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Mental Health

Tips To Overcome The Fear Of Public Speaking

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By Saloni Chaudhary
11 Mar'22  9 min read
Tips To Overcome The Fear Of Public Speaking

The fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears in the world, and yet it is often misunderstood. People imagine great public speakers to be born orators, but that's far from the truth. This article provides a holistic understanding of the factors that contribute to this fear (which can often become a phobia of public speaking), along with research-based strategies to systematically condition the mind and body to overcome the fear of public speaking and become a confident public speaker.

Read more
Tips To Overcome The Fear Of Public Speaking

The fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears in the world, and yet it is often misunderstood. People imagine great public speakers to be born orators, but that's far from the truth. This article provides a holistic understanding of the factors that contribute to this fear (which can often become a phobia of public speaking), along with research-based strategies to systematically condition the mind and body to overcome the fear of public speaking and become a confident public speaker.

Read more

When we think of public speaking, we may simply imagine a glorious stage with a warm spotlight descending on a shining podium, overlooking a sea of cheering audiences. A very confident person takes the spotlight and begins to speak elegantly and confidently, artfully engaging with the crowd, without erring or faltering. When we watch speeches and talks by eminent people, this picture of self-assuredness on stage gets reinforced, and one may begin to feel that it takes a gifted speaker to deliver an impressive speech.

Regrettably, we miss the background story - days of passionate preparation, research, repetition, and training the mind and body for the experience of presenting on stage. We somehow imagine the confident person to be a natural, and so the idea of a ‘gifted speaker’ sits in extreme contrast with our personal experience of fear and panic.

Sadly, it is uncommon knowledge that leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, businessmen like Warren Buffet and Richard Branson, and even actors like Emma Watson, and Julia Roberts have expressed their fear of public speaking, and have actively avoided addressing an audience! So why are we so afraid of simply speaking to a group of people?

Understanding The Fear

The fear of public speaking, also called glossophobia, or the phobia of public speaking, is one of the most common fears in the world, manifesting itself in varied intensity in people, ranging from manageable anxiousness and discomfort to paralysing panic, and trembling hands and legs. A lot of us are quick to label this fear as ‘lack of confidence’, or ‘not being good enough’, making it a function of our personality and being, rather than simple evolutionary biology. The trembling hands and legs, the racing heartbeat, the churning stomach, the sweat in our palms, and the lumped throat should not lead to self-censure and blame, but a wiser understanding that we are human.

Neuropsychology tells us that some parts of the brain are still not evolved enough to adjust to the realities of the modern day. The amygdala, a rather primitive brain area, still processes threats and dangers in our environment through a prehistoric lens. This means every threat seems existential, with a possibility of us losing our life, and so we feel the danger very strongly, quickly switching to the fight-or-flight mode and getting ready for action. Facing a huge group of people was a threat for our ancient ancestors, as it meant that they were alone in some way, facing a crowd of predators perhaps. This prompts the brain to release a lot of adrenaline (a hormone that prepares the body for threats in the environment), redirecting blood to our muscles, and causing an increase in energy in our body. All this adrenaline in the body leaves us helplessly jittery and shaking, thinking we need to be ‘more confident’.

Overcoming the fear of public speaking doesn’t mean replacing the public speaking anxiety with relaxation and calm. Some amount of good stress helps us prepare better, and sets us up to take on the challenge. We need to embrace the adrenaline rush, and turn it into an advantage.

Overcoming Fear Of Public Speaking

Let’s look at a few ways in which you can learn to overcome fear by training your mind and body.

Exposure: Practice With Friends

Many students and professionals struggle with this strange dilemma around being on stage - they feel fully prepared, they’ve practised their speech, they feel confident in their minds. However, their hands and legs begin to shake uncontrollably as they climb up the stage. It is embarrassing, and frustrating, as it may feel that they have no control over their body. So what is happening here? The thought, “I am prepared and confident” originates in the prefrontal cortex where we decide after certain hours of practice that we now remember our speech. But if one is new to public speaking, the body may not have enough exposure to an audience and might respond very differently to that setting (because of a sudden adrenaline rush). Our thoughts and body may feel out of sync, and this is where training and practice are immensely useful. Practising with a small group of friends or family, and noticing one’s bodily sensations can be a helpful exercise. Repeated exposure and practice in such a setting reassures the brain that there is no threat, and nothing dangerous would really happen at the end of the exercise.

Use Visualisation To Train Mind And Body

An interesting fact about our mind is that it does not differentiate between the real and the imagined. If you close your eyes and imagine eating a piece of chocolate, you would quickly feel your mouth watering in response. This means our biology is quietly responding to our thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and imagination all the time. The same thing happens when we are preparing for a speech or talk; our fear makes us imagine the worst-case scenarios - we imagine forgetting our lines, our hands trembling, people making fun of us in the audience, and so our body responds in accordance with this perceived threat. Positive visualisation can be used as a powerful tool to prepare the mind and body for the desired outcome. One can start imagining the day of their speech with vivid sensory details - what they are wearing, how they sound while giving the speech, the tone, pitch, and volume, how the audience is responding, how in control they feel of their bodies and so on. Research shows that visualisation is a very effective tool in reducing speech anxiety.

