Three Factors Which Reduce Public Speaking Fear

How to reduce public speaking fear; as it’s always such a popular topic, here are 3 ways to help reduce your anxiety:

A Sense of Control will Reduce Public Speaking Fear
A Sense of Control will Reduce Public Speaking Fear
  1. Increase your sense of control
  2. Get annoyed!
  3. Be willing to act

The first way: Increase your sense of control. Feeling a sense of control in a stressful situation is really important in making it manageable. I recently discovered Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and writer. In a short radio interview, Chris talks about fear and control:

“in my experience, fear comes from not knowing what to expect, and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts.”

To give an example of loss of control, Chris tells the interviewer to imagine being grabbed, put into the cockpit of the space shuttle which is taking off in 15 minutes, and telling him that if he touches the wrong dial he and everyone else on board will die. Now that would be terrifying! Chris then compares this to the high levels of control he and the space program created: he chose to become an astronaut, self-selected to apply for the International Space Station, and was trained for years to know every single aspect of the program intimately.

We’re programmed to feel fear when we don’t feel in control. (Notice that we can also reframe the fear as excitement e.g. roller coaster riding or other adrenalin thrills – we still feel ‘edgy’ but perceive it as a positive emotion.) We don’t need to have total control, it just has to exist along-side the ‘danger’ trigger, like public speaking. When we sense a lack of control, we experience the feeling that we’re unable to influence outcomes. Amy Arnsten is a professor of neurobiology at Yale medical school, and talks during an interview about how important a sense of control is for our brain (Our Brain at Work; David Rock, p. 124):

“the loss of prefrontal [brain] function only occurs when we feel out of control. It’s the prefrontal cortex itself that is determining if we are in control or not. Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved”.

In other words, if we have a sense of some control, we’re able to keep thinking clearly in stressful situations. This is obviously going to be helpful around public speaking… And one of the things I teach my clients is firstly to become aware of what they do have control over, to add to that list if possible, and then to focus deliberately on those elements before and sometimes during their presentation.

And yes, I’ve had clients tell me that there is nothing which they can control about their public speaking situation at work – but when we dig deeper we can always find things which help. Everything from how they initially stand and connect with the audience, their opening delivery style, to learning to reframe how they see the whole presentation. All of these elements can work.

The second way: get annoyed. Getting annoyed or angry can also make us feel more in control and able to achieve our goals. Fear inhibits and holds us back from taking action; another is strong emotion like annoyance or anger can over-ride the fear and get us to act faster and more easily. This can be especially helpful for introverts, and I’ve written about this here. Now I’m not suggesting that you go into a meeting having ramped yourself up to some extreme level, ready for a few long-suppressed strong words with your boss! However, getting annoyed with yourself to the point where it starts to overtake your fear may be very useful; something to think about – especially if fear commonly paralyses you to the spot.

The third way: willingness to act: I’ve written about this before here, and it bears repeating; to have less fear, we need to boost our willingness to act. Avoidance just perpetuates the fear (and usually brings with it a dose of negativity and disappointment in ourself; I speak from experience, as someone who used to be a classic ‘avoider’ – comfort was so much easier! I finally realised that the right sort of discomfort means growth, and growth is now overall more important in my life than the comfort of keeping things the same. I say overall – I still sometimes lapse!)

Summary. So, let’s tie all of this together. Realise that to overcome your fear of public speaking, you don’t need to think your way through it, you need exposure. Repeated exposure in as safe an environment as possible (a group learning situation is ideal – and a plug here, if you’re in Melbourne here’s some information on my popular long-running course). This will shift your beliefs and attitudes faster than anything else. Learning to move through the fear is the only way out of it,  and continuing to avoid uncomfortable situations is usually counter-productive. It won’t get you what you want in the long run. (You may have already experienced this: from avoiding career advancement or the chance to promote your business, to speaking up in social situations. Opportunities missed.)

And moving through the fear and out the other side of it probably won’t take as long as you think. What we often forget is that where we’re coming from now isn’t where we’ll be once we take action (you might need to read that sentence again!). We naturally look at the future scenario and base it on how we feel right now – but when we’ve acted, and are in that future space, we’re a different person.

Every new step we take changes us.

And yes, there will be false starts – if only improvement was one straight line to the top! Everything worth doing is worth restarting. After all, how many times have you thought about improving your speaking skills or trying to get rid of some of the fear or anxiety you feel? So don’t be afraid to try something and keep trying. Reducing public speaking fear is usually a multi-pronged approach, and can take some time.

To finish, here’s Chris Hadfield the astronaut again: “People tend to think astronauts have the courage of a superhero – or maybe the emotional range of a robot. But in order to stay calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge. Sure, you might still feel a little nervous or stressed or hyper-alert. But what you won’t feel is terrified.” (From his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth).


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