“I saw a study that said that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. Number two was death. Death is number two?! This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Most of us have felt it—empty stares from an audience while we deliver a speech or presentation. Are they interested in what we have to say, we wonder. Or are they bored, bothered, questioning our right to be speaking in front of them? Most people can manage these questions with reasonable resolve. Some are haunted by them.
Public Speaking Anxiety (PSA) is defined as a “situation-specific social anxiety that arises from the real or anticipated enactment of an oral presentation.” A key characteristic of public speaking anxiety is the expectation of social evaluation. The prospect of being judged by others can elicit a wide range of reactions, from mild discomfort to stark terror.
A groundbreaking 1965 study found that, among a percentage of college students, the fear of public speaking was so great that they would delay graduating if even a single course involving a presentation stood in their way. For individuals like these, the fear of public speaking goes beyond simple stomach butterflies; it can lead to complete avoidance, mental blanks, vomiting and fainting. In short, it disrupts their lives.
Public speaking taps into two feelings indispensable to life as social beings--the desire for approval and the fear of judgment. On the other hand, effective speaking skills are a necessity in today’s world. At some point we will be called upon to speak to a group of people and will want to be sure that our message is received by the intended audience. This is as true in a job interview as it is while chatting with a friend. So what can you do?
1. Don’t fight your anxiety.
Fighting anxiety is a surefire way to reinforce it. Nerves are a natural response to frightening situations, and public speaking can be quite scary. Many an experienced orator still shudder at the thought of speaking in front of an audience. It’s not that the anxiety ever really dissipates, it’s that they become used to it, so it’s no longer a problem.
Take heart that mostly everyone feels uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience. The experience of being on display brings up core issues of self-esteem and shame that everyone has. Whether it’s a presentation, leading a meeting, or delivering a maid-of-honor speech, the gaze of an audience can feel petrifying, like staring back at Medusa.
2. Practice speaking.
Confronting your fear, to whatever extent that is possible, can help build confidence and anxiety tolerance. Groups like Toastmasters offer ongoing opportunities to face your fears in a supportive environment. The skills you build might then translate to more challenging environments, like a classroom, a board meeting, or an auditorium.
Toastmasters’ mission is to “provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.” To find a local meeting, click here.
Long the gold standard in sports psychology, visualization exercises can be applied to speech anxiety in order to help a person mentally prepare for a speech, presentation, or interview. Everything from the minor details—walking into the room, setting up your power point or other visual aids—all the way through delivering your entire speech can be rehearsed in your head. These “mental reps” lay down a psychological blueprint for a successful presentation.
4. Forget the myths
Speech expert and improviser Karen Hough urges reticent presenters to forget the common myths about combating stage fright, including the dubious advice to imagine the audience in their underwear.
“Sure, you might be scared of the audience, but let them remain fully clothed in your mind for a while,” she said. “You are there for your audience, so respect them! Visuals that make you giggly or embarrassed separate you from them.”
Hough’s presentation philosophy stems from years of training in improvisation, an education that recasts the audience as more friend than foe.
“Here’s a really big deal secret: the audience wants you to do well,” she said. “Audiences are not by nature mean and intimidating. No one shows up hoping to see a presentation tank: 'Gee, I hope this guy is really boring and bad. What a great use of my time.'"
Hough's point might be much harder to get behind if your natural tendency is to see the audience as a sadistic bunch secretly rooting for your oratory oblivion. If this is the case, it might help to visualize that the audience is a friendly, supportive group.
5. Don’t aim for perfect
We live in a world of perfectionism. But in the pursuit of perfect, we sometimes sacrifice authenticity. Says Hough, “audiences would much rather see a real, slightly quirky person over a slick, perfect shell.”
Too polished a presenter might ring false to the average pair of ears. As an audience, we want more than a message. We want a relatable messenger. Someone who is like us, even if that means they're nervous.