12 Essential Truths about Public Speaking, Fear and Growth
Speaking in public is a complex activity with a lot of moving parts: especially when fear is involved, as it so often is: it brings up vulnerability and challenges for so many of my clients (and before I learned how to work through it in the right ways, for me). From recent conversations with clients and what’s resonated with them, I’ve distilled some of my observations about public speaking, fear and growth which I believe to be true, and hopefully useful to you.
1. It’s ultimately much harder and more draining to stay immobilised by fear than it is to push through fear to the other side. It’s learning that fear can be faced and acted upon, and that we can do that and be fine – in fact more than fine, we can thrive.
2. Good public speaking is a learned skill. You can start out being dreadful (I was!) and make real improvement quite fast. You may also need only small tweaks to make a big difference to your speaking skills.
3. You don’t have to believe in yourself when you start out: you just have to take action and belief will come. This is true. People often fight me on this one initially – give it a go and see: you won’t be in the same head-space after you’ve done something differently. Changing behaviour will often change our thoughts more easily than sitting around waiting for our thoughts to change – and the danger with sitting around waiting is that those unhelpful thoughts may never change!
4. We all want to grow and learn; and learning how to speak in public is a great vehicle to do this! Yes, some people are more pre-disposed towards security and predictability, others towards risk and excitement; but those of us who prefer safety and security – and I’m one of them – still want to grow. When we take steps towards expanding our horizons, it can be astonishing how good we then feel; and it’s often easier than we think. Leading a smaller, safe life is fine – but only if we’ve made that choice deliberately, in the knowledge that we won’t look back and regret our choice in the years to come.
5. We’re always going to feel resistance to doing something new (if it presents any sort of challenge; and especially a challenge to our persona – the ‘mask’ we show the world). The trick is to recognise that resistance and to realise that in this moment we can change our lives. We have the power – more power than we often realise – to act. In this very second we can act and defeat resistance. We just have to be aware that it’s an ongoing process. We’re not going to wake up someday and resistance has fled; it’s just part of the deal of being human, and our brain’s wiring preference to move towards pleasure and away from pain. But the pain of acting is worth it, for the rewards are huge.
6. Sometimes our assumptions about ourselves and speaking in public (or beyond) have passed their use-by date, aren’t helpful, and need to be thrown out.
7. Most people don’t breathe enough when they’re presenting (or focus enough on their breath in daily life). Shallow breathing is not your friend when you’re nervous…or simply wanting better health. (I’ve learned this one over a long period of time.)
8. Being interested and enthusiastic in your speaking topic, and showing some life-force, can help to channel your nervous energy into something engaging for your audience. It’s also a bridge to more confidence if you don’t feel confident yet.
9. Commit to your own voice. Intend to be heard and you will be heard.
10. One of our goals in front of an audience is to become more and more “ourself”. To be authentic and spontaneous while being watched isn’t easy, it’s usually a learned skill – because our first instinct is to protect and armour ourselves against the audience’s potential judgement. But it’s a skill worth focusing on. Authenticity is a word which is bandied about a lot regarding public speaking nowadays, and with good reason. It works.
11. At the same time, it’s ok to “act as if”; to remember a time when you’ve been confident, or felt alive and energetic – however you want to come across during your presentation – and to focus on that feeling and aim to carry it into your talk. You’re still being ‘you’ – you’re just taking how you show up in a different part of your life and transferring it across to your speaking persona.
12. And finally: humour is often the quickest way to reframe our perspective when we’re struggling. It gets us away from one way of thinking, that rigid mindset of potential doom and gloom, and towards a healthy sense of control and challenge where we’re able to see more options.