Making friends with the fear of public speaking

My pulse is racing
The sweat starts
My knees start to tremble
The dry mouth kicks in.
I try to swallow but there is a massive lump in my throat.
I walk onto the stage and those sensations go into overdrive.

For as long as I can remember I have had a fear of public speaking. When I was younger I was a confident reader early and had to read out in front of the whole school. When I practiced it, I couldn’t see the page I was trying to read as the page was shaking so much. To combat this, my mum had to stick my paper onto a Corn Flakes packet so that I actually read it. I remember turning bright red and sweating like I was running a marathon. I got through it but the plague of red face syndrome, word stumbling and shakes stayed with me as I got older. I know that I’m not alone when it comes to a fear of public speaking.

Check out this good little Catholic boy

I have always wanted to be good at public speaking. I admire those who it well. The poise. The presence. The connection with the audience. The stage has always drawn me in but I still battle that fear. The irony is that I now speak on stage often. I speak to large groups of people often. And through teaching practice public speaking daily. I am, however, determined to conquer the fear.

On stage at EduChange 17

To deal with fear, we need to understand what it is.

What is fear?

To deal with fear, we need to understand what it is. Fear is an emotion designed to keep us alert, free from danger and hopefully alive. There are two stages:

1. The Biochemical Reaction
We know this as our “Fight or Flight” response. We can’t control this. It is automatic. When we sense danger, this response needs to kick in quickly. These days there are fewer tigers for us to run from but a shitty email or work situation can lead to this reaction.

2. Emotional Response 
This stage is emotional and personal and it is where my fear of public speaking resides. For others, a fear of heights might be the debilitation. Your response is emotional and negative. For others, heights bring thrill and adrenaline and the response is positive.

Understanding fear is the key to conquering it. While we don’t want to live our lives completely cloaked in fear, dismissing a response that serves to protect us is also not wise. Embracing fear allows us to delve deeper into our souls to uncover what it is that defines us. Often what we need is standing at the fringes of our fears and growth can happen at the edges of these limits. That perceived end is a malleable limit. We can push through and reach higher but for many reasons, we don’t. Fear plays a big part. It can prevent you from starting. Keep you frozen in your place. It can take the wind out of your sails, stalling momentum in a heartbeat.

But what if you could tame it?

What if you could make friends with the uncomfortable and use it to grow and develop?

“Repeated exposure to similar situations leads to familiarity. Greatly reduces both the fear response and the resulting elation, leading adrenaline junkies to seek out new and bigger thrills. Helps treat phobias by slowly minimising the fear response by making it familiar.”
Lisa Fritscher

Acclimatising to fear

To overcome fear requires us to stop running from it and to turn and face it. We need to spend time trying to understand what the root cause of it is. And then it requires us to embrace risk and to step towards fear. We need to move towards uncomfortable situations. To challenge our current skill level to grow. The challenge needs to be only 4% more difficult than our current capacity. For those who fear public speaking, it might be recording yourself on video or audio and listening/watching the recording. It might be speaking at a TeachMeet for 2 minutes. It might be participating in a webinar. You know yourself best so you are the best gauge of the appropriate challenge. Incremental steps towards the uncomfortable make the situation more familiar. It allows us to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Tim Ferris calls these Comfort Challenges. Micro fear challenges that help you reduce the fear response.

To really achieve anything, you have to tolerate and enjoy risk. It has to become a challenge to look forward to. In all fields, to make exceptional discoveries, you need risk – you’re never going to have a breakthrough without it.

Barbara Sahakian – Neuropsychologist

This past week, I spoke on stage at EduChange and completed a live webinar for TouchCast. Both situations previously would have debilitated me. To be able to do it, I practiced my ass off. I videoed my performance. I spent time working on timing. I watched videos of speakers I admired. I reread chapters of Chris Anderson’s book ‘TED Talks: The Official Guide to Public Speaking’. I enrolled in a nine-week intense workshop called ‘The Craft of Public Speaking – Performance Program‘ with the amazing Clare Dea. This program has connected me with other amazing people who also deal with the same fears. Each week we learn how to bring our true authentic ourselves to the stage and I can’t recommend the workshop enough.

Why am I writing this post?

I speak to so many people who believe that they do not have the capacity to conquer their fears. They remain frozen, unable to start. They watch from afar and think that those who do, do so with ease. This is far from the truth. What you see on stage is the iceberg. The final product. The end result of hours of practice, self-doubt and frustration. Beneath the water lies self-doubt and fear. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can conquer your fears. Little by little, step by step, increment by increment. Move towards it. Breathe it in. Take action to take control of it.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
Dale Carnegie

What has fear stopped you from achieving?



5 thoughts on “Making friends with the fear of public speaking

Add yours

  1. Thanks for sharing this piece Steve. I think that time on task is too often overlooked. I am also reminded here of Chris Harte’s use of the word ‘yet’. I may not be good at public speaking ‘yet’ but there is always something to work on.

  2. Hi Steve. As I was catching up on TER Podcast episodes yesterday, I caught the one where you were discussing design & play Were you nervous prior to that? Because if so, it didn’t show one bit; a poised, fluid and fluent performance.
    But I do know what you mean. Despite years of daily standing in front groups of young people, then latterly in front of teachers, now that I have to present in front of academics, I too feel nervous. As you say though, practice & rehearsal does help the performance … even if it doesn’t take away the fear. Maybe a certain amount of tension is a good thing? That’s what I keep telling myself anyway 😉

    1. Thanks for commenting Ian. It’s funny you bring the TER podcast up as I was nervous prior but I put my podcast persona on and I just got into flow. Maybe it is that the on stage persona is not as developed as I’d like or is not as authentic. Maybe like the academics for, it is the audience. I guess we are always our own toughest critic and that’s necessary to help us grow and develop. The purpose of this post was also to hopefully shed a light on what it means to present on stage and that even experienced presenters feel the nerves and self doubt. Hopefully it inspires some people to try to step forward to be comfortable with their uncomfortable.

      Thank you for the kind words regarding the TER podcast, it was a fun chat.

      Hope you’re well mate and that the study is going well.

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