Fear of public speaking

A friend recently informed me that fear of public speaking, aka glossophobia, is the most common human fear. He was trying to reassure me, as I’d been feeling nervous about a presentation I had to give at a coaching workshop.

I was relieved and sceptical at the same time. So I looked it up and it was true: some research really suggests that human beings fear public speaking more than we fear death.

As the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, this means that when we go to a funeral, we’d rather be in the coffin than do the eulogy!

Dark jokes aside, perhaps fear of public speaking and fear of death aren’t as separate as we might think. For thousands of years, human beings lived in a world filled with threats, such as large predators and starvation. A way of defending ourselves was to live in big groups so that we could alert and protect one another. As our ancestors relied on the tribe for survival, rejection by the group constituted a death sentence.

To this day, we rely on cooperation for our survival and we remain social creatures who measure our success and status by comparing ourselves to others.

I chose fear of public speaking as the topic of my presentation and asked the group the following questions: Why do we fear public speaking so much? What is the root of the fear? And what can we do to overcome (or minimise) it?

What came up was fear of rejection, failure, shame, isolation – and that practice is the best (if not the only) way to conquer the fear. As various renowned performers have stated, the fear never goes away; you just learn to cope with it.

I also asked the following question: As coaches, how can we help clients who come to us with fear of public speaking?

Some of the participants replied that they wouldn’t work with such clients at all, because they viewed this as therapy rather than coaching territory. I believe in challenging that boundary.

How do we convert fear into courage?

Setting our intentions for the event is a good start. Following a helpful mentoring session, I decided to set the following three intentions for the workshop:

  • To connect authentically with the group.
  • To make the presentation as valuable as possible for them.
  • To make it enjoyable for everyone, myself included, by keeping it dynamic and injecting some humour into it.

I also gave myself three permissions:

  • Rather than fighting it, I allowed myself to feel nervous.
  • I gave myself permission to make mistakes (Perfectionism can be our worst enemy).
  • I allowed myself to be seen – to be vulnerable – by sharing with the group the root of my own fear, which stems from childhood bullying.

Giving a talk shouldn’t be seen as a finishing line, but rather as part of the learning process. Making mistakes isn’t just normal; it is necessary. There is no learning without failure. When we truly understand and accept this, we’re able to move on much more quickly from any mistake we happen to make.

How we use our body during a talk can have a massive impact on the quality of the delivery of the message, and its subsequent reception. Moving around and gesticulating freely, as opposed to being stationary and rigid, allows our nervous energy to flow, preventing it from paralysing us.

Rather than avoiding eye contact, we can use it to help us connect and engage with the audience.

When speaking in public, fear can trigger various coping mechanisms; one of these is feigning confidence, which can result in apparent overconfidence. This will alienate the listeners and in turn increase our sense of isolation. Instead, we ought to embrace our vulnerability and remember that there’s no courage – only recklessness – without fear. Being brave and being scared – strong and vulnerable – are two sides of the same coin.

Nico DN • Coaching

This article appeared in Elephant Journal in 2017.