Public Speaking Fear Roadblocks and How to Get Past Them
Do you put up public speaking fear roadblocks? Do they stop you from achieving your goals…or one goal in particular? Are you just completely “over” it? In this post, I’ll discuss some common types of fear, and three ways to get past your own fear roadblocks and improve your public speaking. And settle in: this is a long article, as I want to go into some detail.
I used to be one of those incoherent, incapable “I’m only pretending to be here, don’t look at me!” speakers. When I remember awful, spotlit moments as a student 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 – and about – groups as a career. So what made the difference?
I wish I could say it was one thing: that I found the magical tool that changed everything. But like most things in life, to really deal with my public speaking fear roadblocks 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. So let’s look at different areas which could make a real difference for you.
Feeling competent is a big one for many people. If you don’t feel on top of your material, or haven’t done enough preparation and you know it, you’re going to struggle to feel confident.
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 nervous about presenting their knowledge to others. 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 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.
Fear shrinks the boundaries of your comfort zone, as you try to control your environment and keep yourself safe.
Comfort zones are designed to be temporary, and their boundaries flexible….when we grow as people, as we’re designed to do, we naturally extend these boundaries. Fear, however, shrinks the boundaries and makes them rigid…and unfortunately we have a highly developed signal when we move out of our comfort zone, telling us “Stop! Danger!”
Danger to our physical self, or our ego, our social self – our reputation.
So much public speaking fear 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, or we potentially sabotage ourselves so that sure enough, we stuff up what we’re trying to improve.
Neuroscientist Michael Fanselow, a UCLA fear researcher, has this to say about fear in general: that when you’re afraid, the answer isn’t to try and figure it out rationally, suppress the fear, or avoid it entirely. The answer is exposure. You may see this as depressing news, and I can understand why! 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 doses allows you to move through it.
Categorising your fears
Identifying your speaking fear, putting it into a category…working out if your current fear is being triggered by something from your past – particularly your childhood – this can be really helpful, although it’s certainly not essential to move ahead. The reason why it can be helpful is that if you realise you’re being triggered by your past, you’re more likely to be able to separate it from the current situation.
To give you an example: if you’re afraid of confrontation or hard questioning from your audience as you put yourself in the speaking “spotlight”, it can be useful to connect to this with past events or your childhood. Maybe confrontation was around a lot in your world; or it wasn’t allowed, and everyone suppressed their anger and strong emotions. Experiencing a lot of confrontation when you were young, or having a family who avoided it, means that you’re going to have a stronger reaction to that trigger nowadays, you’re not going to feel safe. So you avoid it. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Just knowing this can be helpful and allow you to separate from your past. Yes, confrontation caused you big problems in the past…but it’s in the past, and you can look with clearer eyes at the situations you’re facing now, and act with new insight and power. This is, of course, easier said than done! And it requires looking at your current situation through the lens of possibility, rather than resignation.
The fear response
Seeing possibility rather than resignation can be done, so long as you’re not in the midst of the fear response of course. Fear is an instinctive, visceral response to danger or perceived danger, and it takes over without you having a choice in that moment. You’re triggered, and fear sweeps over you.
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 fear, then choose to centre and ground your body and breathe through the fear, over-riding the desire to run, fight or freeze.
My own, non-public-speaking example
So while the trigger may be in the short term unavoidable, we can ultimately choose how to respond to it. I know this at a visceral level myself: not only in learning how to deal with and defeat public speaking fear, but also in another area of my life. This is an area where I hear a specific sound and am triggered (because of a particular environment I was in as a child). My immediate response is panic, a breath-stopping jolt to my system, and the urge to escape. This still happens automatically – and I’m in my 50’s!
But…because I’m a grown adult who can’t run from the room, I’ve done the work I needed to do, to be able to remain functional, coherent and capable in the outside world. Do I like having the experience? Not at all! But I know I can do it if I have to. And sometimes, we just have to. I can choose.
Considering that you’re reading this blog post because you want to improve your skills, understanding your fear and putting it into a ‘category’ can also give you new understanding and energy to move forwards. You can begin to see it as a challenge to be taken on and dealt with, not a threat to be avoided.
Now, some core concepts around fear which can be helpful to understand. Personally, I like to understand more about something I find challenging: that understanding often helps me to get perspective and insight which then feeds into new shifts and growth.
