Woman screaming in fear of public speaking?

We’ve all heard the saying ‘Do what you fear and your fear disappears’, but what happens when that isn’t true?  I once tried getting over my fear of roller coasters with that technique; my family found my horrified face on the end of ride photo hilarious. I can still wake up in a cold sweat remembering the feeling that I was going to die; I’ve decided I can live with my fear of roller coasters.

Sometimes we cannot avoid that fear so easily. It may be part of our job, such as presenting our work to management or pitching for a sale. Hence we try the ‘do what you fear’ technique and just like my roller coaster ride it doesn’t work: we just feel worse. That was the case for me. When I eventually got over my fear of public speaking I realised there were five reasons why the ‘just do it’ approach hadn’t been working for me.

1. We can be really, really mean to ourselves

The idea behind something getting better and easier with practise is that we should learn that there’s nothing be afraid of. The trouble is that often when we do a presentation or deliver a speech the loudest feedback is from our inner critic. As  Steve Chapman says, we can be horrendously harsh.  My inner dialog used to go something like this : “That was awful, you are terrible at this, you are just not a speaker”. To be honest I was neither that kind nor that polite to myself. If that sounds familiar to you then practise on its own may not be enough; you may need some help.  

For practise to work you need to find positive support – and sometimes we need that to come from someone else. My positive support came from a public speakers club. They were not only positive but very specific about what I did right and why it was right. That was the first time things didn’t feel hopeless. In my workshops I’m keen that everyone gets the right support and learns how to support each other in the future.

2. Bad experiences don’t cure fear

Although we say ‘practise’ generally any speaking we do is ‘for real’. Hopefully we do prepare. If you’re not sure how to go about that Toastmasters International have some great tips on preparation. We may practise our words out loud to our friends and family, but they are far from a real audience; to a great extent it’s still just theory.

Standing up in a formal space and facing an audience can be really, really scary. Nerves can get the better of us and whatever our ability we may need to tell our audience something they don’t want to hear. The upshot is that we have associated another bad experience with public speaking; our inner critic has another weapon to assault us with. Practising with a supportive audience, who understands what it feels like to be overwhelmed with these problems, can make all the difference to us. Having the right support can be the difference between you bouncing back or running screaming. Luckily I had club mentor who was there to help me recover from any bad moments. .

3. The wrong environment adds to the fear

Another side to presenting in the real world is that it often occurs against a high pressure background; our audience may be our colleagues, our boss or potential customers. At best it may influence our reputation at work, at worst it may affect whether we get a sale or a job at all.  Being able to practise delivery techniques without this added pressure is key to building up confidence in our presentation skills.

I’ve seen numerous people gain confidence by having the opportunity to practise with subjects that they have a passion in. Once they have done that they gain the confidence to speak on many more topics.  One of my first speeches was about a family camping holiday in Spain. I would have been incredulous then that it would eventually lead to me speaking at a technical conference in London, and that I would be enjoying every minute.

4. With fear it’s all or nothing.

For years I just told myself that I was just a bad speaker. I thought that it was a single skill to be passed or failed, and I gave myself a fail.  One thing that helped me overcome my fears enormously was the realisation that there are multiple skills involved and that I could work on them one at a time. I learnt to recognise my strengths and saw how I could work on the rest.

Oddly enough, many of us see our own strengths as failures and then try to eliminate them. It doesn’t work out well. The Toastmasters International structured education program really helps members do that. Skills are broken down into different aspects and there’s acknowledgement that there are many levels between dire and amazing for each. Most of us just aren’t as dire as we think.  Actually, most amazing speakers you see aren’t so amazing at everything either; they know where their strengths lie and use them to their advantage. When I achieved my Advanced Communicator Silver award I knew that I’d come a long way. I also knew I had areas to work on, luckily it’s now fun to do so.

5. We want to be fantastic fast

Most of of us spend years, decades considering ourselves to be useless at public speaking before we do something about it; decades of feeling defeated, telling ourselves we can’t do it, shouldn’t do it and that it will always be hell.  Then one day we make a decision, we’re going to overcome our fear. We make a speech or two, our company sends us on a course, a few days later we give up. We believe that it hasn’t worked and we’re not fixed – primarily because it’s hard to change our self limiting beliefs.

For anyone who’s nurtured an overgrown garden you’ll know you have to get rid of the weeds, carefully tend plants that are worth keeping,  plant some new seeds and give them time to grow. Fixing our fears is no different, our negative thought weeds strangle our efforts, we need to recognise our potential blooms and plant some new seeds of hope. With the right time and attention we get a fantastic array of colour. I’ve seen this time and time again in contest winners who give amazing, thought provoking and funny speeches but yet struggled to get their words out a few months before.

What’s the alternative ?

It’s not that practise doesn’t work, it just needs to be the right practise. Personally I prefer the phrase ‘practise makes permanent’ rather than “practise makes perfect”.  The ability to put our thoughts and messages across in a clear way that connects with our audience can ease a big pressure on our lives.

Practise is essential but it does need support and positivity. If you are an extra positive person then going it alone may work. If you’re just an average person with your own insecurities then consider what other support you can enlist. An honest and supportive friend or a speaking coach both will have something to offer. However I cannot stress enough the helpfulness of a good club such as Ipswich Electrifiers Speakers’ Club who have helped me so much.

I believe every one of us is an amazing speaker, it’s just that we don’t all know it yet.

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If you would like to find out more about my workshops or would like individual support then please contact me