5 Steps to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking
Your hands have gone clammy, your throat is dry, you feel yourself start to sweat, and suddenly your mind has gone…blank.
Fear is no joke when it comes to stepping on stage and into the spotlight. But rest assured, you aren’t alone! Public speaking has the power to turn even the most intelligent professionals into statues. In fact, it has been reported that 77% of the US population experiences anxiety around public speaking and the shift from in-person to online work during the pandemic has only made this anxiety increase.
As the resident career expert and spokesperson here at SoFi, I’ve had my own process with overcoming hesitations around public speaking. Before large speaking engagements of my own, I have often wondered, where does all this fear come from? And is it really as simple as being afraid of speaking in public?
Upon reflection, I realized it’s not actually about the fear of public speaking itself; it’s about a fear of being judged, humiliated, or being ostracized from a group of friends.
While part of this increased social anxiety is explained by the pandemic’s rise in video chatting, there has always been something deeper at play. When you look at people through a survival lens, humans perceive being watched by others as an existential threat. Historically speaking, people were literally afraid of being eaten, hunted, or hurt by predators watching them. So it’s pretty natural to feel like having “all eyes on you” or “being in the spotlight” is threatening and something to avoid in order to save your life.
So how do we break through this instinctual component of our human nature and show up ready to present and communicate? While I could dive into tips on how to memorize notes, read your audience, or write an engaging script, none of that will truly help if your mindset isn’t optimized.
The act of public speaking often puts us into a mindset of protection. This, in turn, creates anxiety (which is quite distracting), as well as other mental blocks within ourselves that limit our potential to truly show up and shine. These limiting thoughts could present themselves in different ways; it could look like fear of being abandoned by the community for a poor performance, or fear of speaking incorrectly and no longer having a job or that promotional opportunity.
Whatever your particular block is around public speaking, take note of it, and let’s explore now how you can release one of these beliefs you’re buying into.
Here is my five-step formula for removing blocks and eliminating a limiting mindset in order to speak publicly with strength, authenticity, and freedom.
1. Identify your fears with public speaking.
If you’re feeling fear, chances are that you’re buying into a scary thought. You get leverage on your belief system when you take the time to identify what thoughts are causing you fear. Until you take a moment to acknowledge the root of your fear of speaking in public, it probably isn’t possible to overcome the concern. This would be like rolling your ankle repeatedly without ever taking the time to recognize that those 4-inch stilettos might be the culprit for your repeated falls.
I encourage my career clients to write down their beliefs about public speaking. This looks like filling in the blank for the statements:
“I’m not the best public speaker because [insert belief]” or
“I am afraid of speaking in public because [insert fear].”
Fear is an emotional experience in your mind that physically triggers reactions in your body and mind. As soon as you recognize the fear, such as, looking dumb in front of your boss and colleagues, your amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotional responses) goes into hyperdrive.
These beliefs and fears, when you buy into them, become the blocks that limit you from showing up to speak confidently. Knowing what limiting beliefs hold you back gives you an opportunity to start having dominion over your nervous system and amygdala. This in turn allows you to communicate from a place of calm, not chaos.
2. Find the root of your fear in a memory.
At some point, your fear of public speaking was born, and it is most often when you were young. Perhaps you boldly stood up as a child in class and spoke, you ran for the student body, or you performed at a talent show — and it was a disaster. When I opened my book, You Turn, I spoke about standing up on stage in kindergarten telling the audience I wanted to be an author and a poet. I expected there to be grand applause, but my statement was met with silence. This moment never quite left me, until I realized how much it was impacting my own fear of public speaking.
Go back as far into your memory as possible to find the moment where your fear of speaking up in front of others was formed. This is the moment you consciously or, more likely, subconsciously, decided that public speaking had consequences that you didn’t want to experience ever again.
3. Connect this experience with a physical sensation.
While it is so easy to talk our way out of things, or contextualize an idea, sometimes you need to connect physically to your belief. Your body hears everything that your mind says. Each thought sends chemical messengers from your brain throughout your entire body, affecting how you function, including your immune system, sleep, digestion, and cardiovascular functioning.
With this memory and belief firmly established in your mind, notice where you feel it in your body. Perhaps you feel it as a lump in your throat or weight on your shoulders. Explore where the sensation sits within you. For me, when I go back to my childhood public speaking moment, my heart would contract. On a physical level, I felt it as if it was a break in my heart. Pin this feeling down so that you can recognize when or if it shows up again in your daily life.
4. Give your aspect a voice.
Feelings cause reactions, be it physical or mental. You feel fear, and your body contracts or your heart rate accelerates. Then, your mind thinks something along the lines of: “run!”
When it comes to public speaking, your past experience causes an emotion to be born and it viscerally repeats itself when you’re in a similar situation.
Consider what thoughts are coming up from this place. Some powerful questions to ask yourself are:
• What did you believe about yourself in that moment of your challenging memory?
• What did you make that memory mean about life?
• What did you believe about the people around you in that moment?
From there, ask yourself: what emotion was most present during that moment in time?
This could be sadness, humiliation, heartbreak, stress, or overwhelm, to name a few. I call each of these emotions an “aspect” of us. In any given moment of our lives, an aspect is present.
Look back on your memory and give this aspect a voice, let it speak directly from the first person, especially when you have a challenging memory that brings up that emotion for you. If your aspect was anger, it could say something like, “I am so mad that… I hate that…” Let it rip!
This voice will allow you to see what you are believing about yourself or the world as a whole in these moments, the thoughts you are repeating in your mind that lead your beliefs.
Take yourself into the moment and reflect on how this emotion or aspect of you sees the world.
It might be saying, if you aren’t perfect no one will like you; it might say that you aren’t smart enough to share your knowledge, or it may tell you that no one cares what you have to say.
The voice likely won’t be pretty, but acknowledging these thoughts helps you free yourself of them.
5. Forgive yourself.
All of the work done up to this point is powerful, but this final step is key to releasing your limiting mindset and truly breaking the block that holds you back. In order to move forward, you must forgive this voice. A simple way to do this is by filling in and receipting the following statement:
“I forgive myself for buying into the belief that [insert the belief] the truth is, [state truth].”
So this could look like:
I forgive myself for buying into the belief that if I mess up on stage, I am going to lose people. The truth is that the audience will understand people make mistakes and will still value what I have to say.
If you find yourself resisting this exercise, or you don’t authentically believe your forgiveness, consider this: Most people subconsciously buy into something that feels negative because surprisingly, there is a payoff.
For example, if you tell yourself you aren’t good enough to present at the next company meeting, you are giving yourself permission not to pursue it. There is simplicity in staying in your comfort zone, and that is the payoff.
Notice the payoff of staying stuck in your fear of public speaking, be it keeping you in that familiar comfort zone, far away from vulnerability, or the risk of failure. And compare it to the rewards of improving your public speaking. Chances are, the rewards far outweigh the current payoff.
If you want to go far in your career you must be willing to become uncomfortable; you must be willing to face what created your fear and decide to overcome the beliefs that circle it.
Public speaking isn’t easy, but it becomes far more enjoyable when you free yourself of the thoughts that limit you and step into the truth of who you really are: powerful, capable, and worthy all along.
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