While it isn’t true that most people are more afraid of public speaking than of death, it’s certainly true that many of us fear getting up in front of an audience. So it makes sense to start by asking…
Just What Is This Thing We’re So Afraid Of?
Think of public speaking as any time you’re communicating for business—meaning not just a “formal” presentation complete with a lectern and microphone, but whenever you speak in a meeting, in a group brainstorming session, to a client or a colleague, to people you supervise or to your boss.
When you take “presentations” out of the mix, it’s easier to see that most business communication (“public speaking”) involves what you might call just talking. Most of it is informal, impromptu, and relatively low risk. You’re generally:
- Conveying information (“I can have this to you by the end of the day.”)
- Asking a question (“Should we get the tech team involved with it?”), or
- Making a suggestion (“Let’s regroup after everyone has read the materials.”)
When you think about it, you’ve been doing these things since you were three or four years old:
- Information: “Want cookie.”
- Question: “Wear Mama lipstick?”
- Suggestion: “No go sleep!”
As a toddler or young child, you didn’t have the communication skills you’ve built up through your adult life — and yet you still managed to get your point across!
So why does it sometimes feel so hard to do that when you’re talking to people you work with?
What Does Fear of Public Speaking Mean to You?
To answer that question, let’s figure out exactly what “fear of public speaking” means to you:
Many of my clients tell me that they’re afraid to speak in large groups. If you feel that way, how many people are we talking about? (I’ve heard answers that range from 3 to 60.)
There’s actually, IMHO, no such thing as a big audience. But there are audiences that feel threateningly large to you—and knowing exactly what that means will help you stay calm when you’re facing enough people to kick up fear.
Question #1: I get particularly nervous with an audience of:
- 10 or more people
- 25 or more people
- 40 or more people
- Any number of people
If you’re nervous about speaking to, let’s say, 10 or more people, does that mean you feel nervous with every group of 10 or more people? Or just groups that happen to contain senior leaders? Or a colleague who’s been hostile to you? Or your new boss, who you really want to impress?
Often, my clients discover that they’re not truly nervous about the size of an audience, but rather about who’s in it.
In other words…
And by that, I mean social class (that thing they used to say didn’t exist in America).
The neighborhood you grew up in, the kind of work your parent(s) or caretaker(s) did, whether and where you went to college—all of these things can have a profound impact on your sense of whether you feel entitled to speak up in public. (And yes, your race, gender, and ethnicity are part of this mix, too.)
The class you were born into doesn’t always predict how encouraged you were as a child to speak up. But the relationship is there frequently enough that it’s worth considering.
- As a child, I was encouraged and expected to speak up, just like the adults around me.
- As a child, I was taught that the world is a safer place if you keep your head down and your mouth shut.
- I didn’t get negative messages about my ability to speak up, but I didn’t get any positive ones either.
First, a little reality check: It’s almost never the case that somebody feels completely ready to speak in public. No matter how much work we’ve done to prepare, we always wish we’d done a little more.
That said, “being prepared” can be a trap. While it’s true that you should know…
- the main point you’re going to make,
- the ideas that support it, and
- roughly how your points are going to flow
…you don’t need to know every word you’re going to say.
Why not? Because you know what you’re talking about. You may know more about your assigned topic than everyone else in the world; and even if you don’t, you have a unique, individual perspective on it that can be enlightening for them to hear. And because that’s true, you can pull a speaking plan together in as little as five minutes.
The catch is, you have to trust yourself to make this work. So let’s find out if you do:
My attitude is that…
- I know a lot, and have some interesting things to say.
- I know enough to find some interesting things to say.
- I don’t know enough to be talking to other people, and as soon as I open my mouth, they’re going to realize that.
Fear of Public Speaking Doesn’t Have to Hold You Back
Fear isn’t the same for everyone. And the three questions you answered in this post are just the tip of a very deep iceberg.
But the more you learn about what fear of public speaking means to you, the easier it’ll be for you to manage your feelings of fear when they arise.
And though we’ll never get back to the totally fearless way we communicated as babies, the good news is… we can get pretty close!