Fear of Public Speaking? It Sucks

Lots of new clients are showing up lately with fear of public speaking as their presenting complaint. That fear can range from mild to maddening to career-killing. But whatever its level, fear of public speaking sucks—and there are two things you should know about it:

#1:  Fear of Public Speaking? It Makes Perfect Sense

When most people get up to speak in public, they don’t have a clue about what they’re doing. They don’t know how to prepare, how to practice, or how to engage an audience.

Giving a speech without knowing how is the equivalent of going off Niagara Falls in a barrel. Sure, you might come out of it unscathed, but obviously, the odds aren’t in your favor.

In this situation, being afraid makes perfect sense. In fact, the fear is your brain’s way of telling you to get help so that you don’t crash and burn. The good news is, you can learn how to speak in public; and once you’ve learned, your chances of succeeding increase astronomically.

On the other hand…

#2:  Your Fear of Public Speaking is Totally Irrational

Some of the fear that you experience has nothing to do with your level of skill.  (I’m scared to death before I speak in public, and believe me, that makes zero sense.)

The irrational portion of our fear comes from an ancient, pre-verbal, fight-flight-or-freeze center in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to take over under dangerous conditions, and do its best to keep us alive.

It’s not the amygdala’s fault that ancient dangers like rabid wolf packs have been replaced by modern “dangers” like presenting an important report with no notice. When danger—real or imagined—strikes, the amygdala gears up, and gets your attention by triggering fear.

Skills Can Overcome Fear for Public Speakers

It’s one thing to get up and speak in front of people when you know the outcome will be hit or miss.

It’s another experience, entirely, when you know that you’re skilled and well-prepared.  In that case, you can laugh at fear, because you know you’re about to succeed.

Public speaking skills are the source of this confidence.  They can’t shut down your amygdala, but they can help you ignore or marginalize the fear it creates.  Skills allows you to tell yourself, “Hey, this fear is bullshit!  I know what I’m doing.”

So yes, fear of public speaking sucks.  But once you have skills, it doesn’t matter.

Image by Julian Santa Ana / Unsplash

View Comments (6)

  • Even some seasoned public speakers have an irrational fear of public speaking. most will tell you that the fear will subside after a few minutes on the stand. But for most of us its a really big deal to give a speech in front of a large crowd. I know many people who have let their careers slide because they never could get over their fear of public speaking. Some will use techniques like fear of speaking hypnotherapy CDs (http://subliminalcd.net/fear-of-speaking/) to get rid of this fear altogether. I think calming the mind before you have to get up and speak with hypnotherapy can work wonders for anyone who gets butterflies in the stomach before the dreaded speech.

    •  @David353:disqus , thanks so much for your comment, and I'm sorry that public speaking sometimes feels so hard. (It sometimes does for me, too.)  I'm interested in knowing if the CDs your friends or acquaintances have used have been effective in diminishing fear, and if so, are there any I can recommend them to others.  Since I'm not great at calming my own mind, my best play turns out is to reminding myself (sometimes sternly!) that my speech is great, that the audience will find it valuable, and that I know exactly what I'm doing onstage. Those are also, not coincidentally, the things I want to make true for my speaker coaching clients. But I agree with you completely that, for fighting fear or just on general principle, calming the mind before a speech is a central part of the public speaker's job.

      • Hi Jezra
        I've used several subliminal affirmations CDs in the past and found that the affirmations embedded within do in fact work if played twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening before bed. There are many areas which this technology can cover. I use subliminal CDs from http://subliminalcd.net/subliminal/SubliminalAffirmations/ & Subliminal MP3s which are easier to use from http://subliminalcd.net/subliminal/MP3s/. Hope this helps.


        •  Yes, this is very useful and interesting!  I'm going to put it out on another blog post and site your comments, if you don't mind. (And if you want, for some reason, to be identified and linked by name, just let me know.)

  • Hi Jezra,

    Nice post! And I like the inclusion of 'freeze' in the fight-or-flight, because I think that's exactly the type of fear reaction that happens many people when anxious about public speaking.

    Fear is really interesting when it comes to public speaking, because it's one of the easiest ways to realize how wired our brains are to react to caveman and primitive social 'life or death' situations. Standing up in front of a crowd could have really been a risky task for our early ancestors!

    One of the best ways I overcame fear of public speaking is by taking the plunge into a local public speaking club, and using memory techniques to memorize the key points and stop me from blanking, which helped a lot! I just put together a big guide on this that can hopefully help others that might be in the same situation: http://www.publicspeakingmemory.com/tutorials/how-to-memorize-speeches-ultimate-guide


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