Most people don’t know “why” they are afraid of public speaking. They just know that they ARE afraid. Recent studies rank the fear of public speaking, a.k.a.stage fright or Glossophobia, in the top 5 of all fears. That’s pretty high considering its companions on that list are fear of spiders, fear of heights, and even the fear of death. Think about that for a minute, there are people who would rather die than to speak publicly. Sounds crazy, right? The sad truth is it’s not that crazy.
You may be wondering “why AM I afraid of public speaking?” For most people the underlying reason is a fear of failure, rejection, and humiliation. The mentality of someone with this fear is that “I am afraid to make mistakes and then be humiliated in front of the audience”. While this is a legitimate fear, the reality is that you aren’t the only one to feel this and it’s OK to feel this way. The truth is, your audience does NOT want you to fail. They want you to succeed. And even if you do make a mistake, they will be understanding. The crowd will not mock your mistakes.
I want to share a story with you about me. I was a very shy, introverted kid. I didn’t talk to people I didn’t know well, and I couldn’t get up on stage to do any kind of performance. I learned to play the trombone when I was about 9. I was volunteered to perform in a school play. It wasn’t my idea and I didn’t see any way around it. I practiced for a week straight and thought I was ready. On the day of the performance, I was so nervous I felt physically sick. I didn’t want to do performance. I wanted to die. So, I took a small hammer and dented the slide of the trombone enough so that it wouldn’t slide (I guess I really wanted to play drums!). I showed up to school with my “altered” instrument and proceeded to tell an elaborate story about how my trombone was damaged. Luckily there were no spares and I was allowed to skip my performance.
I want to share one other story to show you where I ended up after conquering my stage fright. By the time I got to college, I had a few tools under my belt for dealing with my fear. In my sophomore year, I became an orientation guide, giving tours of the campus to incoming freshmen and parents. For two weeks each summer I had to speak in front of groups as small as 5-6 and as large as 200 – 300. I would talk for hours, giving facts and figures, answering questions, and even entertaining the group. I later joined a dance troop that regularly performed in front of hundreds of people. Again, I used the tools I had and even developed my own tools for dealing with the stage fright. Not bad considering what I did to that poor trombone!
I tell these stories because they illustrates the lengths some people will go to in order to avoid public speaking or any kind of presentation or performance, and also to illustrate that with time and effort, you can accomplish great things by overcoming your fear.
There is good news for those of you who do suffer from this kind of panic. You can minimize the stress, anxiety, panic, and fear and even USE THIS FEAR AS A TOOL TO MAKE YOU A BETTER SPEAKER. For most people the fear can be overcome with just some simple steps, without the need for therapy (unfortunately for some, the fear is so great that some professional therapy may be needed to get you started). The key is to know how to prepare yourself for the event and how to keep yourself focused. And like everything else in life, the more you do, the better you are – that is “practice makes perfect”.
So, the next time you have to give a speech, presentation, or performance in front of a group, remember this: your fear is a tool that can help you be a better speaker. Your audience WANTS you to succeed. You just need to get up and do it. You don’t have to be afraid of public speaking.