The fear of public speaking is irrational, because public speaking does not threaten life and limb. Yet many people are terrified of speaking in front of a group and will do almost anything to avoid it.
An irrational fear is generally known as a phobia. In my practice, as a counselor and life coach specializing in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and hypnotherapy, I receive plenty of requests to work with phobias, fears and anxiety. One of the most common sources of phobias and fears I work with is that of public speaking.
My office is in a suburb just outside of Washington, D.C., less than 30 minutes from the United States Capitol building and the White House. My clientele often consists of government, military and federal contractor folks looking for upward mobility – public speaking is a necessary skill for their advancement. They come from high-pressure work environments.
When I work with phobias and fears around public speaking, I encourage my clients to join a Toastmasters club. I see each client for about five one-hour individual sessions, to help him or her become more confident in front of an audience. During the initial interview with each client, I listen for the irrational thinking that goes along with the fear.
In the 20 years I have worked with clients battling their fear of public speaking, I have narrowed the irrational thinking into three main categories:
- It’s all about me.
- My speaking abilities are ruined by a past disaster.
- I can’t stand the thought of making a mistake in front of others.
My first task as a therapist is to help change my clients’ thinking: a process called reframing (or “cognitive restructuring”). When I can help someone to think differently, it’s easy to change their behavior and emotions. Once my clients begin to think differently about public speaking, then I can use relaxation training, guided visualization, behavioral conditioning, and hypnotic suggestions to help them access feelings of confidence in their abilities and optimism about the excitement and fun of speaking to groups.
For the remainder of this article, I’d like to elaborate on each of the irrational thoughts above, tell you how people express those thoughts, and what I say to them to steer their thinking in another direction. I hope this information will help new Toastmasters and prospective Toastmasters to think about public speaking in a new and positive way. Here’s a glimpse of what goes on in my office when people tell me they are terrified of public speaking:
“It’s All About Me”
Many people tell me they shun the spotlight and avoid public speaking because they feel self-conscious. They assume that when all eyes are upon them, they are being judged and made subject to disapproval. My clients usually tell me something like, “I get so nervous that I can’t stop thinking about how nervous I feel and how everyone is staring at me, and how foolish I must look.”
One client who told me these things did so while curled up on the couch, in a fetal position, crying that he couldn’t stand the thought of “people doing those things to me.” I always acknowledge such fears. Then, here’s what I say:
If you think it’s all about you, then you are approaching public speaking from the wrong end of things. It isn’t all about you. It’s all about your audience and the message you give them. They aren’t there to judge you. They are there to get the message, and they really don’t care who delivers it. They are there because they want to be informed, taught, inspired or entertained. Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about them. Stop thinking like a victim in front of a firing squad and start thinking like someone who has something worthwhile to say to people who want to hear it. When you start focusing on the needs of the audience, and get your mind off yourself, your nervousness will go way down.
“My Speaking Abilities are Ruined by a Past Disaster”
Many of my clients believe they’re emotionally scarred by some past humiliation or embarrassment – something that occurred in front of others – often in childhood, but sometimes even in adulthood. And that event, for them, created a phobic response to the thought of being the center of attention. In fact, phobias are usually formed by a single rather traumatic event accompanied by a highly-charged, negative emotion.
One client of mine, for example, was a highly sought-after speaker in the government, giving briefings to the United States Congress, the press and White House staffers. One day, when she was briefing an audience of VIPs, things went terribly wrong. Her briefing was delayed, the equipment didn’t work properly, she hadn’t eaten lunch, the room was hot and poorly ventilated, and she became dizzy and disoriented during her speech and had to be helped off the stage. From that day on, she believed she was unfit to speak in public. Her only thought was that, if she ever spoke again to an audience, it would simply be a repeat of that horrible day. Her career had come to a standstill.
I always agree with my clients that any humiliation or embarrassment is a terrible ordeal. Then I remind them of a few things they haven’t realized, and here is what I say:
First, no one plans to fail and you cannot always control circumstances. Second, you survived and therefore you have another opportunity to meet the challenge. Third, that event is over and in the past. It has already happened and therefore, that same exact event can never happen again. So where you go from here is up to you.
