Public speaking is one of those things that can be hard to avoid. If you do manage to successfully avoid it, anxiety and fear can grow until they become scary and impassable.
You may start to think that you can’t speak in front of people. You just aren't one of those people with a natural aptitude for leading a room or telling a story.
Presenting, speaking, and facilitating meetings and workshops are an important part of working life and can play a role in networking, visibility and getting promoted. If you can’t or won’t do it, you are holding yourself back.
Most people experience some apprehension when it comes to standing at the front of a room, but giving in to the anxiety and hiding can be the worst thing you can do. As with anything, fear of the unknown and anticipation of failure can cause significant anxiety. So practice is key. But what if the apprehension is debilitating? What then?
Your fear and anxiety are legitimate and understandable. But they aren’t about public speaking per se, they are caused by a lot of different beliefs and emotions that you attach to public speaking.
If you remove the belief that public speaking is risky or bad or dangerous, you will also be able to remove the anxiety.
As with most emotions, anxiety can be useful. It can be a proportionate response to some situations. It can keep you safe. But often anxiety isn’t like that. It gets attached to situations and events that aren't really dangerous or risky.
Fear of public speaking is based on a lot of different false beliefs and mis-directed emotion. These are probably beliefs that you have developed over years. They are either about you and your capabilities, or about the circumstances of public speaking.
You probably didn’t notice them forming. You may even think that they are an unchangeable part of your character. But they are thoughts, not personality traits. And luckily, with a bit of practice, these thoughts can be changed.
Below, I look at how coaching approaches can help to dispel some of the beliefs and re-structure your thinking.
Challenging negative beliefs about public speaking
Here’s a not-exhaustive-list of all the reasons you may have for fearing public speaking:
1. You are a fraud and everyone will see through you
2. You don’t know enough to speak with authority
3. You are too timid and shy
4. You have a quiet voice
5. Everyone will think that you are doing a terrible job of it
6. You can’t answer questions coherently
7. Only naturally charismatic people can do it
8. You did it once and it went badly, it will go badly next time too
9. People will be looking at you
10. Everyone will get bored
11. Being in front of lots of people is scary
12. Being in front of just a few people is scary
13. Nobody will respect your opinion
14. You are boring
15. People will know that you are anxious and will judge you
Recognise any of these? I thought so. From a coaching standpoint there are lots of ways to tackle all of these beliefs. But here are some ways that you can try on your own.
Ask some of the following questions in relation to the beliefs above (or any others that you have identified). Write down your answers.
Is this 100% true?
What evidence do I have to support this? (not just beliefs, but quantifiable evidence e.g. I am incompetent at my job, I have few to no skills, I have only ever seen very charismatic people presenting or speaking – all these are almost certainly not true!)
If it’s not 100% true, what could I believe instead that would serve me better?
Is this true in all circumstances? If it’s not, what are the circumstances in which it’s not? Can I apply some of my skills from other areas of my life to this area?
Am I imagining or guessing at what other people think and feel? If so, are there other feelings that they might have that could equally be true?
2. Solutions focus
Ask in response to each question “what could I do to solve that?”
e.g. I am boring
(what could I do to solve that) Watch YouTube videos of interesting speakers to see what they do to make their talks interesting
(what could I do to solve that) Challenge my belief that I am boring and replace it with a belief that serves me better e.g. that good presentation skills can be learned or I am not boring in all situations and can find ways to use my social skills in presenting
(what could I do to solve that) Ask for specific feedback (not “what did you think?” but “how do you think I could make X topic more interesting to others?”)
(what could I do to solve that) Learn some of the techniques that make speeches and presentations interesting
3. Gather evidence
You may wrongly believe that this fear is specific to you. But fear of public speaking has a name. It’s Glossophobia. So you can’t be alone. It’s fairly common. It’s probably true that ascribing a phobia status to all fears associated with public speaking is an over-statement. I am myself, very comfortable with public speaking in general, but have still experienced a debilitating amount of fear in relation to specific presentations or events.
If part of what troubles you is the fear of fear itself, speak to other people about their own experiences. You will discover that most people experience some fear. You can ask them about what they did when they felt afraid and whether or not it helped. Use the evidence you have to help you to formulate strategies for overcoming your fear and mis-directed emotions.
We know that public speaking can easily trigger an autonomic anxiety response. But the target is not inherently frightening.
We know that through practice public speaking skills can be developed. We know that we can challenge our thinking and start to change our emotional responses to public speaking.
We know that our fears and anxieties are not illogical, but that they are also not immutable. We know that we can change and become good public speakers.
That’s all very well, but as most self-help junkies will know, it’s hard to put this stuff in to practice. It can be entirely overwhelming to tackle something that feels so frightening and alien.
That’s where a good coach can be invaluable because they will help you to make incremental and manageable changes to your beliefs, feelings and behaviours.
Coaching makes managing a change like this do-able rather than overwhelming.
And by starting to understand that your fears are logical, in response to your beliefs, but your beliefs are not true, you are on the first rung of the ladder to becoming a confident public speaker.