Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Fear

Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking 

Effective ways to deal with this common fear.

"At a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.” —Jerry Seinfeld

“When you draw a bow, you don’t hold two arrows.” —Japanese saying

Having an opportunity to speak in front of an audience, whether it be three or three hundred people, being confronted with the chance to greet new people, or the chance to present to new clients can fill us with dread. One of the biggest obstacles that many of us face is the fear of public interaction. Research in the USA shows the fear of public speaking (or ‘glossophobia’) ranks among the top fears people face, even surpassing the fear of heights, the fear of spiders, and the fear of death itself.

The Fear of Public Speaking

The very fact of being in the spotlight opens us up to the possibility of evaluation, criticism or even rejection. Research from the University of California, Los Angeles demonstrated that the distress of rejection activates the same part of the brain, called the anterior cingulate cortex, that also responds to physical pain. Another study conducted by Edward E. Smith, director of cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University, demonstrated that the feeling of rejection is one of the most painful emotions and can be sustained even longer than fear. Therefore, we can say that fear and anxiety before socialising or public speaking may be caused not only by a fear of public speaking per se, but also by others' perceived responses to us. We can become fearful of our own ability to perform by worrying that we may end up embarrassing ourselves. Accepting our fear helps us to take steps to respond. The fear we feel is usually proportionate to the desire to do well and to be seen in a good light. This anxiety can generate complex psychophysiological reactions that we may perceive to be life-threatening such as:

  • Pounding heart
  • Dry mouth
  • Shaky hands
  • Quivering voice
  • Cold, sweaty palms
  • Stomach cramps.

Fear is not only a normal reaction to a public-speaking event, but can actually boost our performance.

Transforming Fear

Most people who fear presenting or public speaking apply the same or a similar solution to that of trying to maintain control over their fear, which ironically drives them to lose control, quite similar to having panic attacks. When facing the feared situation, our strategy of thinking about the worst fantasy can enable people to overcome their problem and mobilize their resources. The attempt to try and keep control over the situation through the avoidance of public speaking and trying to avoid thinking about what might happen increases our fear. But trying not to think about something is also the best way to think even more about it.

So, in such cases, we must self-prescribe a daily space and time, precisely planned, with a beginning and an end, in which we voluntarily concentrate all our worst fantasies. This will gradually help contain and overcome our fears and anxiety when asked to speak or perform in public. Another important strategy on presentation day is to give yourself the possibility to choose between two options. The first option is to declare your weakness and make public your fear or the second which now seems less frightening and easier to do, which is to continue to speak in public. This mental trick can allow our mind, when faced with two options, one less frightening than the other, to choose the least frightening one and move to speak.

In those rare cases when we declare our secret, the same result is obtained. People report that soon after their secret “confession,” all their tension dissolves and their speech occurs remarkably well and relaxed. Unfortunately, the usual attempt to control one’s tension leads to a loss of control. When humans let go of control and declare their weaknesses they become stronger. Using this strategy allows our weakness to become a strength. Refusing to accept our own limitations makes our weakness unmanageable, and negative results ensue. A person who declares their fragility to others appears strong because it demonstrates their courageous side.

The Worst Fantasy

There is a phrase in Latin that is also used in medicine: ‘similia similibus curantur’, which means ‘like is cured by like’. This adage is also true in the case of fear-based problems. Fear itself can be overcome by and through fear. A technique we use at my clinic to fight any fear is the so-called ‘worst fantasy’, where the patient is asked to literally evoke their ghosts and touch them to make them disappear. This simple but highly effective, paradoxical procedure immediately blocks the patient’s usual attempted solution of trying to stop the fear from occurring. Moreover, this procedure transforms something which is out of control into a form of prescribed, self-induced, and therefore controlled, behaviour.

Reiteration of this process ritually, at a specific time and space in the day, progressively brings the undesired sensation to saturation, and to self-annulment. It involves taking an alarm clock and setting it for 30 minutes, whereupon you will imagine your speech or conversation with others, conjuring up all of your fears, worries, thoughts and images, and allowing, maybe even forcing them, to occur during the half an hour time period. After this time, you stop and return to everyday life. The effect can be quite dramatic.

Deep Breathing

Such strong emotions as anxiety and fear trigger in your body a very specific ‘fight, freeze or flight’ response: Your muscles tighten, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up and your breathing becomes shallow. While this physical reaction may be helpful in escaping danger, it is hardly helpful during the presentation (as you can neither run away from your audience nor fight with it). However, since your breathing rate is directly connected to your emotional reaction, the fastest and easiest way to keep your emotions under control and regain confidence is through deep breathing. Whether you are to talk to potential clients or to make a presentation to your team, make sure that you remember to breathe deeply and evenly before, and during, your speech.

Shifting Focus Outwards

Paul L. Witt, Ph.D., the Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Christian University, believes that many people perform worse than they could because they focus too much on their physical symptoms (i.e. butterflies, shaky hands, sweaty palms) and on their embarrassment, instead of concentrating on their breathing and their speech. This problem could be avoided by shifting focus from how we feel or look to the message we want to share with our audience.

Visualising

Visualisation or ‘mental rehearsal’ has been routinely used by many top athletes as part of their training for a competition. In addition to athletics, research has shown that visualisation helps to improve performance in such areas as communication, public speaking and education. To ensure that your presentation goes smoothly, aside from the actual preparation and rehearsal of your speech, take 10-15 minutes a day to relax, close your eyes and visualise the room you are speaking in, the people in the auditorium and yourself confidently delivering your speech, smiling, and moving across the stage.

Focusing on Facts, Not Fears

Instead of focusing on fears (e.g. your mind going blank, the audience getting bored), concentrate your thoughts on positive facts such as: “I have practised my speech many times,” “I am an expert on this topic,” and “I have notes with major bullet points to structure my talk.” Focusing on positive facts and on what you can offer takes your thoughts away from irrational scenarios about what might go wrong.

References

Gibson, P. (2022) The Persuasion Principle. Comuncation Strategies, to Persuade, Influence and Change. Strategic Science Books.

Jackson, D., Watzlawick, P, Bavelas, J. (1967). The Pragmatics of Human Communication. Norton Books. NY.

advertisement

About the Author

Padraic Gibson, D.Psych, is a Consultant Clinical Psychotherapist and is the Clinical Director of The OCD Clinic®, and director of Training and Organization Consultation at The Coaching Clinic®, Dublin. He is senior research associate at Dublin City University.