Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking
Turning a Fear into a Career
by Carmie McCook
Recently, I was talking with the CEO of a technology company about helping him develop and deliver a keynote speech at an upcoming conference. He confessed that he hated giving speeches or presentations because the very thought of speaking in front of a group of people made his heartbeat accelerate, his mouth dry, and “…sweat like I’ve been in a steam room.” He added, “I don’t know that there is any help for me.” I assured him there was.
After reviewing what we would work on together and how the training and coaching would be organized, he said, “This sounds really good. What got you into a career as a public speaking coach?”
My answer surprised him. “My fear of public speaking.”
I realized in my twenties that the ability to communicate ideas and information confidently, clearly, and engagingly to others is essential in any job. To have the future life I envisioned, I had to overcome the gripping fear that consumed me whenever I had to share my thoughts in front of a group of people in professional settings. Why was I like this? I was an otherwise very outgoing person, so what was causing this fear? That’s when I began doing research.
Over the years, I have researched and learned a lot about glossophobia – the fancy word for fear of public speaking. The cause of speech anxiety is complex and overcoming it requires training, coaching, and counseling on multiple factors. But understanding the science behind that fear is the first step in helping you manage it.
Sudden feelings of anxiety before giving a speech or presentation are common. For some, it is an abrupt rush of nervousness that comes just before going on stage. For others, the dread starts building from the moment you know you have to give a presentation. The anxiety can be so intense it causes shallow breathing, sweating, an inability to think clearly, and a terrifying sense of panic. Either scenario is called fear of public speaking. But I think that is a misnomer.
No one really has a fear of public speaking. What people do have is a fear of failure — a fear of not being perfect in the eyes of others. The fear of being ridiculed, seen as incompetent or judged as an imposter.
If you can relate to this, keep reading! There is good news: All of these fears are self-imposed. And self-imposed fears can be controlled and, with coaching, can be overcome. I’m not a neuroscientist, but here’s a quick science lesson to help you understand what is happening.
The amygdala is the part of your brain that reacts when you sense potential physical danger. When something happens that you perceive as threatening, like a car headed straight for you, a grease fire in your kitchen, an avalanche on a ski slope, etc., the amygdala responds, sending signals to the hypothalamus, releasing chemicals that trigger an adrenaline rush and fight or flight response to protect you. Those chemicals make your heartbeat and breathing accelerate, your mind starts racing, and blood rushes to your head because you fear physical danger.
But the same danger signal is sent when you have to give a presentation and think things like, “Oh no! This is a big crowd! Everyone will be judging me! What if I forget something important? What if I go blank and embarrass myself! I don’t want to do this!” The amygdala believes whatever you tell it. Even though the threat is imagined, and there is no actual physical danger, it still triggers heart-pounding, shallow breathing, sudden brain fog, and other physical and emotional responses that say, run for your life!
The more negative your mindset gets about public speaking, the larger and more hypersensitive your amygdala gets. It continues to send those intimidating, false alarms, feeding anxiety because of your imagined, self-imposed “what if” fears.
But, just as the amygdala believes the scary stuff you tell it, it believes the comforting stuff you tell it too! The first step in overcoming speech anxiety is to retrain your brain. Stop thinking and saying negative “self-talk.”
We believe what we continually tell ourselves, so when you have to give a presentation or speech, tell yourself only positive things. Envision success! The moment a negative thought starts to creep in, immediately change it to positive language. Say, “I can do this! I’ve got a great presentation with good information. This is going to go well! I’m calm, and the audience will enjoy my presentation. I’ve got this!”
Research shows that as you retrain your mindset, your amygdala literally shrinks in size, reducing panic and allowing your confidence to grow. Speaking before an audience of one or 1000 will become more comfortable. Then one day, as you are enjoying applause after giving a fantastic presentation, you’ll smile and think, “Wow! It’s hard to believe that this used to freak me out!”
Carmie McCook is the founder and President of Carmie McCook & Associates, an executive communications training and coaching firm based in Washington, DC, serving clients globally