Just like any other basic human emotion, the feeling of fear has been programmed into your system from the time you were born. It’s an instinctive survival mechanism that cautions you to be careful and stay away from danger. Unfortunately there are times when fear takes the driver’s seat – inappropriately and seemingly out of your control – and causes you to shy away when you should go courageously ahead. So fear can be a healthy, helpful thing, but too much fear at the wrong time can end up being a major drawback, unhealthy indeed.
It’s no secret that “unhealthy” fear is a major reason many view public speaking, normally a completely safe activity, as a threat, to be avoided whenever possible. Thank goodness there are ways to overcome your public speaking anxiety. One effective way to start is by reading about some possible reasons behind your apprehensions.
#1: You assume you just weren’t born to be a public speaker
It’s true; some people have a gift for wowing a crowd without much effort at all. They speak eloquently, spontaneously and naturally. From the moment they walk on stage they engage their audience, convey their ideas fluently, and tell stories in an entertaining, effective way.
But here’s a message from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Every great speakers started out as a poor speaker. The orators we look up to have also experienced their panic-stricken moments on the stage. Not convinced? Here are just a few examples:
- Warren Buffet admitted he had a deep-seated fear of public speaking when he was a student. To beat it, he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course.
- Nancy Duarte received a C-minus in a speech communication class, and a D in English classes in college. Her failures motivated her to write best-selling books about speech communication.
- In the video below, you’ll see a young Steve Jobs with an obvious case of nerves before his first TV interview.
Video: Steve Jobs nervous during his first TV interview
#2: You demand perfection from yourself
Of course you want to give the audience your best, but that doesn’t mean you need to be harsh on yourself over every tiniest speaking mistake. Take consolation from the fact that no speech or presentation has ever been delivered 100% as planned. Even the most experienced public speakers make blunders. It’s just not obvious that they’ve used a wrong word or lost their train of thought, because they are quick to pull through gracefully.
How can you build your recovery skills? Here’s a simple trick: as you practice a presentation, when you make an error, don’t stop. Just carry right on without going panicky. If you come to a halt at every imperfection during practice, you run the risk of its becoming a habit – a habit you’ll take with you to the presentation stage. If you need to run through the presentation a few more times to knock out the imperfections, so be it. It’s a sound investment.
#3: You’re trying to please everybody
Any speech or presentation should be crafted on the basis of this one question: Why should your audience spend their valuable time listening to what you’re saying? To arrive at a practical answer, countless public speaking articles have stressed research as a vital pre-presentation activity. Knowing your listeners’ background, interests and needs will help you bring value to the table.
But regardless of your preparation time and effort, this fact remains: there will almost always be naysayers in an audience. After your speech, there will be at least one person will nit-pick or rant about what you’ve said or how you’ve said it. There might be another who found your hand gestures distracting. Another could think your pace was off – too fast or too slow. They might not express these disagreements aloud, but they’re there nonetheless. In short, you can never please everyone. You can give it your best shot. As long as you know you did everything you could to make your speech worthwhile, you’ll be fine.
#4: You suppose people will judge you
It’s true that if your speech is a flop, you’re most likely in for a fair share of negative feedback. Some critics are constructive, but others can be mean-spirited and hit below the belt. These days someone might even be insensitive and antisocial enough to make an online meme out of a speaking blunder. Welcome to the age of social media, where anything you say or do—good or bad—can go viral.
Regardless of your speech performance, keep in mind that a public speaking performance does not represent your overall professional competence and skill. It has nothing to do with your value as a person. Of course, the best way to avoid harsh feedback is to improve your weaknesses and stay at it – keep taking on public speaking challenges. Mark Zuckerberg is a living testament to this idea. His stiffness, flat voice and faraway gaze during early interviews drew a number of negative criticisms. But in time, he has demonstrated a marked improvement in his communication skills.
There’s no shortcut to becoming a successful speaker. For many, the road to that goal demands a willingness to overcome fear of public speaking, through hours and hours of prep time and practice, and building a positive outlook.