If you focus on what you did or what happened to you that was horrible, it will make you lose sight of all the times when you have excelled at something. Give yourself credit for having learned something from experience, good and bad, and for the ability to use that information to do better next time. Failure is no reason to quit. Every failure we encounter gives us valuable information for future improvement. It is only when you focus on your strengths and your achievements that you will have the courage to face the challenge.
“I Can’t Stand the Thought of Making a Mistake in Front of Others”
I always tell my clients that their fear of making mistakes is one side of a two-sided coin. The other side of that coin is a strong desire to excel and make a good impression. Then I add that nervousness and fear do not make a good impression. Here’s what I say next:
One key to a polished presentation is to practice. Practice reduces mistakes. Another key is to get feedback from others. Toastmasters meetings are great venues to practice speeches that you plan to give to other groups, because your evaluator can point out where you can improve.
To reconcile with the fear of making mistakes, it’s best to accept the fact that mistakes happen, even to the most skilled speakers. It’s what you do with mistakes that matters to others, not whether you make them. The more you cringe and fidget over a mistake, the more your audience becomes aware of your discomfort.
The way to recover from a mistake is to observe your mistake dispassionately, take whatever corrective action is necessary, regain your composure, focus on what to say next and go on. Leave the mistake behind and move forward through your material. Audiences can be forgiving. Many listeners will admire the way you continue on so easily, or may even be relieved to know you are human. The secret to superb speaking is to give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn to recover from them quickly.
You Can Reframe, Rehearse and…Regain Your Voice!
Now to many seasoned Toastmasters, such fears may seem quite foolish, but for the person who is truly afraid of public speaking, these fears are often overwhelming. What always surprises me, however, is that when I reframe these fears, every client looks at me in amazement and says “Gee, I never thought about it like that!” When I hear that, I know I’ve done a good job. And it’s a thrill to watch them break free from their fears.
I’ve been successful in helping my clients overcome fears of public speaking. The client who curled up on the couch spoke at his industry conference a few weeks later and proudly showed me the certificate that proved his participation. He hung it on the wall of his office, to prove that he really could speak to groups. The second client, with embarrassing experience, gradually got back into giving briefings. She asked her supervisor to allow her to return to her previous responsibilities. She started out giving brief presentations to small groups and gradually worked her way up to much more challenging assignments, testing the waters as she went along. Her career is back on track.
Judith E, Pearson, Ph.D., DTM, is a member of Galloping Governors Toastmasters Club. She has a private counseling practice in Springfield, Virginia. Reach her at email@example.com.
Strategies for Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking
By Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM
Do butterflies attack your stomach whenever you even think about having to address a group? If so, here are
a few strategies to help you make them fly in formation:
• Be thoroughly prepared. The more ready you feel, the more confident you will feel.
– Know your subject and material. Be familiar with the technical content of your presentation.
Know more than you will be presenting.
– Know your audience. Who are they? Why are they there? Why have you been chosen to speak to them?
What do they know? What is their attitude about your subject?
– Know the room. If possible, check it out in advance. Get behind the lectern, check the microphone
and visualize your audience.
– Be organized; focus on the task.
– Practice, practice, practice until you feel comfortable that you know your presentation. Speak in
front of a mirror, record or videotape yourself and use the results to improve your delivery.
• Visualize the outcome you want. Believe in yourself. Envision yourself succeeding, and you’ll increase the
likelihood that you will!
• Focus on the message, not on yourself. Show your audience that your message is important by getting
excited about it and putting your energy into it.
• Connect with your audience. Remember that audiences almost always want a speaker to succeed,
and they want to hear the speaker’s message. Find a few friendly faces in the audience and focus
on them during your presentation.
• Put the past behind you. Ignore past bad experiences. Even professional speakers started out as
• Look your best. Dress appropriately for the occasion. If you look good, you will feel good – and it will show!
• Breathe deeply. Take a few deep breaths just before you step up to the lectern, to help you start with
a strong, clear voice.
• Give up the belief that you have to be perfect. Even professional speakers run into glitches and
problems from time to time. Keep small setbacks in perspective.
Carl Duivenvoorden, DTM, is a member of the Fredericton Club in New Brunswick, Canada.