You’ve probably heard that public speaking is feared more than death itself. It sounds crazy, but that’s what people say. Is there any truth to this?
Certainly the vast majority of people rank stage fright as number one – 75% according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. For some people, this means a fear of speaking to large groups. For others, it means speaking to even a single person if that person has the power to evaluate you, as in a supervisor, interviewer, or professor giving an oral exam.
My client Robert was required to give presentations as part of his job. For most people, regular speaking builds confidence, and speaking gets easier over time. For Robert, however, they got more difficult. When he eventually had a full-blown panic attack, he gave me a call.
Some facts about stage fright
The scientific word for fear of public speaking is “glossophobia.” It comes from the Greek words “glossa” (tongue) and “phobos” (dread or fear).
Glossophobia affects men and women in equal numbers, although men are more likely to seek treatment for it.
If you have experienced glossophobia, you’re in good company. Many professional speakers feel significant stage fright. Actress Carol Burnett was so nervous she threw up before many of her performances. Investor Warren Buffet, richest man in the world in 2008, dropped out of a college speech class rather than talk in front of his peers.
Some people are anxious because they aren’t prepared. Preparation is essential. But many people are afraid to speak in public despite solid preparation.
If you’re like Robert, you know the material inside out, and could explain it easily in the comfort of your own home.
The roots of glossphobia
For some people, the roots of stage fright are buried deep in our past. For example, the fear can come from an experience where we were once embarrassed or ridiculed, or even overwhelmed with attention that was supposed to be positive. It might have been a “performance” situation, but it could just as easily have been an event that seems unrelated, such as how we were praised or corrected at home or school.
For others, the roots of stage fright are in an adult performance that didn’t go well…or didn’t seem to go well. When you perform again, the worrisome memories come back to haunt you. They generate thoughts like, “I’m going to blow it,” “I don’t belong here,” “What if they don’t like me?” and so forth.
Either way, to the survival part of our brain, the situation looks dangerous. Your body gets ready to fight, flee, or freeze, which means physical tension, shaking, increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweating, and forgetting what you were about to say. Once in motion, the cycle of fear builds on itself.
What we really fear more than death
Most people, faced with a real choice between speaking and death would choose speaking. In a minute. Does that mean that speaking as a number one fear is a myth? Perhaps in part, but let’s look for a moment at how it might make sense.
Anxiety is about your brain trying to keep you safe. For stage fright, the voice of anxiety sounds something like this: “People won’t be interested in what I have to say. I don’t have anything to offer this group. If I make a mistake they’ll laugh at me. I’m not competent. I’m not really very good.”
The worst case? The group won’t like me. I’ll be rejected. I’ll be shut out.
Sure, I can rationalize it. I can tell myself that this group probably will like me; and that I don’t really care if they don’t. But our need to be accepted by our peers goes deeper than childhood. We evolved to be part of groups. We’re not the most ferocious mammals on the planet. Since our earliest history, we have needed to band together to survive. Exile often meant death.
Perhaps what we really fear is being shut out.
The usual strategy
Most people go to great lengths to avoid rejection. For many people, fear of public speaking causes them to turn down jobs, decline promotions, avoid interviews, and drop out of classes.
But avoidance doesn’t help. It narrows your choices, and makes the anxiety worse.
To master public speaking, you need two things. First, you need to be present, to keep your heart open when you’re in front of an audience. Second, you need to “rewire” your brain. As Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” You need a “new” mind.
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. You’ll be a better speaker as well, because you’ll have the focus and energy to attend to your message and the audience.
“Rewiring” is not as mysterious as it sounds, but it does take some curiosity, thoughtfulness, and determination. A counselor specializing in performance anxiety can really help speed up the process.
DARE to try this…
One way I helped Robert learn to feel confident about his speaking was by using the four step process described below. This process helped change the way Robert thought about speaking, and therefore the way he felt about it.
Let’s look at one of Robert’s thoughts: “I don’t have anything interesting to say.”
His usual approaches was do one of these two things:
- Reassure himself: “Yes they will. I’ve worked hard on this, and it’s information they need. They’ll like it.”
- Avoid the problem: Consider calling in sick. Consider finding a new job.
An effective alternative is the DARE approach (a term I coined to help keep track of the four steps). Keep in mind that the steps below represent a conversation with yourself (or a coach, counselor, or friend). Deciding how to begin a speech or interview, or how to talk with a difficult employer is a different process. With that in mind, let’s look at what Robert came up with in about half an hour.
Step 1: Decide: is there any truth to this concern?
Robert: “The truth is that these presentations are required. I get good feedback overall, but I’m sure there are some people who resent having to come to them. No matter what I say, some people are going to find it boring.”
Step 2: Acknowledge the part that is true.
Put words to it, and say or write it. Robert: “I know this isn’t the most exciting presentation in the world for some of you.”
Step 3: Respond to the part that isn’t true.
Challenge it. Offer a different interpretation. Robert: “…but I have some information here that I think you’ll find valuable. I’ve done a good job organizing it so that it will be useful to you, and easy to find later when you need it.”
Step 4: Evaluate and repeat.
How how confident do you feel as you say these things out loud? What could you change about the words, your posture, or your voice that would help you feel more confident? Robert: “I feel a little more confident than I did – maybe 60%. I guess I could try speaking a bit louder, and dropping my shoulders.”
Using this process, Robert’s stage fright dropped significantly in just a few weeks. In a few months, it was all but gone.
Why it’s worth doing
When people are asked about their greatest fear, stage fright comes to mind because it’s easy to imagine doing it. Even if you never speak to a large group, you’re likely to find yourself interviewing for a job, making a class presentation, or explaining your work to a group of colleagues.
Public speaking is scary because people matter. Even people who don’t matter…do matter. When you speak to a group of people, it’s natural to want to belong.
Fortunately there are simple, reliable strategies that can help you speak confidently in public – if it’s what you want to do. And why not?
Speaking is rewarding. If you learn to speak comfortably, you might learn, like Robert, to feel more confident and focused. Or you might learn a secret that many of the best speakers know: speaking is a way of banding together. It’s a way of belonging. At its best, speaking in groups helps us connect.