Fear of Public Speaking
The first thing we need to understand about public speaking is that there was a time when most of us did it often and well. We just didn’t think of it as “public speaking”… it was just speaking. In other words, most children spend a significant portion of their young lives speaking without fear of forgetting what they have to say, or worrying about being embarrassed.
Unfortunately, this “grace period” is often cut short when we are criticized in school or at home, and soon, our anxiety around saying the wrong thing or being criticized by those we are speaking to becomes a hard-wired fear of public speaking that can have major negative effects in our life.
For those of you who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” perspective, you know that this has to do with how the brain processes information.
For example, the middle brain (or limbic system) is responsible for keeping us safe as a specie, and tends to encode any negative experience as something to avoid in the future. Therefore, when we are criticized for saying the wrong thing as a child, the limbic system remembers this negative experience and attempts to use fear or anxiety as a way of keeping us from embarrassment.
Unfortunately, this anxiety around public speaking tends to trap us in the reactive brain where we do indeed forget what we have to say and stumble over our words which makes this fear worse.
So, what can we do? We need to understand that this is a fear-based belief that isn’t serving us, hasn’t been chosen on purpose, and one we wouldn’t teach or recommend to someone we love. This has the upper 80% of the brain (what I call the Top of the Mind) evaluating an old belief or perspective to determine whether we want to trust it or change it.
If we want to change it, then the next step is to determine what we want to change it to, or how do we want to think differently about public speaking.
This is about shifting from trying to stop the problem (stop being afraid of public speaking) to starting the solution, which means we need to be clear about what a more purposeful, effective belief/perspective around speaking in public would be.
This will be easier if we can remember a time when we were speaking to one or more people with ease. In other words, if we make a distinction between private speaking (when we are alone) and public speaking (when we are speaking to at least one person) then we can imagine thinking, feeling, and being the way we were speaking to this one person without fear.
Holding this image of us speaking with confidence actually reinforces a neural pathway in the brain (from our limbic system up to our neocortex) and as we continue to hold this image in our mind, this pathway is strengthened.
Next, we just add one or two more people to the image. Have we ever spoken to two or three friends without anxiety? Chances are that the answer is yes! What about 4 or 5? As you keep adding people to your imaginary experience, there will come a point where your limbic system kicks in and says “Okay! That’s too many people!” When this happens, you just go back to the last number that was not perceived as dangerous, and run that image over and over in your mind until your limbic system gets bored and gives up its fear. You then add one more person to your imaginary experience, and chances are good that imagining speaking to one more won’t make that much of a difference.
The key is to remember several things. One, that there was a time in our past when we spoke in “public” without fear or anxiety. Two, that our fear of public speaking is just an old, protective part of the brain trying to keep us safe by keeping us frightened. And three, that this fear exists as a series of neural pathways in our brain that we can change as we practice thinking, feeling, and being the way we want to be, versus trying to avoid what we don’t want.
This reminds me of one of my old quotes that says, “When our purpose becomes avoidance, our life becomes a void.” If you have a void in your life with respect to public speaking (meaning that you can’t imagine doing it with ease), I suggest you contact me, because until we understand and take control of our fears, they will continue to attempt to keep us safe by choosing avoidance over engagement, and limit our ability to share what we know with others.
~ All the best, Dr. Bill