Why You Fear Public Speaking and How to Overcome It
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Public speaking continues to be a top fear of humanity. Whether you’re speaking to a group of 10 or 10,000, public speaking is nerve-wracking. Yet most professionals agree that public speaking is a powerful skill capable of transforming one's business or career.
As a professional speaker for over eight years, I’ve had experience training small groups of executives, pitching business plans to key stakeholders and delivering keynote presentations to thousands of people around the world. The below is my best advice for removing anxiety before any presentation.
But before I share my pro tip, let's better understand why humans fear public speaking so much. One of the core needs of humans is to feel like they belong. Humans have a deep desire to be accepted, cared for and involved in meaningful community. Humans are tribal species who live, work and survive together.
As a survival technique, humans are biologically wired to scan the social group to identify where they stand. Let’s take the social group of work as an example. Our brains scan and evaluate if we are in the center of the team as a leader, in the neutral middle, or being pushed out or excluded from the team.
If the early humans who roamed the plains were excluded from their tribe, their chance of survival was minimal. After all these years, humans still avoid exclusion and seek belonging.
When you speak up in a group, pitch a new idea or deliver a keynote presentation, you risk exclusion. Our palms get sweaty before public speaking because we fear being embarrassed or judged for our thoughts, ideas or suggestions, which would ultimately lead to the group rejecting us and pushing us out where survival is limited.
How do you overcome this human hardwiring and reduce the fear of public speaking? Uncover the unknowns. Humans fear what they don’t know. And leading up to a presentation, there are many unknowns.
Here are a few examples of the unknowns that exist for public speakers...
- Content, structure and length of the presentation
- Size and demographics of the audience
- Size and layout of the presentation room
- Audio and visual setup
- Flow of the agenda
Whether you're conscious of it or not, these unknowns are what contribute to the anxiety felt by public speakers. Turn unknowns into knowns and your public speaking anxiety will decrease and confidence will increase.
Here’s how to turn these unknowns into knowns.
Content, structure and length of the presentation
Get to know your audience’s wants and needs and allow those to drive the content of the presentation. The more you focus on the audience's needs, the less you're thinking about your own anxiety.
Get to know your presentation by practicing it out loud. Speaking out loud will help you spot weak ideas, irrelevant data or stories and disjointed transitions.
Size and demographics of the audience
You should obviously arrive early, but use some of your prep time to interact with and observe the audience. If time permits, conduct interviews with audience members in advance of the presentation.
Size and layout of the presentation room
Arrive early and scope out the environment. The more you can mimic the live presentation (e.g. being on stage, using a microphone, clicking through the slides, etc.), the more confident you’ll become. Knowing acoustics, size of the presentation screen, restroom location, etc. are helpful for putting public speakers at ease.
Know the tech you need to display your presentation
Test the audio of your mic or presentation videos. Establishing a relationship with the AV techs (if there are any) is important because they play a crucial part in the success of your presentation. Have your presentation backed up in multiple formats (.pptx, PDF, etc.) in the cloud (Dropbox, Box, etc.) and on a USB drive.
If you present a lot, consider having adapters that allow you to present from your iPad or iPhone in case your laptop crashes. Test the audio of your microphone and presentation videos and ensure your slides are displaying appropriately on the presentation screen.
Flow of the agenda
Figure out what’s happening right before and right after your presentation. Have a clear understanding of where you need to be and when, and ensure you end on time. No audience member ever got angry at a presenter who ended on time or a few minutes early.
The unknowns that are possible during a live presentation are countless. However, being proactive about uncovering the bigger unknowns is crucial for reducing the anxiety of public speaking while increasing the likelihood of a successful presentation.