The fear of public speaking, is a shockingly common trait. Of the numerous studies devoted to the topic, one can find support that the fear occurs in 50-75% of the population and rank it as the number one fear held by people (above the fear of death). There is no shortage of articles about both causes of and tips for overcoming one’s fear of public speaking. Regardless of the reasons why you might feel anxious before or during a public speaking presentation, you would probably take comfort in knowing that not only is this kind of anxiety prevalent in our society, but also that such a fear is not a barrier to being an effective public speaker.
We could fill a library with books written to assist individuals with overcoming their fear of public speaking. I would agree that there are many excellent and helpful tactics that can help a person learn to address and overcome the fear. Of all the methods, tips and techniques available, some will likely resonate more greatly with you while others simply won’t work for you. Nonetheless, there is one very simple technique which is extremely effective and universally applicable. Everyone can do it and it takes no special training.
In order to utilise this simple technique, you must understand that when you feel anxious about public speaking, you are perceiving a fear of something that is actually not threatening. Being chased by a lion is threatening and one would justifiably be afraid in such a situation. In contrast, you may perceive the act of public speaking as threatening, and hence you may be attempting to legitimise your fear, but there is nothing inherently dangerous about public speaking. Instead, sometimes our brain sends us messages that something is scary when there is really nothing to fear, and after we feel the fear, we will justify the fear with what we feel to be logical statements (“I will sound like a fool and everyone will laugh at me.”).[i]
When this brain trick works, you believe that your fear of public speaking is reasonable and consequently, you act accordingly. Thus, you avoid public speaking because you believe that you have a legitimate fear (one that falls into the same category as being chased by a lion). The reality, of course, is that avoiding public speaking is probably far more detrimental to your professional reputation and image than actually delivering the presentation or speech.
So, what’s the simple and effective technique? Deliver the speech. Just step onto the stage, or stand at the front of the boardroom and start talking. Don’t give any credence to the fearful messages in your brain. Have you ever just jumped into the water, all at once, before your brain told you that the water would be cold? The longer that you wait at the side of the water, the more messages of fear will be flooding through your brain. The same principle goes for public speaking. The more you listen to the fear messages in your mind the stronger the fear becomes and the more you believe it. You will become “paralysed with fear.” To counter this, you must act. Don’t try to think your way out of this mess of fear, just get up there and talk before you convince yourself otherwise.