Public Speaking? No thanks, I prefer to die! (How to defeat the fear of public speaking)

The title of this article seems pretty odd, but it is not. Few days ago I was surfing on the Internet when I found out a shocking truth: Public Speaking is more frightening than death!

At least those are the results shown by a survey conducted at Wilkinson College of Arts.
The survey was directed to a US audience. Thereby, since we can assume some similarities across western cultures the result can be extended to the western world.

Although I am still skeptical about that we have to admit how scary we felt the first time we had to face a public audience. For most of us the fear is still there. Therefore instead of objecting, whether the fear of public speaking is more frightening than death, is true or not, I am proposing here some solutions to the problem:

1 Public Speaking is a skill (like walking, swimming, skating …): Many of us fear public speaking because we tend to have the belief that people are either good at it – so-called “natural” – or they will never be. The truth is that public speaking is a skill that can be acquired by anyone, therefore a process.

2 Entity vs. Incremental Theories of Intelligence: The book that opened my mind about the fact that anything is possible is The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance: Josh Waitzkin.

The art of learning is about Optimal Performance in general. But the thing that most stroke me is the difference between two approaches of learning: entity vs. incremental theories of intelligence – the study was done by Dr. Carol Dweck for the first time. According to the entity theory, people who believe in it tend to personalize the learning process.

In other words, when making mistakes they say things such us “I am not smart enough”. As you can imagine this creates a great feeling of discomfort and “performance anxiety”. On the other hand the incremental theorists believe that learning is part of a process.

Therefore when an incremental theorist makes a mistake or does not achieve the expected result he will say things such as “I did not work as hard as I could have”. As you can imagine the incremental theorist will improve his performance next time.

How those theories apply to Public Speaking. Most of the time what gets in the way of our public speaking ability is our misbelief. Indeed, we tend to think that if we don’t make a great speech: “people will think I am not smart enough” or “people will judge me”. In other words what screws us up with public speaking is the tendency to personalize too much.

3 How to use your Body to Influence Your Brain: Intuitively we tend to believe that our brain is the cockpit of our organism – the ancient romans called it “deus ex machina”. Although, our brain has the executive functions over our body, in some circumstances the body is able to influence our mind.

As showed by a research conducted at the Harvard University by Amy Cuddy (Your body language shapes who you are) the body has the power to change your mental state. How? Through the – so-called – power poses (Practice These Power Poses to Feel Confident in Your Body).

In other words, those poses should help you to boost your confidence and usually they work instantaneously. Of course, this is not going to be a magic formula, but it is a good first step. Therefore before any public speaking practice power poses for a couple of minutes or so.

4 How to use your Brain to Reframe Your Body Feelings: In many cases what screws us up – before we speak in public or while we do so – is our tendency to label body feelings. For example, as soon as we feel that strange sensation in our belly we tend to label it by saying “I am feeling anxious“.

In turn this self-talk brings us to think negatively. The negative thoughts increase the level of anxiety until the situation becomes unmanageable. A recent research conducted at Harvard University showed how to turn stress into an asset. One of best ways to do so is through “reframing”.

All it takes is to change your self-talk while you start feeling that strange sensation in the belly. Instead of thinking “I am anxious” think instead “I am excited”. I did try this myself.

The first time I did, my anxiety decreased although, I still felt it. Eventually I tried it in several other situations and it worked. Therefore before any public speaking try this out.

5 You are not perfect? So what? Another cause of anxiety is the desire to be perfect. We always try to impress others, to show them how smart we are. This tendency creates a gap between the “perceived expectations” (what we think others expect from us) and “actual expectations” (what people expect from us) and therefore anxiety. Indeed, none is expecting from you to be perfect or to be the best public speaker in the world. Thereby as personal advice “relax” and “enjoy yourself”, that’s it!

6 How to Practice Public Speaking without being judged: In most cases the thing that stops us from practicing public speaking in front of other people is the fear of being judged.

Therefore it is crucial to find a constructive and relaxed environment where to test yourself. How? I would suggest you find a Toastmasters club in your neighborhood today and try that out. They will guide you throughout the process.

In addition that is a non-profit organization and usually membership fee are very low. On the other hand, you can initially participate as a guest.

To Learn more about Emotional Intelligence, check out “The Art of Mentorship.”

Here some inspiring and useful resources that can help to rapidly improve your public speaking:

Your body language shapes who you are
The power of believing that you can improve
Practice These Power Poses to Feel Confident in Your Body
Toastmasters International -Find a Club

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Gennaro Cuofano

Creator of | Head of Business Development at | International MBA

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