Some of our general fears – fear of:
- not getting our own way
- working hard
- not being special
- loss of control
Then we get right down to the deeper, core fears such as:
If we then look at all these fears, we could boil them all down into three core categories:
1. Acceptance – If I look incompetent or make mistakes, people – or a particular person – won’t like/respect me any more
2. Achievement – incompetence and mistakes mean weakness. I must be successful at everything I try or I’ll look pathetic and useless
3. Control – If I make mistakes or seem incompetent, I’ve lost control and that basically means I’ve failed
Here’s a scale for you: Otto Rank, a psychologist from early last century, believed that humans have an ongoing tension between two poles:
1. The urge to grow and fulfil our potential
2. The urge to retreat from the fear and vulnerability we feel when we do expand and step up
safety / retreat |____________________| growth / potential
Otto Rank thought that people move back and forward between these two poles for their whole lives.… and we can choose in the moment, if we’re fundamentally psychologically healthy, to put ourselves deliberately on the growth and potential side. If you’re afraid, but want or need to move ahead anyway, these three steps coming up are key to you shifting your beliefs and achieving what you want.
1. Soothe your system
Physically and emotionally you may need to regroup and make yourself feel more safe – to take yourself to the left side of the scale temporarily. Breath…stretch and move your body…. go outside into nature if that works for you…find a safe mental or real-life environment or place where you feel secure, cared for – and focus on that. You’ll know what makes you feel safe, protected, contained…you may prefer to be alone, or with someone who cares about you.
2. Redirect your thoughts
Your goal now is to move up the Rank scale I just mentioned! To move your state away from safety and retreat, and towards challenge and opportunity. And this means pushing yourself deliberately to redirect your fearful, negative thoughts towards a focus on something positive. To encourage yourself, like you would a small child or a pet who’s doing something right. This sounds simple but of course it’s not always easy. It won’t happen automatically, that’s for sure – so you need to be deliberate about monitoring your self-talk.
Before you head for positive territory, it can be helpful first to listen briefly to your fearful thoughts and what they’re telling you. This is useful because we can’t change what we’re not aware of. If you’re willing to, make a list of the fearful thoughts that you’re telling yourself about achieving this goal.
Now, you’re ready to shift away from the ‘safety and retreat’ end of the scale, and move higher to the growth and challenge side.
Breathe and picture a positive vision. Ask yourself “what’s possible?”. This can be vague or super-clear…it depends on your processing style. It doesn’t have to be huge, and it doesn’t have to come attached with a comprehensively detailed, mega plan! If the thought of creating a big vision is overwhelming (for a lot of people with fear roadblocks, it is!) – you don’t need it at this point.
If you have one, great, run with it…but if it makes you feel safer to think about something manageable, try this: How would next week look if things are going better for you with your public speaking? Or an even closer timeframe: What does tomorrow look like when things are working better?
If you do prefer to start with a smaller vision, Don’t worry that you’re not aiming high enough. You’ll naturally keep moving towards what you want if you start. That’s how people achieve big things, and your vision will naturally grow as you do. This is really important: if you get easily overwhelmed and think “that’s so out of my reach I can’t even get started!” then the goal’s too big. Find something you can believe in achieving, even if it’s only a flicker of belief, and then…it’s time for step three.
3. Take Action
Fear only disappears when you do what you’re afraid of. Think about an area of life, or a skill you feel competent at. Usually if you look back, there was a time when you weren’t confident at all about that skill – and so you learned the steps, or practised, or asked for help. And you improved. Everything from learning how to ride a bike, use the photocopier at work, drive a car, play a musical instrument …to a sport you’ve mastered. Everything you’ve taken action on – even if you went backwards or made mistakes at times: if you persisted, you changed how you felt, and built your confidence as a result.
Many things have become automatic – you don’t even have to think about them now. The power of taking action is huge.
Every step you take – even the smallest one – carries you forward and changes you. Take a step – you change. In fact I nearly always recommend small steps. There’s a great example of this in Robert Maurer’s book “One Small step can Change your Life”. Maurer is Director of Behavioural Sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, and in his book he tells the story of a single mother who was depressed, overweight and exhausted…but needed to begin exercising for her health. He asked her to march on the spot for one minute each night while she watched TV. Just one minute! It worked.
The woman could achieve this partly because such a small action bypasses the fear response, and gets you unstuck. She then came back to the School of medicine to ask for more, had a minute-by-minute program created for her, and ended up in full aerobics workouts with no mental resistance. Yes, aerobics! This example goes back to the 1980’s.
That’s the power of small external action taking.
You’ll need a structure, and a system to monitor your action steps too. And by the way, reward yourself on the process, not the outcome. You can’t control the outcome of your action step, but you can control the reality of doing the step.
To wrap up – we’ve looked at public speaking fear roadblocks and how to get past them, through soothing your system, redirecting your thoughts, and taking action. Best wishes with your public speaking!