Afraid of Public Speaking? It should be you
RCONSCIOUSNESS is that public speaking is one of the things most people fear. But the Chapman University Examination of American Fears (yes, that’s a thing) — the gold standard for fear assessment — seems to disagree. In the 2020–2021 findings, public speaking is fear #54 on the list, scoring lower than other pandemics (#6), identity theft (#21), and even sharks ( #51).
This seems reasonable. you NEED more afraid of pollution (#9) than giving a toast at your best friend’s wedding — although the obvious connection between the two (cocaine, hairspray, tick-tok based dances) — should not be underestimated.
It just doesn’t make sense to me that public speaking causes so much fear in a world full of so many things to be afraid of. So naturally I was relieved to see in my research that most Americans are filled with the same concerns that keep me up at night.
Make no mistake – public speaking is put on a good show. It’s basically the only work-related fear that’s ever made the top 100, aside from the quirky “fear of being caught in an embarrassing zooming moment” (#87) — a perfect distillation of the hangover in a mental health pandemic if ever there was one. Thank you, Toobin.
But does that mean that public speaking is no longer something to be afraid of? Does this mean that if you are afraid to go on stage or Zoom or lead a meeting – if you are wearing the perfect outfit – that you should be ridiculed as someone with a debilitating fear of clowns (#94)? Or does it mean you have nothing to worry about if you are looking for a career path that involves public communication and effective persuasion?
Au contraire. You must be afraid of public speaking. Very scared.
I have been a paid, professional public speaker for the past 20 years and have coached many executives/founders on their public speaking skills. I have seen firsthand the fear that grips beginners or professional aspirants as they work to master stage skills. Whether they’re giving their first TEDx talk or just trying to climb the leadership ladder at work, they almost always feel apprehensive and anxious about the endeavor.
And I’ve heard, hundreds of times, people say, “I want to be confident and not afraid of public speaking” when asked about their goals.
However, this is impossible. Unless you’re a sociopath – and if you are, stop tracking my data (#17) – you should be afraid of public speaking.
I still am.
You can’t tell from my speeches, but I get nervous every time I go on stage. Hundreds of talks, panels, and sessions later – most people are shocked to hear this. “But you don’t look nervous,” they’ll say about my TED talks, or “I can’t even see you’re sweaty,” they say when I wear dark colors. When working with me or taking my courses, they try to adopt a cool, calm exterior – thinking it corresponds to an inner monologue.
But the truth is that fear of speaking publicly about what makes me so good at it. I do two things with fear and intense anxiety when I present, and you can too:
1. Reliance on fear.
2. Channel the fear properly.
Leaning on Fear
First and foremost, acknowledge that you will be nervous/anxious/scared, and that this is to be expected. Instead of trying to completely banish the fear an hour before a speech or pitch, I focus my energy on using the nervous bubble to push me forward. I know from experience that my fear and anxiety dissipate about 90 seconds into the presentation, and I naturally pop into a “flow” state. Then, I don’t notice the room or my nervousness or anything except being one with the material and the audience. Anxiety is great fuel for success, and I know that as long as it doesn’t control me, I can control it.
Targeting fear in the right way can also produce the best results. Most new speakers are basically afraid of forgetting the material. In other words, get up on stage, blank what they say next, and be embarrassed. This is why many newbies focus on scripting every word they say tightly — as if more and more anxious, angry work yields the best results. Spoiler: it never works.
But what experienced speakers know is that the “right” kind of fear in a speech is not the fear of forgetting the material but that the audience won’t get what you’re trying to say. That is, can you convince them that your ideas matter, that you are trustworthy, and that they can change their lives/worlds with what you tell them? This is a GREAT fear of having means that you care about what the audience will get from your work.
If you have a good memorization technique (spoiler #2 — I’ll point out a good one), over time, you’ll learn to feel that fear and direct it toward the audience and your presentation rather than risk that something bad is going to happen. It can also yield great results.
You should be afraid of public speaking, therefore, because it’s a job with a lot of impact, and you have an obligation to keep that promise. After all, a room (or Zoom) full of people – on the advice of others – gives you their attention for 20, 30, or even 60 minutes. They are there because they expect to be entertained and informed, and this is a time they can never get back. It’s also a time when you can plug directly into their minds in a way that’s impossible with any other medium. The holes in their learning skills are opened as wide, and you are the thick, delicious, intelligent moisturizer that fills their brains with knowledge and power. To squander this limited opportunity would be a waste. No matter how small the stage, or how familiar the audience, treating every speech as important – and every fear of failure as valid – is your opportunity to change the world.
Putting aside for a moment all the psychological explanations for why you fear public speaking, let’s just assume that this is the scary. Know that even experienced speakers feel some kind of anxiety, but we have learned to use it. Understand that there are skills you can use and techniques you can use to help you perform at your best, and that putting in the work to overcome your fears and improve your communication skills will help. Maybe then you can get your fear to say something more reasonable, like killing horns (#77), ghosts (#88), or zombies (#89).
Gabe Zichermann is an entrepreneur, author, investor, and leader whose books, talks, and workshops focus on gamification and behavioral design. Companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon have adopted Gabe’s theories and practices, leading to significant increases in revenue over time. A frequent keynote speaker and speaking coach, he has helped hundreds of successful entrepreneurs, executives, and celebrities communicate beautifully in all settings. His new book The A-ha! Method: Loud Talk During Distraction. Learn more at gabezichermann.com
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