Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

Why we fear speaking

The Book of Lists years ago had speaking to a group of people as the number one fear in life – well ahead of death. Subsequent studies have tended to confirm that if not the top fear, it is always very close to the top. Why does speaking to a group of people cause us so much stress?

The simple answer is acute embarrassment.

We fear making a complete and utter fool of ourselves in front of friends, work colleagues and other people that matter in our lives, and unfortunately we have powerful emotional memories of just that level of embarrassment happening in our past. These anchored memories are then dramatically recalled and reinforced every time we even think about speaking in public.

But the memories are not necessarily about speaking in public. These emotional anchors link us to memories of being embarrassed by enthusiastic parents or grandparents in front of their friends, stammering though reading allowed in school to giggles and derision, forgetting our lines in a school play, and our faltering, stuttering, badly prepared first public speaking disasters. With no positive experiences to balance this out, the fear can reach phobic levels where often some form of therapeutic help is necessary.

What are the consequences of this fear?

This fear leads us to a conclusion that we are "not good enough." People start to develop a whole series of alibis to avoid the trauma of speaking in public. "I've nothing valuable to say," or "My life is pretty boring," or "I don’t have an experience in this," or "It's all been said already," etc. Those verbal and internal scripts that constantly put us down are not true, they are simply a survival mechanism to prevent us being put into a position of having to speak in public.

Unfortunately one of the worst side effects of this process is that people "keep their heads down" at work, disempowering themselves by never standing to speak, avoiding promotion and therefore sabotaging their careers. This in turn leads to further self sabotage and negative scripts to justify not progressing at work and in life. It is terrible vicious circle all build on the fear of speaking in public.

How do you overcome this Fear?

There is no shortage of advice on overcoming fear of speaking but my big concern is that a great deal of the advice will make the problem worse. Often the primary advice is to be well prepared and to practice. Nothing wrong in principle but these are not the first things to do. If people follow that advice alone they will build the fear instead of taking it away, because it doesn't overcome the problem of self confidence – the fear that you are going to make a fool of yourself.

The key to overcoming fear of public speaking is in the content of the speech not the preparation and delivery.

1. Speak from Experience

The number one rule for overcoming Fear of speaking in public is to speak from experience, speak on a topic about which you have earned the right to speak. If you speak about something you know well, if you speak on a topic about which you feel passionate then you are going to feel far more confident. Make a list of all the things you have experience in. Your passions, your achievements, your lessons in life, your work experience, your education and training, your hobbies and interests, your family and travel experiences etc.

2. Become a Storyteller

Develop stories about your experiences in life and in work. Start getting into the habit of telling stories to friends and colleagues socially or at work. Listen to any professional speaker and you will notice that their speeches are filled with stories. Stories are easy for us to remember as speakers and easy for the audience to remember. Write out your best stories making sure they all have a clear message. Buy some books of short stories and fables and learn how the masters construct entertaining stories.

3. Give your Speech a Clear Purpose

When you start writing your speech, begin with a clear and definite purpose. Why are you delivering this speech? What exactly do you want to achieve with it? What are the audience expecting from it? The audience will not be able to remember more than one clear message especially if there are lots of other speeches. Keep your speech very focused and write out your purpose in a single sentence as your primary message. State up front the purpose so that the audience knows what to expect and finish with the purpose and a call to action – what do you want the audience to do now. Give them a clear reason for having listened to you. The by product of this is that you are seen to be a leader. All great speeches have a clear and definite purpose, so should yours.

4. Stick to Three or Four Supporting Points

The biggest mistake people make is to ramble on and on with far too much content. One main message – your purpose – supported by three or four points all illustrated by interesting facts and stories and you have a winning speech. It's not too much to remember and it's easy for the audience to recall. They will thank you for the clarity and you will overcome your fear because it is easy to remember and deliver. People do not need to hear everything, give them the key points and let them come to you for more detail.

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