Unpacking the Fear of Public Speaking

They say the biggest fear aside from death is public speaking. For some it may even be number one! They would rather fold themselves into a cardboard coffin and incinerate on the spot instead of risking the chance of abject humiliation in a room full of people.

Many have great tools to help alleviate some of the stress around it. Breathing techniques, cue cards, eye contact, connecting with your audience etc. While these are helpful, to really tackle this challenge head on takes some insights into the fear itself. Fears are like shadows, once you shine light on them, they can no longer be that lurking monster in the cupboard ready to pounce when you’re at your most vulnerable. And managing this goes a bit deeper than picturing your audience naked! Yeah, never quite understood that piece of advice.

Identifying the fear of public speaking is easy. We hate failing. Worse than that, we hate failing in front of others. Whether it stems from that humiliating moment at school when other kids laughed at your poor drawing, or the flared corduroy pants your mum made you wear to school that were way out of fashion (it was 1982 Ma!). Okay a slight regression into my personal experience.

Yep, embarrassment and judgement is at the core of why we don’t want to fail. Hence, why we fear public speaking because it holds potential for mass humiliation…but does it really? Or is that something we’ve wrongly assumed? Is it one of the many irrational fears we humans create that has no basis whatsoever?

Okay so identifying the fear (failure) is step one. Understand what underpins it is step two, (feeling embarrassed, judged, rejected). Now let’s play this out in real time to understand how it fits together.

Let’s paint out a scenario and see what’s going on in that fearful moment when something does go wrong. The very thing that we know will trigger those sweaty palms. We’re in the middle of our speech and we lose our way, fumble our words, jump to the wrong slide or dot point on the cue cards. In seconds, not only does our pulse quicken and our face heats up, we can feel the room shifting in their seats.

The knee-jerk response to this is the proverbial back pedal. When every little neuron in the brain is on high alert. Firing all at once shouting inside our heads ‘DANGER! CODE BLACK! DEFCON 1!…or is it 5? No one knows the correct order but it’s still a nuclear war on the brink of self-destruction! We scramble around trying to pad for time. Where’s the god damn data I had on economic development in third world industries…?!

But while we’re busy worrying about what everyone must be thinking and wishing we could crawl under a rock; we forget what the audience is actually doing. Yes they might be feeling awkward, but is it because they feel put out?


I’m sure you know what it’s like if you’ve ever watched someone on stage at a performance or in a presentation and it’s obvious they’ve messed something up. What you feel is not hatred or disgust (I should hope not!), but empathy. Most of us (all sociopaths aside) don’t like watching the proverbial train wreck unravel in front of us. That’s our human compassion kicking in and it’s what an audience feels if you make a mistake. Given most in the room would share the same fear, they know if it was them up there dealing with a crisis, they’re likely to struggle too.

So if you think about it, by our very collective and primal nature, there isn’t any rationale behind that fear of judgement or humiliation. I believe this because I doubt very much that if (or should I say when) you make a fumble in your speech, no one’s going to point and laugh at you…unless you’re wearing those gawdy flares…I digress.

Instead, they want you to succeed. They don’t like that uncomfortable feeling and all they want is for it to go away. The longer you spend in panic mode trying to reverse time as if nothing happened, the longer the torture is for you and them.

Or…you do the opposite. Go with what feels unnatural.

You completely own it.

Embracing mistakes is that ace up your sleeve and it offers a golden opportunity to engage with your audience even more than if you delivered that mythical perfect presentation. It has this interesting charm about it in the way it affects those watching.

This is a technique I learned back in my early theatre days. While on stage there’s no escaping the reality that any mistakes are in the literal spotlight. I know when I’m up there I’m fully exposed and any tiny little mishap is seen by all. We were taught to go with it, improvise, make it part of the show. Whatever it took, just don’t let the audience know something went wrong so it doesn’t break them out of the experience you’re trying to give them. It’s exactly the same for public speaking, except here you have the bonus of being able to not only use this technique to cover up mistakes, you can also strengthen that bond with your captive crowd.

Why? It’s the David and Goliath effect. Rocky, Karate Kid, any underdog that overcomes obstacles we deem impossible earns our admiration.

When you show this ability to grab your fears by the short and curlies, you’re doing what they wish they could. This not only creates a moment of good vibes as they see someone embrace that vulnerable moment which most won’t dare, but it’s inspirational for anyone who may have to speak in the near future. Sure, they still may hope they never have to get in that position in the first place, but they will always remember how you dug yourself out with dignity. It makes them feel that smidge less fear.

From this point you have (hopefully) even more attention and respect than when you started. It also empowers you. It’s the age-old feeling of overcoming adversity to find those diamonds in the rough which enrich the soul. There’s no other way to get this but to go through the tough grit of facing failure, only to wrestle it to the ground in the moment it attempts to grip you like a vice. It charges those neurons that were igniting to protect you, to now want to get up and do it again.

Like any muscle that you’re trying to build, this thought process behind understanding the fear of public speaking needs to be strengthened over time and practice. But when you realise the fear is somewhat irrational, and your audience by their very nature of being human have your back, then perhaps you might feel a little less of the proverbial sting.

Instead, you can have a positive impact and leave them feeling that bit better about their day for having listened to you speak.

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