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How do I Get Over the Fear of Public Speaking?

The fear of public speaking (Panic by Nate Steiner)

The fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears humans experience.

There is a common saying that people fear public speaking more than they fear death.  To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, ‘you’d rather be the guy in the coffin than the guy giving the eulogy’.

Fear is one of our most primal emotions.  It keeps us alert, keeps us safe, and in this modern day and age it keeps holding us back.

So what is this fear of public speaking?  Why do we have it?  And what can we do about it?

Why do people have a fear of public speaking?

Take a moment to picture yourself speaking in public.  You have to make a big speech tomorrow.   Hundreds of people will be there to watch you.

You know your topic, but you’re nervous about how people will react.  You’ve rehearsed and know exactly what to say and how long it will take you to say it.

You have notes, but they’re only a back-up if you lose your place.

Amongst the crowd is your family, your boss, and your work colleagues.

You walk into the centre of the stage, you look over the audience and begin to speak.

How do you feel?

I’m willing to bet that just thinking of that scenario gives you a small adrenalin rush.  You may even have a physical response such as rapid breathing, sweaty palms and a dry mouth.

All of these responses are a part of our ancient fight or flight mechanism.  Our ancient brains can’t tell the difference between a group of barbers and a group of barbarians.

So what we experience as a fear of public speaking is our ancient brains preparing us to react without thought.

Our ancient brains see only ourselves in isolation in front of a group of others, not knowing that those people mean no harm.

Our body prepares us to take action by either standing our ground against this group, or to run like hell away from this group.

Our modern brains however,  knowing that this group of people means no harm, most times calms us down and lets us work our way through the fear.

For some people, getting the modern brain working over the ancient brain is a challenging task.

The modern brain vs. the ancient brain

I will not go into any detail about psychology or neurology.  There is plenty written on those topics already.

What is important to know in this article, is that when I write about the ancient brain I mean the parts of the brain that are reactive to our environment and operate at a subconscious level.

When I write about the modern brain, I mean the parts of the brain that exhibit logic, thought and our internal monologue.

Our ancient brain is responsible for that release of adrenalin we feel when we hear our introduction.  It is responsible for our nervousness and all the other sensations we call fear.

Our ancient brain controls us, but we control our modern brain.

The ancient brain causes our pulse to race, our voice to tremor and our muscles to shake.  There’s nothing we can do to stop our ancient brain from doing this.

We can on the other hand use our modern brain to relieve ourselves of our ancient brain’s actions.

3 ways to overcome our fear of public speaking

  1. Use up your body’s adrenalin
    When we feel the adrenalin coursing through our body, that is our ancient brain preparing us for physical action.  We can use our modern brain to do some type of action like star jumps, push ups or any other type of physical activity out of sight of the audience.  That way, we will use up the adrenalin and not feel as frightened.
  2. Control your breathing
    When we feel short of breath, or we are breathing rapidly, that is our ancient brain trying to deliver more oxygen to our muscles.  We can use our modern brains to take slow deep breaths and feed our body with the oxygen our ancient brain wants our body to accept.  This will slow our breathing and make us feel less frightened.
  3. Focus your thoughts
    Our ancient brain wants us to feel safety in numbers.  Our ancient brain thinks it is better to be a part of the large group than to be out front and vulnerable.  We can use our modern brains to remind ourselves that the audience is not there to hurt us.

4 methods to avoid the fear of public speaking

Prevention is better than cure.  There is no better way to overcome fear than by avoiding fear.

We can train our body not to fear public speaking. Training our body doesn’t have to involve gruelling tests of endurance.  In public speaking it is easier than it sounds.

  1. Practice, practice, practice
    The more we do something, the easier it becomes.  A speech is no different.  The more time you can give yourself to rehearse, the easier it will be to give your speech.  The easier something is, the less fear you will feel.
  2. Meditate
    Find a quiet place to sit, relax, and clear your mind for 15-20 minutes.  Try and do this immediately before your speech if you can.  At least try this on the day of your speech.  If you meditate before you rehearse your speech, you will train your body to feel calm and relaxed when it is time for the real thing.
  3. Focussed Relaxation
    When we feel ourselves tense up, we usually feel tense in a specific part of our body.  For example, I tend to feel tension across my shoulders before a big speech.  Focussed relaxation is a technique where we concentrate on relaxing the places that carry the tension.  We concentrate on relaxing that tense area, then we focus on relaxing the next most tense area and so on until we feel at ease.
  4. Avoid stimulants
    A pre-speech cup of coffee may be warm and comfortable, but maybe next time you should try decaf.  Taking stimulants such as caffeine enhances the effects of our fight or flight responses.  Caffeine causes our adrenaline to feel more intense, our breathing to be more rapid and shallow, and our pulse to beat faster than when we don’t have caffeine.  Leave the coffee until after you’ve left the stage.

There is so much that can be said about the fear of public speaking.  This article has provided little more than a glimpse of what we can achieve when we put our minds to it.

It is important to recognise that the fear of public speaking is built in to all of us.  The fear of public speaking is nothing more than an automatic response to our brain’s perception of danger.  We just have to learn that the part of our brain responding to the perceived danger is deeply rooted, ancient and knows nothing of public speaking.

The bright side of this article is that we can use our modern brain to override our ancient brain and take positive action towards overcoming and ultimately preventing our fear of public speaking.

I hope this article provides some good value to you.  If it has, please do me a favour and leave a comment below.  I’d love to know what you think, and I’m sure others reading this article will benefit by learning from your experiences.

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