I used to be terrified of public speaking.
In my mid-20s, I was involved with the research and development team at my work, and was supposed to attend conferences to present the research I was involved in. But the thought of standing up in front of so many people and speaking caused me so much anxiety that I couldn’t go. While the rest of the team flew off around the country, I stayed back at the office. Not a good look, and not a good career move.
Fast forward eight years later, and I now speak in front of groups all the time. I’ll be real – I’m not 100% calm right before I do public speaking these days, but the amount of nervousness I feel is manageable enough that I can still get up and do it. So what changed?
- Most importantly: I desensitized slowly, and consistently.
In my next job, the entire role revolved around speaking in front of small groups of up to ten every single day – delivering cognitive behavior therapy group programmes. There was no magic that allowed me to do it – I was still extremely nervous at first, but wanting the job gave me the motivation to try.
Here’s the deal – if you want to make progress with your public speaking confidence, you can’t wait until you feel more confident before you start. The confidence will come afterwards. Find an opportunity to speak to groups regularly, starting with a smaller group and working your way up. Is there an avenue for you to present a report at your weekly team meeting? Deliver some training to new employees? Speak to groups of students about your workplace?
- I learned that nothing terrible happened.
The next most important thing was this – with time and experience, I discovered that nothing terrible happened. Even if I had a mind blank or muddled my words on occasion, I was able to keep going, I didn’t die, and it really didn’t matter the next day. This taught my brain that it isn’t necessary to get so anxious before I have to speak because the likelihood of total annihilation is really pretty small – but this doesn’t work on just an intellectual level. You can tell yourself there’s nothing to be afraid of, or imagine the audience in their underwear, or any of those usual public speaking tricks, but your brain won’t fall for that. Like any phobia, you will only learn to be less afraid when you repeatedly experience the feared situation without something bad happening. Combined with speaking regularly, this learning reduced the amount of anxiety I experienced dramatically over time.
- I found out that everyone gets nervous.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, nearly everyone feels those nerves before having to speak in front of others. It’s a normal, natural fear to be concerned about how we are going to come across to others. Speaking in front of others opens us up to judgment, so of course we feel vulnerable. The great thing is, you can feel nervous, and do it anyway. That’s what everyone else is doing! Your feelings don’t have to have the final say in your actions.
- I discovered that my nerves don’t show as much as I feel them.
In most instances, we appear far less anxious to others than we feel. Our outsides rarely match our insides. Consider point #3– most people you have seen speak were feeling nervous, but did you actually see it? Usually not, though occasionally there’s a shaky hand or a wobbly voice. But even if we notice those little trembles, it’s not the main things that stands out to us. We’re there to focus on and process whatever information we are receiving, not worry about how the speaker looks or feels.
- I experienced that my nerves decreased as I was speaking.
My nerves before public speaking usually follow a sharp bell curve, even now. Up to about five minutes beforehand, I feel absolutely fine. I think that I’m getting away with it – this time I’m not going to be nervous! I’m finally over it! Then, five minutes before I have to speak, the nerves kick in. They peak right as I stand up. And then magically, after a minute or two of talking, they start to decrease. My focus shifts from myself and my butterflies to the message I am trying to get across.
The take-home message is this: If you want to build your confidence in public speaking, you have to go out and do some. You will be nervous, because everyone is. It will get better the more you do it though, so accepting this and getting through the initial nerve-wracking talks will send you on the way to speaking more comfortably in time.
Averil Linn’s mission is to make mental wellbeing something we talk about as easily as physical health. She writes from a background in psychology and behavior change over at her site This Short Life.