From the first moment that humans could communicate, we’ve been speaking in public. From the second moment, we’ve been nervous about it.
Google ‘public speaking’ and a large proportion of the results returned will be about the fear of public speaking, public speaking nerves, or glossophobia as it is technically known.
Check the surveys about man’s greatest fears and public speaking routinely heads the bill, typically beating heights, ill-health, and even death to the top spot. It’s why Jerry Seinfeld famously quipped “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Even Moses (no, the real Moses, not Charlton Heston) begged God not to send him back to Egypt. Sure he was apprehensive about Pharaoh’s wrath, and he wondered whether people would really follow him. But his biggest worry? Public speaking!
O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before, nor since thou hast spoken to thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. (Moses in Exodus 4:10)
No surprise then that the single most common topic people completing my public speaking survey asked me to cover was what to do if you are nervous about public speaking. (Please take the survey here if you haven’t already and I’ll also put you on my monthly newsletter. You’ll also get a free copy of my Elevator Pitch Guide).
The standard approach to this topic can be found in any one of the 4 million articles that google returns when you search ‘overcome fear of public speaking’. Typical posts include ’21 tips to overcome your public speaking fear’; ’11 ways to defeat your fear of public speaking’; ‘master your speech nerves in 7 easy steps’ (always odd numbers for some reason!).
I’ll admit that my first instinct was also to reel off a list of options to help you ‘defeat’ your fear with classic and traditional tips like:
- Prepare thoroughly
- Imagine your audience naked
- Record your practice on video
- Keep backup notes
- Pause and drink lots of water
- Breathe deeply
- Yada yada yada…
But there’s a big fallacy in touting these steps as cures for glossophobia. It’s more obvious if we use an analogy.
Imagine your family clubs together to buy your very first skydive as a 40th birthday present. What comes next after the initial excitement? The apprehension of course. So, you start to prepare yourself, watching lots of video clips, researching the skydiving company. On the day you confirm weather conditions, listen intently to your instructor, check your chute and backup 17 times, and practise your landing rolls over and over again. In short, you do absolutely everything possible to prepare yourself to ensure you’ll have a fun, but safe and successful jump.
Now, would anyone honestly suggest that these very sensible steps would actually eliminate the nerves you’ll inevitably get when standing at an open plane door 10,000 feet up in the air?
Of course not! Even if you were to repeat the jump every day, you’d still always get that stomach flutter the moment before each jump. It’s human nature.
It’s the same with public speaking.
As a practising barrister, I have probably given nearly 1,000 speeches in my career, and much like every speaker, from a toastmaster debutant to the seasoned Senator, I get the butterflies every single time. Public Speaking makes you nervous. End of!
The physiological reason, if you really want to know, is simply because the experience of standing in front of an expectant audience flips our latent fight or flight instincts, which then biologically triggers the release of a good dose of adrenaline through our bodies. The shaking hands, knocking knees, rush of blood to the head are all just symptoms of that very natural process.
So, armed with that knowledge, let’s dispense with the 17 tips approach. Of course, those things help, especially preparation, but they won’t actually cure the nerves.
If you are nervous about public speaking, there is but one way to deal with it; only one approach that history has proven to be the most effective means of overcoming fear of any kind.
That’s it, I’m afraid. That’s all there is.
Prepare all you want, drink gallons of water, picture that guy in the second row in his boxers (pick the right guy obviously!). But when all is said and done and the moment of truth arrives, the only thing that actually works is for you to suck it up, stiffen your resolve, and take the plunge.
Accept and embrace your fear.
See it not as a problem or a weakness but as a necessary and integral part of the whole experience of public speaking. Remind yourself that the adrenaline you feel coursing through your body is actually helping ensure you will speak with passion and engage your audience. Believe (because it’s true) that your audience has no problem with your nerves (they’ve been there themselves) and that they’re really rooting for you to overcome them.
Mentally, give yourself permission to be nervous, even fearful, and you will immediately be freed from its cloying grip.
If you need a good quote (and you know I love my movie quotes) George Clooney’s Major Archie Gates sums it up perfectly in the hugely underrated ‘Three Kings’ (language alert!):
Archie Gates: You’re scared, right?
Conrad Vig: Maybe.
Archie Gates: The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.
Conrad Vig: That’s a dumb-ass way to work. It should be the other way around.
Archie Gates: I know. That’s the way it works.
That is the way it works and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Your fear is real. Being nervous about public speaking is understandable, and completely normal. Accept it and you’ll be fine. Remember that never in the millennia of human public speaking history has the earth ever actually opened up and swallowed a public speaker whole – not for Moses, not for George W. Bush, not even for the guy who gave the worst speech ever.
In public speaking, as with so much else, you really do have nothing to fear but fear itself.
So good luck, and May the Force Be With You.Kolarele Sonaike
Founder, Elevator Pitch School
p.s. you can sign up to my newsletter by taking my 3 question survey here (only takes a couple of minutes) to tell me what kind of topics you’d like me to cover in my newsletter.