Shake Off The Extra Energy

We now know that fear of public speaking can release a lot of adrenaline in the body, causing an increase in energy and jitteriness. Planning some form of physical activity before the speech, like taking a brisk walk, doing some quick jumps, and simple arms raising exercises can help release all this extra energy and tension, and bring about balance.

Deep Breathing And Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Deep abdominal breathing has been proven to be extremely beneficial in reducing stage anxiety, and also in regulating blood pressure and heart rate. Since involuntary breathing tends to become shallower when we are anxious, taking deep breaths from the abdomen ensures better oxygen circulation. One can start with sitting comfortably, with one hand on the stomach, and taking a deep breath in from the belly such that the belly expands. A deep inhalation can last up to 5 seconds, followed by a slow exhalation lasting 5 seconds again. This time, the hand on the belly should go down as the belly deflates.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is also a powerful tool in releasing tension from the muscles. It involves tensing various muscle groups by clenching them tightly (the forehead and eyes, jaw, shoulders, hands, toes, etc.), and then releasing them gently. This can take some practice, and a lot of professional resources in the form of scripts, podcasts, and videos are available online for assistance with various techniques of deep breathing and muscle relaxation. If done right, these can have a very calming effect on the body and can help relax instantly.

Working With The Mind

Let's now look at a few mental strategies to overcome the fear of public speaking.

fear of public speaking, public speaking anxiety, phobia of public speaking, overcoming fear of public speakingOvercoming Fear Of Public Speaking

Notice And Restructure Your Thoughts

A very important step in addressing our fears is noticing our thoughts and beliefs around the experience of speaking on stage. Sometimes it isn’t the situation of speaking in front of a large crowd that causes anxiety, but our personal perception and interpretation of various aspects of the setting. For instance, a fear could be, ‘I would go blank on stage’. It might help to further ask yourself questions about this experience, such as “What would happen then?” A response within could be - ‘The audience including my friends and teachers would think that I’m dumb and unintelligent’.

Once we have internally explored our deepest fears and negative thought patterns, it’s time to restructure them and form new constructive alternative interpretations. This could look like, ‘If I go blank on stage, I can refer to my notes and resume; I know so many great speakers who have done that very smoothly, and I can too’. This exercise of reflecting on, and restructuring unhelpful thoughts and beliefs can be done with a mentor, teacher, friend, or parent, and can contribute greatly to feeling calm and confident.

Learn To Be Emotionally Intelligent

Emotions have a physiological (bodily) as well as a meaning-making component, and often the bodily sensations associated with various emotions can be quite similar. For instance, fear makes our stomach churn, fastens our heartbeat, and makes us jittery, and so does excitement. Since the visceral sensations are very similar, how we assign meaning to a situation contributes hugely to how we would end up feeling about it. So, intentionally labelling the stomach churn as “I’m really excited for this speech” instead of “I’m dreading this speech” will greatly shift how we see ourselves in the situation. Labelling our emotions consciously also makes us more emotionally intelligent.

Focus On What You're Offering The Audience

Right before the speech, our fear inevitably leads to the hyperawareness of our bodily sensations, our thoughts, our fears, and our inhibitions, taking our mind away from what we set out to do. Research suggests that reorienting ourselves to remember what we are offering the audience through the present engagement can greatly reduce the activity in the amygdala, diminishing the possibility of a strong fight or flight response. When we see our speech as an act of generosity and kindness, we no longer perceive the audience as a threat.

Working On The Skills

A lot of people feel that it’s best to be spontaneous on stage, and not to over-prepare, as it could lead to robotic rigidity in our presentation. However, this is far away from the truth. According to research, one of the major fears people experience around public speaking is the fear of ‘forgetting the material’ in the middle of the speech, which necessitates the repeated practice of the content and delivery. Mark Twain famously said, ‘It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech,” subtly and intelligently hinting at how preparation makes one confident enough to allow for effortless digressions and spontaneity. Research also suggests that people are more anxious in the first 30-40 seconds of starting their speech, and the possibility of making mistakes decreases drastically after this time. Therefore, it is a good idea to thoroughly practice the opening of the speech.

Practising self-empathy and patience, along with sincerely training our mind and body through research-based techniques can greatly help in positively reorienting our system to a setting of public speaking. In case these techniques don’t work for you, and the fear of public speaking persists intensely, it may be a good idea to seek professional assistance in the form of personal counselling or therapy to understand the deeper concerns around public speaking.

Saloni Chaudhary is a counselling psychologist and mental health educator. She works with Reboot Wellness, Gurugram.

  • Cognitive science
  • Psychological concepts
  • Psychology
  • Emotion
  • Anxiety
  • Abdomen
  • Relaxation (psychology)
  • Public speaking
  • Breathing

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