Can I overcome my fear of public speaking?
Do you tremble at the thought of having to speak in front of a group of people? Maybe it's in a meeting with your boss, having to give a speech at a wedding or addressing a large group at work. For some, even small social gatherings can bring them out in a cold sweat.
As a specialist voice coach and life coach I have spent many hours working with people who have a fear of public speaking. Some forgo great opportunities, pass up the chance of a promotion or spend years trying to avoid situations. Most feel quite alone in their concerns and it can seem as though everyone else is coping just fine. It may surprise you to learn that the fear of public speaking is reported to be the third biggest phobia in both the UK and the US, beaten only by a fear of heights and fear of snakes.
Symptoms of this fear which I have seen my clients overcome include the following; a dry mouth, shaking limbs, racing thoughts, pumping heart, becoming very hot, sweating, losing their train of thought, a feeling of dread or wanting to run away, feeling temporarily paralysed, a sense that everyone is looking at them, feeling sick. I could go on. The important thing to note is that people with a variety of these symptoms have gone on to lose their fear and many of them now actually enjoy public speaking!
So you have a fear of public speaking, can you overcome it? In my experience, yes, you can. There are those who have been on countless courses and tried many techniques, but have come to me still feeling that they would rather eat their own head than have to speak out. There are others for whom the fear of speaking in a group is so great that they haven’t dared to do anything about it and have been skillfully avoiding such an event for the past 20 years. Whichever camp you fall into, help is at hand.
A fear of public speaking - and I use the phrase in its broadest sense - is different from your average phobia. This means that it needs to be handled in a different way too. That can often be the reason that people might have failed to crack it in the past. Many phobias are what we would call ‘irrational’. A fear of dolls or clowns might be considered irrational, for example, as the true danger of either one of those causing harm to us is very slim indeed. Fearing snakes would be a legitimate fear - and potentially useful - if you live in the rainforest, however the chances of your youngest nephew’s rubber snake coming up and causing you bodily harm in a cul-de-sac in Wolverhampton, we’d have to say was near nil. In this sense, these are fears about things unlikely to put you in danger living in the UK today and that is why, even though the fear may be real, the threat isn’t. Public speaking is different though. It is, in itself fairly rational. It is a live event. There is a chance it may not go to plan.
Now, before I scare the living daylights out of you, it is worth remembering that that is true for everybody that stands up and speaks, not just you. It does mean that you have just as much chance of making it work as anybody else. It is also something that is largely within your control - even though you might currently feel otherwise. The key here is in the perception of the event. This, along with the associations people make with the idea of public speaking, can create a physical and mental response that makes the whole affair very difficult.
The other thing that often gets missed, is that voice is essentially a physical process. A physical process that is affected by how we think and feel. Due to this the physiology of the breath and voice has to be built in to your own personal solution. Many therapists miss this vital ingredient and treat it just as another phobia. Many voice coaches do the opposite. Combining the physical, mental and emotional elements of voice makes complete sense to our subconscious and allows us the potential to be free from the fear of public speaking.
To finish, here are three thoughts which may help you begin your journey to fear free speaking:
Always prepare if time allows
So many people feel so frightened they spend all of their time trying not to think about having to stand up and speak. Using even a small amount of that time to become familiar with what you will be talking about, understand it and speak it out loud before the big day will help you enormously.
No, really. If you don’t breathe, you can’t think. If you don’t think, you can’t speak. It's that simple. Breathe deeply when you feel the first sign of fear, it will help your mind acknowledge you are safe. Breathe deeply when you are running through events in your head or if you are practicing, it will build a positive association. Breathe before and during your speaking, in the pauses, it will allow you to think and speak.
Everyone is looking at me!
Next time you hear someone speaking well, next time you see someone with confidence stand up and speak, have a look what the people around them, their audience, are doing. Ask yourself how you know they are listening. And now ask yourself, if that were me, standing up, with confidence, inviting people to listen, what would I want them to be doing?
So I leave you, hopefully with the idea that, however afraid you may have been about public speaking in the past, there is someone out there, who used to be just as scared who has managed to overcome that fear. It isn’t the fear of public speaking thats the issue, it's being brave enough to make the decision to do something about it. What happens next is up to you!