Scared Of Public Speaking? 3 Quick Tips To Conquer Your Fear

In business, irrational fears encompass everything from fear of rejection, fear of authority, and fear of criticism to fear of failure and even fear of success. Such fears keep us from being able to "just figure things out" and making the flip that can propel us in a good direction. Let me tell you a story to illustrate this point.

A good friend of mine, Tom, is one of the most talented sports agents in his business. Hard-charging, funny, and smart, Tom has a natural touch with his clients and is on the fast track toward senior management.

Unfortunately, Tom suffers from one of the business world’s most common irrational fears, a fear of public speaking.

On the surface, when you see Tom, this makes no sense. Why would he be afraid to talk in front of a crowd? He’s confident, articulate, and successful. But he is deathly afraid of standing alone in front of a crowd and speaking. The interesting thing is that he has no problem contributing as part of a panel or group. It’s only speaking solo that causes him to panic. No matter how many times he successfully speaks on a panel, no matter how many times he receives compliments and assurances on his performance, he still remains terrified to speak alone in public. It’s an irrational fear that is impacting his business goals, and he’ll never be able to find faith and reach his potential unless he can get over it.

To balance his scale, one that was tilting heavily in favor of fear, I gave Tom a positive variable for every negative fear.

Tom had three primary negative fears: (1) that people were judging him, (2) that he needed to be perfect, (3) that he would freeze and get stuck. Here’s a list of the balancing variables:

  1. Negative fear: Everyone is judging me. 
    Positive variable: People are self-interested.

    People think that when they’re speaking in public, the audience is hanging on every word they say. That is just not the case. People are egocentric. Most people are actually thinking primarily about themselves. It’s human nature.

    What most of the audience is probably thinking about is what they have to do later that day, or else they’re checking their BlackBerrys and looking for new email, wondering what they’re going to eat for dinner, or playing back in their minds the fight they had with their partner last night. So, I asked Tom, if you slip up, who cares? Most people won’t even remember it. You have to have faith that everyone is really primarily concerned about themselves and their own lives. It can free you from feeling that all their attention is on you.

  2. Negative fear: I need to be perfect.
    Positive variable: Nothing’s perfect; accept it!

    I also advised Tom, whenever he gets nervous, to remember the line "New York would be an incredible place if they just finished building it." Meaning that it’s never going to be complete and perfect. Construction will never be completed in New York; the city is a constant work in progress. And so are all of us. We have to develop faith that others will value us as we are. People still love New York with all its noise and mistakes, and you have to have faith in yourself that others will love you and appreciate you even if you make a mistake now and again.

  3. Negative fear: I am afraid I will freeze and get stuck. 
    Positive variable: You can memorize your speech.

    The last piece of advice was purely technical for Tom: When you are nervous about speaking in public, always look toward the back wall; it can’t make facial expressions to distract you. I told him that until he was more confident speaking, he shouldn’t try to make direct eye contact. I also advised him to memorize the beginning of the speech. It is usually the beginning of anything that is most difficult; if you memorize it and know it cold, you will feel much more comfortable.

The advice helped, and Tom seemed more relaxed on stage. Providing him with concrete positive

variables to offset every irrational fear gave him a sense of control over the fears. He counteracted the irrational fear that his speech had to be perfect and Oscar-worthy with the good variable that no one is really so focused on everything a speaker says. He counteracted the fear that all the years of his hard work and success would be in doubt if he made a mistake with the good variable that even if everything went wrong, he was a valuable player in the organization and would still be respected. With those ideas at the front of his mind, he delivered his presentation a week later, to great success.

When overcoming irrational fear, balance the scale by adding a positive variable for every negative fear. 

Related: Hijacking Emotion Is The Key To Engaging Your Audience

This article is an excerpt from Flip the Script: How to Turn the Tables and Win in Business and Life by Bill Wackerman, available now from Free Press. 

[Image: Flickr user Nickb_Rock]

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  • I coach people with public speaking fear/anxiety for a living. I get the angle Bill is taking; he's trying to focus on quickly eliminating fear. But this advice is just avoidance behavior. For people who know and experience anxiety, avoidance is probably the worst thing you could do in the moment.

    Before an audience, we need connection more than ever. To ground us. To feel the support of others. To see people as people rather than a critical audience.

    My advice? Do the opposite. Stop focusing on ways to control your anxiety. Stop focusing on repeating memorized lines. Stop thinking so much. You'll get stuck in your head; you'll be moving backward instead of forward. Instead, make your focus your overall message. Try to be as engaged as possible. You already know how to do this naturally.


  • NadineTouzet

    Being a consecutive language interpreter has cured me of my nervousness when speaking in public. Plus, I have observed and interpreted hundreds of speakers in my career.

    So... A few reassuring tips.

    1. You are NOT going to ad lib in front of a hostile audience. You have prepared your presentation. People come to listen to you. Of course a speaking engagement at breakfast or lunch can be a little disturbing because of the background noise, but people are still listening.

    2. It's NOT a good idea to avoid looking at your audience. If you are very nervous, pick two people, one to your left, one to your right, and look in their direction, changing sides every two or three sentences. Practice in front of empty chairs if necessary. Once you've got used to doing that, you can start looking at other people. Notice those who smile or nod showing that they agree. Include them in your focus.

    3. Time your presentation as accurately as possible (practice!). I'm always sad when a speaker has prepared a whole presentation, and gets suddenly told by the organizer that he is running out of time. Panic ensues and the end is not always pretty.

    4. Above all: don't forget to BREATHE. This will take away all your nervousness.

    Good luck!

  • Marla Benson

    Worst public speaking advice Ever! 

    Glad it worked out for Tom, but this is a
    sure guideline to demonstrating that you:  1. Don’t care about tapping into your audience’s
    needs, 2. Are disengaged by not making eye contact, and 3. Are a Robot by
    memorizing your speech.

    Tom – I’m happy to provide coaching that will make you comfortable
    and SUCCESSFUL on the platform.

  • Scott Byorum

    Someone once advised me to picture the audience naked while giving a speech.  The first time I tried it I had a fit of giggles and blew the speech.

  • John Ruzicka

    I personally think this is horrible advice.  Not looking at your audience?  How do you expect to connect? No wonder they're checking their email.  You're not talking to them!

    If you were to break it down into a nice three tip formula, I'd go with:
    1.  Engage your audience with something they can relate to - or at least imagine.  Get them into the story and they won't be checking their phones.
    2.  Look them in the eye.  Basic.
    3.  Rehearse it until you have it down cold (not just the beginning as the author suggests).  Rehearse in front of the mirror, record yourself and review, rehearse with your dog, run through it with your spouse - practice!

    Public speaking is kind of like golf - you can always be better.  I'm no expert, but I don't think telling people to look at the back wall is a great step in the right direction.