Do you Struggle with Public Speaking?Sarah Denholm
Do you struggle with public speaking? Does the battle with fear or dislike of presenting exhaust you, or stop you from achieving your career goals?
In this article I’ll discuss four lenses through which to look at your challenge. My hope is that it will help you with a different perspective and some fresh ideas – or to see old ideas in a fresh way!
First, a quick back-story on my own experience and struggle with public speaking.
I used to be one of those incoherent, incapable “I’m only pretending to be here, don’t look at me!” speakers. I remember previous awful, spotlit moments going back to childhood where I had to say something in public. Even today – right now as I’m typing this – my body goes into alert mode and my palms prickle at the memories. The body doesn’t forget.
But I now speak to audiences as a career. So what’s made the difference?
I wish I could say to you it was one thing: that I found the magical tool that changed everything. But like most things in life, to really deal with my speaking fear took more than one thing – and it also took time and practise.
Having said that, I’ve worked with clients who just ‘clicked’ with one idea, one technique, and they were up and running. But that’s the exception. For most people, it’s a combination of factors that create the breakthrough for them. So let’s look at some areas which could make a real difference for you.
We know this one. Being competent to feel confident is a big factor for most of us (but definitely not everyone). If you don’t feel on top of your material, or haven’t done enough preparation and you know it – the struggle will be there. It’s going to be much harder to feel confident and comfortable.
Having said that, I’ve worked with many highly competent professionals in fields ranging from medical research to law who were fully capable and competent, and who were still extremely nervous about presenting their knowledge to others. This happens for a combination of reasons, but it often boils down to the whole status aspect of our position in the room.
We have such finely tuned radars for status and hierarchy, that if you’re concerned about who’s in the room listening to your presentation, it can completely derail you. Expert status accorded to you in general – this status can evaporate in the presence of someone who overawes you, or threatens your social standing or career progression. Even if that threat is purely in your mind, with no external basis in fact.
Competence, therefore, is a big factor: but not the only one. So now let’s look at:
Fear shrinks the edges of your comfort zone, as you try to control what’s happening to you and focus on safety. But frequently this doesn’t solve your problem, because you may be forced to present at work, or socially. So your fear boundaries are violated on a regular basis, but you don’t feel any better, or improve. In fact you may get worse.
Comfort zones are designed to move and flex; and when we learn and grow as individuals, we extend these boundaries. But fear or discomfort shrinks the boundaries and makes them inflexible. And unfortunately we have a highly sensitive attunement to threat that signals when we move out of our comfort zone and tells us “danger!”
And there is danger in public speaking: danger to our ego, our social self – our reputation. This is grimly disturbing to our adult self!
So much of the struggle with public speaking comes down to anxiety about our reputation, doesn’t it? When this fear hit happens – even if it’s small – we either avoid the fear trigger altogether. Or we may sabotage ourselves so that yes, we mess up what we’re trying to improve.
The solution (simplified)
- If you already have to speak in public regularly: to learn routines and work with elements which you can control around your public speaking. And to practise, ideally in a safe environment, so that you gain exposure beyond your boundary walls in a controlled way and learn that you can cope
- If you avoid public speaking and refuse opportunities: to fully get, and accept that nothing will change until you move beyond your comfort zone. Then to look for a safe space and safe people to work with as you test your boundaries
Becoming even more self-aware about your speaking fears (as if you weren’t already!) and putting them into categories can be very useful. Working out if your current fear is being triggered by something from the past – particularly your childhood – can be helpful. However, it’s certainly not essential to make progress. The reason why it can be useful to you is that if you can clearly identify that you’re being triggered by your past, you’re more likely to be able to take a step back and separate from where you are now.
Let me give you an example. If you’re afraid of getting a tough audience, or difficult questions from them during your presentation, it can be useful to look at precedents and incidents in your past. Perhaps hard questions or challenges were part of your life as a child. Or the opposite: your family didn’t allow any disagreements, and everyone went around suppressing their “unacceptable” emotions.
Watching or being part of confrontation when you were a child, or having a family who avoided it, means that you’re going to feel less safe when that happens in your current world. And you’ll have a stronger reaction to it than other people who didn’t experience it.
Understanding your fears and slotting them into categories can also give you new power and momentum to act. You may be able to start to separate from it, to observe the fear in a more detached way. To shift towards seeing it as a challenge to be taken on and moved towards, not a threat to run away from.
This is, of course, easier said than done! And it requires looking at your current struggle with public speaking through the lens of possibility, rather than resignation. Generally: to remind yourself of your strengths and values as a person; of any past successes you’ve had, and where you do feel successful in life. Specifically: how you’ve prepared yourself for this presentation (assuming that you have!).
Finally: the fear response, and exposure
Seeing possibility rather than feeling resigned that nothing will work – it’s doable, so long as you’re not in the middle of the fear response. Fear is a built-in, gut response to danger or the perception of it, and it just sweeps over you. You’re triggered, and fear jolts through your system.
Where you then do have a choice – or can start to build the foundations for it – is with the feelings that quickly follow the fear response. They’re the ones that become possible to shift. You can feel the fear in your body, then choose to centre and ground your body and breathe through the fear. This allows the fear to move through you, and over-rides your urge to run away or freeze up.
Neuroscientist Michael Fanselow, UCLA fear researcher, tells us this about fear: that when you’re afraid, the answer isn’t to try and figure it out logically, suppress the fear, or avoid it entirely. These don’t work. The solution is fear exposure. You may see this as depressing news, and I can understand why – I wasn’t thrilled to hear it either! But it’s actually helpful to know.
Moving through fear is the way out of it – so long as you do so in a safe, supportive atmosphere. Fanselow also says that there is no evidence that you can get over your fear without exposure. Exposure over time and in small, contained amounts, allows you to move past it and come out the other side.
I hope that these ideas have been helpful in your struggle with public speaking. If you’d like to explore some outside support, don’t forget that I offer a free, no-pressure chat to find out if there’s work we could do together to transform your public speaking and presentation world. The link to book online is here.
Best wishes with your presentations!