One of the greatest fears.
Among the many things people fear – maybe it’s snakes, spiders, heights or even death – is the most common thing people reach out to me about because they’re terrified. That fear is public speaking.
So widespread is this fear that it even has its own name – ‘glossophobia’ – from the Greek words ‘glossa’ (meaning tongue) and ‘phobos’ (dread or fear).
But, it’s not just public speaking that can create this sense of dread.
Have you ever felt anxiety looming when you’ve got a difficult conversation coming up, when you need to speak up in an important meeting, deliver a pitch or say something interesting at a networking event?
There are lots of situations where the thought of speaking can induce fear. So, let’s do something about that by exploring some great ways to conquer doubt, ride through fear and speak with courage.
When all eyes are on you.
I know how it feels to be afraid in front of an audience. I had to conquer it young because, growing up in a musical family, I too wanted to play and started bashing out tunes on the piano from the age of 2 – although I have to admit that – back then – as I plonked on the keys it can’t have sounded musical or enjoyable to anyone else!
As I had lessons and began to improve, the tunes started to resemble something others could recognise and I’d be encouraged to play in front of others. I realised that part of the enjoyment of music for me at the time came from playing something that would make others smile or clap.
I loved playing so much that even when one of the teachers at my school said I’d never be any good and to give up, I kept trying. With practice, the tunes improved and the smiles of enjoyment from those listening became more genuine.
My parents would ask me to play in front of relatives. Then small gatherings. My grandad – who was proud to sing in a Welsh male voice choir – loved to host family concerts at his home and it was fun to take part with me and my cousins shining at our special thing.
And then – one day – in a place where my dad was the organist – I was invited to perform in a Christmas concert in front of several hundred people.
I was around eight years old and, to this day, the memory is etched into my mind because my eyes must have been wide open with the fear. I still remember the heat of both the stage lighting and those hundreds of eyes staring back at me. My heart was beating like it was outside of my body and my hands were sweating, making it slippery to play.
But I didn’t want to let my family down and so I took a deep breath, told myself I could do it and gave my best performance.
Now, I was no child prodigy but I lapped up the applause that followed.
As I look back at that memory now that I work in a field where I help others find the courage to stand up in front of their audiences and say what they want to say, I realise just how much those few minutes have to teach us about conquering fear.
That’s because – all in one go – I faced the four most common fears that get in the way of speaking. I’m going to go through each one to see if you also recognise them and will share some tips for conquering your doubts and finding the courage to speak.
Conquer the four speaking fears.
1. Overcoming the fear of looking stupid
Before you speak, do you worry about what people will think about what you have to say? Do you worry it won’t be good enough? Are you afraid of messing up and other people laughing at you or criticising you to your face or behind your back?
This is one of the common reasons people don’t even say ‘yes’ to the opportunity to speak yet alone step into the room.
Often, when I coach people preparing for a big presentation, speech or pitch, I ask them when was the first time they stood up in front of others and felt anxiety?
Many will say they’ve always felt that way. But, when we take the opportunity to look back in time, we often find a moment in childhood that triggered that fear.
- Sometimes it’s that a teacher asked them to answer a question in front of the class and they didn’t know it so felt embarrassed.
- Sometimes it’s that they had to read out loud in front of others and stumbled or didn’t know a word and others laughed.
- Other times it’s that they were asked to do a ‘show and tell’ or talk about a project in front of others and couldn’t find the words or tripped up and felt silly.
These incidents don’t have to have happened to you. They could have happened to another young person in your environment and this led to a fear of participating in case you found yourself in a similar situation.
Think back to your childhood for a moment. Do you ever remember anything like this happening to you or others around you? How did it make you feel?
This is so often the root of severe anxiety over speaking publicly or being put on the spot, for example in a meeting.
However, anxiety can begin in adulthood too, for example after a presentation goes badly because there wasn’t adequate opportunity to prepare.
Whether you can remember where it began or not, what can you do?
First, have compassion for the younger version of yourself that must have had a negative experience. You were learning. The learning process requires us to make mistakes otherwise we’re not stretching our boundaries and growing.
But you’ve developed since and you’re wiser.
The most important thing you can do is to prepare and to practice before your big moment. That helps you become confident and familiar with your material and gives you an opportunity to test it in front of some people you trust whether that’s you in the mirror, friends, colleagues or a communication coach like me.
That preparation helps you see and get feedback on how everything’s landing and refine it until it works. It’s the reason even experienced comedians and performers do warm up shows, for example, to ensure they’re getting the right response before they hit the big stages and screens.
So, trust in your preparation.
Unless you’re a schoolteacher, mathematician or literary expert, no one is going to spring an algebra or Shakespeare question on you like back in the day!
2. Fear of not being good enough
Are you someone who worries whether you are good enough? Are you every pestered by imposter syndrome when the thought of speaking or promoting yourself comes up?
You may be worried if you’re the best person to speak about a subject or whether people will take you seriously. You may even be scared that people will say ‘who are you to talk about that?!’
