First, the good news: It’s not true that most people fear public speaking more than death. Recently, two University of Nebraska communications professors confirmed through their research that public speaking is more likely to be a common fear, rather than the worst fear, with death being more sternly feared by comparison.
The bad news is that, being a common fear, plenty of people do suffer when it comes to public speaking. So there are still plenty of people needing to take action to manage their fear, and if you found your way to my blog, you are probably one of these people.
Charles DiCagno, Director of Public Speaking Center of New York and an expert in the cognitive-behavioral treatment of anxiety disorders, has estimated that 20% of us have “high anxiety” about public speaking, with 10% more being “phobic.”
The National Institutes of Health consider fear of public speaking a form of “social anxiety,” the fear of being scrutinized or judged by others.
You can blame this fear on your amygdala which is the pre-verbal, prehistoric part of our brains that controls our fight-flight-or-freeze response to stressful situations. But how do you know when your fear is more likely a phobia rather than anxiety?
To help you answer that question, try the following quiz:
- I avoid public speaking opportunities because of high anxiety.
- I obsess about upcoming speaking engagements.
- I plan my career around the amount of speaking required.
- I experience anxiety levels above 8 speaking in public. (0 = zero anxiety; 10 = panic).
- My fear of public speaking contributes to unusually high stress levels and/or depression.
- I self-medicate to mask anxiety in speaking situations.
If you agree with four or more items, the problem is severe. But you probably already knew that. And you more than likely want to know what you can do to deal with this predicament.
You Can’t Argue With a Phobia
In a showdown between your amygdala (the pre-verbal fear center in your brain) and your rational self, the amygdala will win, because it doesn’t argue; it just dominates and takes over.
For example, I discussed my fear of heights in my last blog post. I can handle small heights, such as a flight of stairs or a well constructed bridge. But when I was at my relatives home to help replace roof tiles I very quickly discovered my limit when working at height. When I climbed onto the roof and moved towards the edge to commence work I immediately (and quite irrationally) went into panic mode, the world started to spin and I collapsed onto all fours on the roof. My rational self shut down. It took all my strength and will-power to work my way back to the ladder and off the roof. Needless to say, I did not provide much help to my relative on that day.
It goes without stating that, if your fear of public speaking is at this level, you can’t subdue it by just developing skills. Skills are important, and will ultimately give you confidence. But first, you must confront and reduce the fear itself.
What are some of the ways to do that?
Trying to Overcome a Public Speaking Phobia
This is a good time to note that I am not a doctor (I am a scientist, but people are very different from rocks). So consider these suggestions carefully, and do some research on the resources available to you in your area.
With that said, here are some approaches that will aid you in reducing the severity of public speaking phobias:
The Public Speaking Center of New York describes its program of gradual exposure like this:
“Gradual Exposure is behavioral therapy which allows you to face your fear in manageable steps, at your own pace, in a supportive environment. Each step is challenging, but you are never required to attempt anything you cannot handle.”
Groups such as Toastmasters are fantastic for this type of approach and provide a structured and supportive environment for developing your public speaking skills. I have participated in Toastmasters for a number of years and can certainly vouch for the effectiveness of their methods.
You may also be interested in trying a softer approach to exposure therapy that is currently making waves in this field. Public Speaking training via Virtual Reality seems to be quite effective as not only a great tool for practicing a speech but also as a way to overcome fear and anxiety when public speaking. I discussed this approach in my last blog post.
An hypnotic trance is not the zombie like state we’ve seen in B grade movies. It’s more akin to mentally letting you guard down, so that messages can sink deeper into your subconscious.
If you’re open to trying this, it is critical is to find a qualified practitioner who understands your needs and can gently pry away some of your phobia-induced terror. I have not personally tried this approach however have seen others achieve some success with this practice.
I have heard that quite a few public speakers use beta-blockers and have found them to be effective. But while this may help with the stress or high levels of anxiety when giving a speech, it’s probably less useful for learning to manage your chronic fear. There are also herbal medications that can be used for managing your anxiety.
If you’re thinking about using medication, discuss it with a qualified doctor or nurse practitioner. But whatever you do, don’t use alcohol or street drugs to counter public speaking anxiety. They don’t work, and you’ll have less physical coordination to get you through the mechanics of standing up to speak. You’ll probably also end up without a job if doing this at work.
This is a topic for another blog post however so stay tuned.
When managing your fear of public speaking it’s best to have a number of strategies in play to reduce your fear. The key really is to find a couple of methods that work for you and continue to work at them.
For me, this was simply to practice, and practice a lot. To support my practice I read a lot and regularly document the useful tips that I find genuinely helpful. I love the fact that there are continually new technologies and ideas being developed to help reduce the fear of public speaking.
If you’ve found this information useful you may also be interested in reading about My Laser Pointer Disaster or How to Improve Your Public Speaking Through Storytelling.
Also, if you’re after a short online course in public speaking, I cannot recommend ed2go’s online public speaking courses enough. I’ll be posting review of their online courses in public speaking very soon.