Why you’re afraid of public speaking
One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to get started with public speaking. My answer is always the same: just start doing it. That’s usually when the terror crosses the questioner’s face, as if they had expected me to reveal some secret ninja training that makes you a confident and capable public speaker. I can see the moment they picture themselves standing in front of a crowd because their whole body tenses up. They’re nervous just thinking about it!
Being nervous is something I’m intimately familiar with. In my teenage years I suffered from severe social anxiety that I found crippling. It took me several years of therapy to finally break through, and that happened to coincide with when I took the leap of auditioning for the school play at 16.
Later, when I contracted Lyme disease, I developed debilitating anxiety attacks. I’m talking about staying in bed under the covers all day anxiety. This time, I needed medication just to get through certain days.
So if public speaking makes you nervous, I hear you. Here’s my big secret: it still makes me nervous. Every damn time. The difference is that I know I can do it, I know I can and will mess up and the world won’t end. I accept the nervousness for what it is.
What is nervousness?
I like to think of nervousness as my body telling me something is odd about this situation. It’s like an early alert system that while there’s no immediate danger, danger is a possibility. Nervousness starts your fight-or-flight response so you can be ready but doesn’t necessitate immediate action.
Fear is the sign of verifiable danger. It’s your body’s, “oh shit” response. When you feel fear, you need to act now, either by hiding (running away… or cowering under your blankets) or by preparing to fight. Fear is your body’s way of telling you to stop whatever it is you’re doing and pay attention.
In some cases, you first feel nervous and then feel fear; this is common for public speaking. In other cases, you skip feeling nervous and go directly to fear; I’m terrified of heights, when faced with a situation that tests that, I stop functioning altogether. Anyone who has a phobia will probably tell you the same story.
All this is to say that both nervousness and fear are your body’s way of telling you something about your surroundings. We evolved to have these responses because they could save us from death. Feeling nervous when entering an area could mean a predator is nearby. Feeling afraid means you know your life is in danger from someone or something, so you better do something about it.
Now think about the room of a conference. There are maybe 200 strangers all facing in one direction watching your every move. If you were to place such a scene back in caveman days, you would be well served to get nervous or afraid. The chances those 200 people wanted to hear you speak, especially given the lack of spoken language at the time, was pretty slim. It was far more likely that your time was up and those strangers were there to make quick work of you.
Even moving that situation to present time isn’t any better. Imagine if you left your front door and were immediately met with 200 strangers looking at you…still pretty creepy.
So no wonder we all get afraid in front of an audience. There’s something incredibly primal about that reaction. I’ve seen this firsthand by talking with people about their public speaking fears. Most of the time, they start out with, “I get so nervous,” or, “I feel afraid.” When I ask what they are afraid of, most need to think about it before they start rattling off answers: what if I forget what I’m saying? What if I sound dumb? What if they don’t like me?
All of these are rationalizations their mind comes up with to explain the fear or nervousness. They feel uncomfortable first, then the mind gives plausible explanations about why the feeling is present. That’s what evolution had left us with: an early warning system that we can explain after the fact.
The point I’m trying to make is that trying to eliminate nervousness from public speaking probably won’t work unless you become a master of some kind of esoteric meditation practice. For the rest of us, we will likely feel nervous because the situation is, evolutionarily speaking, very odd and disconcerting. Given that, what can you do?
First, accept that feeling nervous is just part of the package. It’s not a judgment on your strength, aptitude, or confidence…it’s a constant that is not within your control any more than the weather. You might see it’s raining and grab an umbrella, but that’s about the best you can do.
Next, accept the feeling of nervousness in your body. This is unnatural because we are wired to react to nervousness, but you can choose the reaction. My social anxiety therapist gave me some great advice that I still pass on to others, it went something like this:
What’s the first thing you do when you feel nervous? You get nervous that you’re getting nervous, so you feel worse. Then you feel nervous that you got nervous about getting nervous, and before you know it, you’re a wreck. So the trick is, when you notice you’re nervous, just let yourself be nervous because at that point, it’s not that big a deal. What makes it a big deal is the cycle of worrying it kicks off rather than the feeling itself.
This made logical sense to me even as a 14 year old, which is probably why it has stuck with me for so long. It’s also very much in line with mindfulness training: when you feel nervous, accept that you feel nervous, say, “I’m feeling nervous,” and learn to sit with the feeling instead of fighting it.
Last, do everything in your control to limit the amount of anxiety you will feel on the day of the talk. For me, not having my talk finished and rehearsed a couple of times makes me even more nervous. Consequently, my talks tend to be fully formed two weeks before I give them for the first time.
I’m also afraid of not knowing where I’m supposed to speak, so I usually do a scouting mission for the building, and if possible, the room sometime before the talk. When I’m on, I don’t want to be late, so this information helps me greatly.
Another personal oddity: speaking on a full stomach makes me more nervous. That heavy feeling in my gut doesn’t mesh well with the butterflies. As a result, I won’t eat any food in the two hours leading up to my talk. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat something very small, just small enough to do the hunger pains. (After the talk, I usually eat a large-ish meal.)
Everyone has quirks like this. If you can identify the extra things that make you nervous and take care of them ahead of time, you’ll feel much better for the talk. Whatever you do, don’t stack the deck against yourself. Don’t make the experience even more anxiety-provoking than it already is by staying up all night the night before the talk, downing a bunch of caffeine, or having your slides unfinished the day of the talk. These situations are hard even for experienced speakers, so if you can avoid them, please do.
The power of ritual
Having a speaking ritual, a series of things you do leading up to your talk, also helps to keep the nervousness under control. Rituals give you a safe autopilot leading up to the talk. Here’s my ritual:
- Arrive two hours early
- Locate room I’ll be speaking in
- Locate nearest bathroom to that room
- Find some water
- Talk to someone (anyone) casually to get into a social mindset
- An hour before the talk: find a quiet place to review my slides
- Half hour before the talk: go to the room to see what’s going on (is there a talk before mine?)
- 15 minutes before the talk: go to the bathroom
- 10 minute before the talk: setup my computer and slides
- Start of talk: say “hi”
That last step, saying “hi,” is an important part of the ritual for me. I know from experience that once I start talking, I’ll get into a groove and I won’t feel the nerves anymore. I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get into that groove as quickly as possible. One day it occurred to me: just start talking! Since I knew I’d be nervous, I wanted something simple and easy to remember. Eventually, after some trial and error, I landed on, “hi.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to get that out, sometimes it’s easy, but all the time it kicks me into speaking mode. Pretty much every talk I have given the last two years I gave talks (pre-2014) began we me saying, “hi,” and pausing.
There’s nothing about public speaking that is normal. From an evolutionary perspective, it is a strange situation, and as such, it’s completely normal to feel nervous about it. But being nervous doesn’t mean you can’t still do it. Most people are nervous in front of a crowd, and it’s something you can deal with. Just remember, the nervousness is designed to warn you of potential danger, but there’s no real danger. You can thank your body for the consideration and calmly say, “I got this.”
Disclaimer: Any viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article are those of Nicholas C. Zakas and do not, in any way, reflect those of my employer, my colleagues, Wrox Publishing, O'Reilly Publishing, or anyone else. I speak only for myself, not for them.