If you’ve been invited or accepted to speak, it’s because someone believes you’ll say something worthwhile. That’s because you know something useful, maybe relating to a skill, experience or particular industry.
So, trust in yourself and remind yourself that you deserve this opportunity. Lean into the expertise you have accumulated. People will want to hear it. Don’t forget that you are an original and will have unique perspectives that no one else has. They may seem every day to you but could really help others.
It can be useful to get a brief so you know what the expectations will be and who you will be talking to. If there’s something you don’t know so well, you can always do your research or turn to others for support and guidance.
And, as I said earlier, you must practice and prepare. It can be especially useful to think through any questions you may be asked and to consider your responses in advance.
3. Fear of being disliked
Worries about being disliked can surface any time we have to put ourselves out there.
Do you ever find yourself watering down what you mean to say, being agreeable or even avoiding voicing your opinions entirely because you’re afraid of how people will react? Then you are being ruled by the perceived expectations of others.
So, let’s talk about the hard reality first.
We all have differences of opinion. Let’s take one of the most liked substances in the world, for instance: chocolate. Well, my brother is not a massive fan. To me that’s insane. How is it possible to dislike chocolate? But we all have unique tastes.
The same thing applies when it comes to humans and opinions. We just don’t like everyone. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong, simply that we are different. It doesn’t mean we all go so far as hating the people we don’t like, but not everyone is for us. Sometimes it’s personal but often it’s not.
If we try to live our lives and speak with the intention of making everyone like us, not only are we trying to achieve an impossible goal, but we’ll be on the road to burn out because that consumes so much unnecessary energy. At best, we can influence others but we should never seek to control everyone.
Instead, think of it like this…
- When you speak, who will you be helping?
- Who might find what you have to say useful?
- Might you even improve their life a little?
Focus your precious energy on the people you are serving. Let the thought of serving them give you the courage to speak up.
Of course, it’s always beneficial to think what you’re saying through. Consider how you could help messages resonate with others, address people respectfully, build bridges, and garner support.
And, build up a circle of support around you so that you always have a source of encouragement you can turn to.
4. Fear of going blank
A final – and very real fear – is of going blank in front of people and not being able to get any words out.
Good preparation and lots of practice will help prevent this.
To test whether I’m ready to speak about something, I always ask myself, if someone were to wake me from a deep sleep at 3am and ask me questions about my topic, would I be able to answer them? If not, I need to do more preparation.
But there are physiological reasons why our minds can go blank when anxiety is high. High anxiety can interfere with memory and performance, inducing the ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ response.
Essentially, your body perceives danger, floods your system with hormones like cortisol and disrupts your normal brain functioning. Factual retrieval and recall methods – both of which are required to speak well – are disrupted. Your body is essentially saying ‘it’s too dangerous to hang around here talking, let’s check out’.
So, what can you do?
- The first thing is to breathe. Anxiety is natural. Even seasoned professionals experience it. There is nothing wrong with you. So, talk to your anxious body. Thank it for its efforts to protect you but reassure it that you are safe. You are prepared and can do this. If you try to block out anxiety, it will only start shouting louder. So, keep reassuring yourself and take fear for the ride.
- It can help to know that anxiety and excitement have a similar energy. So, try imagining your anxiety transforming into excitement over the people you’ll be educating, inspiring or serving.
- Alternatively, it can help to focus your mind on a time when you have previously felt confident speaking and bring that confidence to the moment. Or use music to calm or elevate your mind.
- I find it helps to memorise the opening line so it’s like second nature. Then it acts like a launch pad for everything else.
- If possible, come armed with cue cards, so you know you have them as a crutch to remind you of the rest of the key points. Even if you never need them, they’re reassuring. If not, there are many great memory techniques to help.
- Also consider your closing line so you’ve got a nice clean finish and don’t end up stumbling over a way to end.
You can help to build your tolerance through exposure. Start with speaking in environments that are smaller and less complex, like talking to a group of friends. Show yourself you can do it. Each time you do it, you get evidence that you can.
The next time – even if the environment and audience is different – remind yourself that you can speak in front of others: ‘Look, I’ve done this before, I can do it again.’
What if something goes wrong?
If you make a mistake, this is not failure.
Failure would be not speaking at all. Failure would be staying silent and not sharing your important messages with the world so others can benefit.
Every time you speak, whether it goes smoothly or there are bumps, you get learnings. Embrace those learnings and you and your courage to speak will grow.
- If you feel anxious at the thought of speaking publicly, you’re not alone. Glossophobia, as it’s known, is widespread but there’s lots you can do about it.
- The four most common fears, when it comes to speaking, centre around worries of looking stupid, not being good enough, being disliked and going blank. The key solutions are to build trust in yourself, prepare and practice well, think about the tools you’ll need on stage and reassure anxiety rather than trying to block it. Take it for a ride!
- Learning to do anything and getting better at it – including speaking – means there may be some bumps along the way. Remember that this is not failure. Failure would be not speaking up at all. Embrace your lessons, keep speaking and keep growing.