• akosgerold

The biggest misconception about the fear of public speaking.

Last year, we helped the CEO of a multimillion dollar company overcome his fear of public speaking. He had been regularly invited to give presentations and talks because of the success of his company and his in-depth knowledge of the industry. But he had always made up excuses and sent his managers. He had even delegated all internal presentations to his right-hand men. The fear was simply too strong.

Then after he was asked to be one of the panelists and speakers in the main keynote session at an international event in 2019, he finally decided to overcome this fear that had been plaguing him forever and contacted us for help.

Speaking in public is rated by some sources as the greatest fear known to humans. Whether it’s the greatest or not is probably arguable, but it is no doubt one that affects very many.

I used to be no exception. At university, whenever I would contribute to a class discussion, within less than a minute big beads of sweat would start rolling down my forehead and then my face, dropping onto the notebook in front of me. Actually, the fear started gathering in the pit of my stomach first and then permeated my whole body even before it was my turn to talk. And mind you, I had to speak in front of people I knew well and teaching staff.

A beads of sweat on a forehead.
This is how profusely I would start sweating within less than a minute of opening my mouth. © Ákos Gerold

Where does our fear of public speaking come from?

For our cave and savannah inhabiting ancestors, the only way to survive was to live and hunt in groups, so being ostracised meant certain death. Because being judged negatively could have led to expulsion from the group and because evolutionary conditioning is deeply rooted in us as a species, we still perceive situations where our fellow humans can judge us as potential threats. Thus the fear of public speaking.

Whenever I ask clients who wish to overcome this fear what the perfect outcome for the time spent with us would be, they say the same thing:

"I want to be able to give a presentation or a talk without being nervous or afraid."

And partially therein lies the problem.

You see, whenever we perform, whenever we have to do something in front of an audience, there will be fear. Stage fright is normal. If there was not the slightest flicker of it, then that would mean we did not care. The fear comes from the wish to perform at our best and from not being sure if we will be able to. Thus, the fear is what keeps us on our toes, what makes us work hard and prepare. Therefore, fear is an ally, not an enemy even though this is not obvious at first glance.

Just ask any successful sportsperson if they are nervous before they have to step into the arena. No matter how many titles, records, matches they have under they belts, they say they are, every single time. The same goes for all performers. So, expecting not to be nervous before giving a presentation and thinking that others, or the best speakers, are not is simply a huge misconception.

Stage fright is welcome for another reason. The fear comes from being challenged, i.e. being uncomfortable. The bigger the challenge, the greater the discomfort. But also the further away we are from our comfort zone, the more we learn and grow. So the fear is just proportionate to the growth opportunity. Do you wish to pass on a big chance to learn and improve?

I know that this is all very rational and that fears are often not. This is why a lot of people seek out help to overcome their fear of public speaking. How we support them is a combination of Justine Arena’s hard earned and certified coaching skills and of what I learned through confronting my fear regularly — I was the most active student in classes, then I taught for many years, which is also regularly speaking in front of an audience, and I have grown to love the stage.

Detailing the process we carefully take our clients through would require too much space, but at the end of the day, it boils down to helping them take action, that is doing it in spite of the fear, while giving them the necessary support. The more they do it in small steps, the more they get used to the fear and to doing it despite. The more they get used to the fear, the more manageable it becomes. The more manageable it becomes, the more confident they feel they will get it under control a few minutes into their presentation. And the more confidence they have in being able to manage it, the more able they become to do exactly that.

Or as I usually say,

People who are confident when speaking in public only lack nerves because they spoke many times despite the nerves.

How did the CEO fare? He gave the best presentation of the day. Was he afraid? Of course. But he did it anyway. And thanks to the work we had done with him, the fear was manageable and soon after he started talking, it began to dissipate.

Are you nervous before a presentation? How are you dealing with it? What helps you overcome the nerves? We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Happy presenting!

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