If the thought of public speaking makes you want to run the other way, don’t worry ⎯ you’re not alone. I was once terrified of public speaking myself. My first important public speaking event was a DUI trial where I was the prosecutor. I was so nervous I could barely see the judge through my tunnel vision. Ultimately, the trial was a nerve-wracking train-wreck of a disaster that I still cringe to think about. Eventually, after years as a trial attorney and attendance at some pretty intensive training conferences, I was able to hack & overcome my fear of public speaking. I want to help you do the same.
I know you don’t have years to practice in a courtroom (thankfully right?). So I’ve combined my own experiences with the latest neuroscience research to come up with 4 easy hacks that will help you overcome any fear of public speaking you may have. These hacks are so easy you can apply them immediately. At the same time, they are so powerful and effective, I’m sure they will have a surprisingly noticeable impact on your speaking confidence the very next time you make a speaking presentation.
A gash, a rash, and purple bumps
Most people (including your competitors) hate public speaking and presentations. In fact, most would try to avoid it. I’ve even heard of people who go to drastic measures such as faking illness to avoid needing to make a speaking presentation. Crazy huh? It’s even been estimated that as many as 73% of Americans have a literal fear of public speaking. Does fear, anxiety, or nervousness hold you back from making public speaking presentations? If so, you’re missing out on one of the best and most powerful ways to build your brand and reputation.
Don’t shy away from public speaking and leave money at the table. Leave your fear there instead!
If you want to be seen as a niche expert and thought leader, you need to speak well. And, establishing yourself as a niche expert and thought leader is the best way to protect your business from today’s deadliest competitor: the internet. Instead of running from this Goliath, read my earlier blog post: Your profession is going extinct: Here’s what you can do about it and be proactive about it!
If you avoid speaking opportunities, you are literally giving away business. Why? Even in a world that is driven by digital interactions, people seek out (even crave) authentic, human connection. In fact, many people agree that trust is the #1 factor that leads to future sales and human connection is, without a doubt, the best way to build trust. You can’t build this kind of loyalty and connection with impersonal emails, web-copy, or flyers no matter how well written. Nothing beats facetime. Taking the time to overcome fear of public speaking is a huge investment in yourself and your business.
Here’s the best reason though: We already saw that most people are afraid of public speaking and even try to avoid it. Learn to speak well and you will stand out!
Learn to speak well and you will stand out!
Try these non-superficial tactics to permanently ban those pre-presentation sleepless nights
1. Know thy enemy and confront it
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles…” Sun Tzu
To overcome fear of public speaking, let’s consider where it comes from.
Neuroscience tells us that fear is a physiological state that results from the activation of our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. This system causes the many familiar physical reactions that can be so debilitating: tunnel vision, sweating, inability to think clearly, shaky hands, desire to flee, etc.
To spare you a science lesson, two things can activate our sympathetic system: a) a particularly traumatizing past experience; or b) uncertainty about a risky future. When it comes to fear of public speaking, unless you’ve had a particularly traumatizing experience in the past, uncertainty about the future is probably the driving force behind your fear.
I recently saw Tony Robbins live at one of his seminars. It was an amazing experience in so many ways but one of the things I really remember is what he said about fear. Tony revealed that fear generally comes in three categories:
- Fear of loss;
- Fear of less;
- Fear of never.
When confronted, fear loses its power
Most people have the same basic fears with public speaking. They fear:
- Loss of reputation or of social standing (essentially social rejection)
- Less sales or business opportunities
- Never being invited to speak to the group again
When you think about it though, how likely are these fears going to materialize? With almost 3/4 of the population afraid of public speaking themselves, the bar is pretty low. Most of your audience will be pretty forgiving of you even if you stumble. Besides, even if they did materialize, would they be the end of the world? Unless it was an absolute mission critical speaking presentation that would for sure make or break your business, I’m guessing not.
Ultimately, once confronted, you will find that fear really is, in the words of John Assaraf, an acronym: False Emotions Appearing Real.
2. How semantics are a self-fulfilling prophecy
How often have you found that the label you give an event decides its outcome? Hate household chores? Funny how calling it a “stay-cation” changes your outlook. Kids hate chores? Calling them jobs might change their outlook.
Behind identifying and confronting fear, the most powerful way to overcome fear of public speaking is to change its label.
Too many people think of public speaking engagements as speeches. Speeches are inherently performances. There are many problems with this label. Performances are a one-sided affair. It is the performer performing something for the audience to consume. Performances naturally invite critique: whether it met expectations or not, whether it entertained the audience or not, whether it was a success or failure.
When we undertake to give a speech, fear and nervousness are normal since we expect that we will be judged and critiqued and we are worried about the result. Your subconscious mind does not like speeches.
