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Lynda Shaw PhD

Neuroscience Professional Development Programmes


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Understanding fear of public speaking and how to get over it

Speaking in public can be one of our greatest fears but there are things you can do to help improve your confidence

Most of us would say we have experienced anxiety when public speaking at some point in our lives. In fact, some experts estimate that as much as 77% of the population experience some degree of anxiety regarding public speaking. Glossophobia, the scientific term for the fear of public speaking, can easily impact personal and professional growth if business leaders are unable to talk to a larger audience.  

Who suffers from fear of public speaking?

As we already know Glossophobia is extremely common but its more severe form is often associated with people who already suffer from social anxiety. It might be surprising to know that introverts can excel as public speakers because they often don’t project themselves onto the audience and therefore may have a better connection with them.

We associate certain situations with fear or negative experience

What is happening when we have a fear of public speaking?

Fear of public speaking can range from panic to anxiety to uncontrollable shaking hands and changes to your voice. The fight-flight-freeze response is our body’s stress response to perceived threats, and it instantly causes physiological and hormonal changes. These changes include your hearing being sharpened, releasing adrenaline and noradrenalin, and your heart rate getting faster to increase oxygen flow.

When you freeze, as many of us do when we are about to ‘perform’, it isn’t a conscious decision but an automatic reaction that can’t be controlled at that moment. We associate certain situations with fear or negative experience. It perhaps starts when you first experience that situation and can develop over time. Perceived threats and their reactions are different for different people. 

Can we get better at public speaking?

Preparation, being well-organised, looking at things from a different perspective and having support can all help, as can some sessions from a speaking coach in more severe cases. Having some experience also helps because the fear of the unknown is a powerful force. So what can you do to get over the fear?

Relax your breathing

Use breathing techniques when practising, preparing and performing so that over time it becomes a learned response. If you are feeling very anxious, breath in for four seconds, hold for seven and breathe out for eight seconds to lower your heart rate, release carbon dioxide that may be building up and ease the tension in your muscles, reducing your physiological response to your fear. 

Start off presenting to a smaller audience of people you feel comfortable around

Gradually expose yourself to the fear

Start off presenting to a smaller audience of people you feel comfortable around. Gradually expand the number of people whilst staying as relaxed as possible. Last-minute changes and demands can trigger our fight or flight instincts, cause stress and debilitate our decision making. In the moment, it may be tempting to rush through your speech to get it over and done with but taking your time means you can stick to what you know best and can reduce your physiological anxiety.

Change your belief system

Are you approaching public speaking with a ‘can’t do’ fixed mindset? Aim for a growth mindset and try to reframe it as not as overwhelming as it might feel. The brain is fantastically adaptable, and the chances are you can do it. Talk to yourself in the same way you would speak to a friend. Dismiss constant negative internal chatter and remind yourself you are doing your best.

Take a leap of faith

Fear often festers in the unknown but taking a leap of faith could very well help you to overcome it. Who knows you might be a natural? Doing something unfamiliar that is not yet a habit, can be daunting but it also helps you to make new important neural connections, keeping you and your brain agile.

Visit the place where you’ll be speaking ahead of time so you can practice using the equipment and get a feel for the room beforehand

Visualise your success

Picture your presentation going well and your audience’s appreciative reaction. Imagining something going well can help influence how your mind and body take those steps in reality, boost your self-confidence and improve your performance.  Reject limiting former self-beliefs and increase positive affirmations. Do this just before your speech.

Be prepared

Public speaking can usually be prepared for in advance so invest your time and prepare for your presentation as much as possible. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be. Learn what you want to say well but allow for adlibs for natural flow. Use prompts if you need them but try not to read from notes. 

Be practical

Check that any visual aids and technology including video and audio files are working properly. Prepare and pack any props or information sheets needed. If it helps write your bullet points on cue cards (and remember to bring them with you). Visit the place where you’ll be speaking ahead of time so you can practice using the equipment and get a feel for the room beforehand. 

Don’t be put off by a moment of brain fog

Don’t panic if you lose track of where you are in your speech or if your feel your mind going blank. Even though the silence may seem deafening to you, remember that audiences will be willing you on and that these things happen to the best of us. Take a sip of water and a deep breath and carry on.  

Avoid using a perfect script which may make you appear rigid and affect how you use your voice

Talk about a topic you’re passionate about

If you know your topic and care about what you have to say this will translate into your speech and will boost your authenticity and credibility to your audience and increase your confidence. If you are talking about your specialist subject, then you already know everything you need to perform well and to answer any questions.

Avoid striving for perfection

Try not to put too much pressure on yourself to be perfect during your public speaking as this sets an unrealistic expectation and value on the event which could be damaging to your self-worth and self-esteem if it doesn’t go to plan. Avoid using a perfect script which may make you appear rigid and affect how you use your voice. No one is perfect and your audience won’t be looking for perfection. They have come to hear you because they are interested in what you have to say.

Interested in this topic? Read The anxious leader: Why good leadership is about authenticity not confidence.

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Lynda Shaw PhD


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