get and turn it into power. I’ve heard pain and pleasure are almost the same thing its how you view them. I had a bad experience in high school when I had to do a speech in front of my classmates and that has stuck with me over the years. Hopefully I will someday be able to let that go.
This is really a good read! I never knew I learned my fear, it is good to know that fear has the same energy that excitement brings my ability to switch to other side is what makes the difference.