I remember performing in piano recitals as a teenager ⎯ serious affairs with judges, scoring, and trophies. The performance-related nature of these recitals caused me enough performance anxiety that I could never sleep the night before. Then, when they called my name, my legs were always so rubbery I could barely walk when I descended what felt like a hundred steps to the stage.
Changing the label from speech to conversation changes everything.
Do you get fearful and nervous during conversations with people (other than maybe on a first date)? Unless you have conversations with intimidating people on a regular basis I’m guessing the answer is “no.”
All the fear-inducing aspects of speeches: its performance-related nature, the expectation of success-or-failure critique, (and maybe even negative association with childhood piano recital trauma) are absent with conversations.
Label your next presentation as a conversation instead of a speech and get an added style bonus. A conversational style will almost always come across as more authentic and trustworthy than a speech, which can easily sound “canned” or phony. Authenticity is often the difference between a good speaking presentation and one that is truly great. Listen to some politicians give their carefully scripted, canned speeches and you’ll know what I mean.
3. Here’s the only thing you should memorize. Ever.
Some people recommend that you memorize your speaking presentation. This isn’t just bad advice, it’s horrible advice. The most important reason is that it has a huge chance of intensifying your fear of speaking. Alot. It also makes you sound less genuine and more robotic.
Imagine what happens if you were to lose track of where you are in your script, partway through your presentation. Your mind would be racing to find your *exact place* and won’t be able to improvise. Your nervousness and fear level would rise and your worries about screwing up your presentation increase. As your stress level goes up, your mind will be less able to remember your script, much less remember where you left off. This vicious cycle is just about guaranteed to sabotage your presentation in a big way if you trip up at all in your presentation.
So, just lay off the memorizing your speech thing.
There is one thing you should memorize and that’s your core message. Memorize it cold. Your core message is the elevator pitch for your entire, larger, speaking presentation. It is what you want your audience to hear and act on. Like an elevator pitch, it should be short (30 seconds or less is ideal), concise, and easily remembered. It should also be highly tailored for your audience and so valuable they can’t wait to hear it.
Imagine that someone in the audience showed up and said “hey, I’d love to stay for your presentation but I have a plane to catch. Can you tell me the Cliff Notes version of what you’re going to say?” You should be able to immediately tell them your core message without hesitation.
For example: If you were speaking to a group of scientists about using storytelling techniques to help them write better and more enticing research papers, your core message might be this:
“Scientists have an inherent problem in that it is hard to get readers interested and excited about relatively dry science. Instead of trying to share your research with facts and figures, I will teach you how to generate reader interest with a storytelling approach. Not only will I demonstrate the cognitive science behind storytelling, but I will also tell you about my two favorite types of storylines, and show you examples of how they work.”
Your core message is the heart and soul of your speaking presentation. If you know it cold and know that is something so valuable to your audience that you just can’t wait to share it with them, fear will take a back seat to your boldness.
4. Remember how the turtle kicked the hare’s hiney?
It’s better to be the turtle.
Earlier we talked about the body’s sympathetic system and how it affects speaking performance. Tunnel vision, inability to think well, and poor memory can wreck anyone’s speaking presentation. Unfortunately, this usually also causes us to speak faster and faster. This is probably our bodies’ subconscious attempt to put us out of our misery and off stage ASAP!
Unfortunately, fear-induced fast speaking just makes things worse. As we speak faster and faster we make more mistakes. These mistakes increase our fear and nervousness. This increased fear and nervousness leads to even more mistakes and so-on in a vicious cycle that will quickly resemble a circus act by a bunch of one-armed, blind-folded, drunk midgets. Besides, you’ll start sounding like an auctioneer and that’s never good.
The best vaccine & medicine to combat your body’s physiological fear response is to slow down your pace.
Slow down and you will allow your body’s parasympathetic system (which counteracts the sympathetic system) to take back over. This will start getting things back under control.
How slow? I recommend you speak slow enough that you yourself start feeling like you’re talking too slow. Since you will always think you are speaking slower than the audience perceives, this should be just about right.
A bonus reason to slow down? Slowing down will let your audience have the time to absorb the great things that you are telling them. After all, the best content in the world is useless if you don’t let your audience have the time to process it and understand how good it is.
Now your turn. Take steps to overcome fear of public speaking today!
Let’s overcome fear of public speaking and start using it as your best reputation and brand-building secret weapon!
Here’s what to do next:
- Write down your fears related to public speaking – what are you afraid might happen if you do poorly? Are they reasonable or the end of the world?
- Promise yourself you won’t listen to any more bad advice.
- Start thinking of every presentation, big or small, as a conversation.
- Let us know how your next presentation goes! Leave us a comment on our Facebook page. We love hearing about how our advice works for people.
- Go rock the world with your great ideas and presentations!!
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