How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking
I argue in this post that focusing on the art of public speaking, rather than the message you are delivering, increases one’s fear of public speaking. To overcome this fear, forget about all of the public speaking skills you’ve rehearsed and focus on the needs of your audience.
Imagine a room full of people, seated quietly, waiting for the keynote speaker. But there’s a problem. A bomb is about to go off in the building, and the speaker and other event staff have just been ordered to hide in a nearby safehouse. YOU have been commanded to stand in front of the guests, hold the mic, and direct everyone to safety. You are running out of time, and so are they, but they don’t know it yet. What will you do?
“What would I do?!” An acquaintance shot back at me when I posed this hypothetical scenario. “I would do as commanded!” I smiled at his response because, minutes earlier in our conversation, he had said that he doesn’t fear death, but he does fear public speaking: “Give me a clean death. But don’t put me in front of people to speak.” Yet, he just admitted that he would have no qualms getting in front of a crowd—a host of strangers—and verbally directing them to safety in a crisis situation. Where’s the disconnect?
Where does the fear of public speaking come from?
The origin of our fear of public speaking rests in our desire for social acceptance. To our forebears, social acceptance was a life or death issue. The loner is easily killed by the saber-toothed tiger. The wise ones stay within the clan. In many ancient cultures, the ultimate punishment isn’t death; it is ostracism. So we are wired to not want to speak out of line, or say something that will lessen other people’s estimate of us. It’s no wonder that so many people have a fear of speaking in public.
To address this innate fear, a whole industry has been created to help people speak better. This wide-ranging industry includes everything from reputable non-profit organizations like Toastmasters International, to for-profit companies like Dale Carnegie Training, to bestselling books on giving talks from self-proclaimed speech gurus. The self-help industry keeps getting bigger, but people’s fear of public speaking isn’t getting any smaller. Not only that, the consensus is that we are getting poorer at communicating too.
Why does public speaking anxiety persist so strongly? I think the reason for this is because we often fixate on speech mechanics like vocal variety, humor, appearance, body language, facial expression, and so on. We look at orators who seem to get everything right and say, gee, I don’t think I can ever be like that.
How to overcome this fear
I propose a simpler way to overcome this fear of public speaking: take yourself out of the picture. You have something to say, and that should be your focus—not your looks, not your voice, not what others may be thinking of you.
Advice to graduates and anyone beginning anew:
“The key to overcoming a fear of public speaking is to forget about yourself. Focus on your audience instead. And master the content of your story long before you step up to the podium.”
-Michael Taiwo, author of DREAM
When there is a message you care about, a product you want to sell, or an idea you want to propose, ask yourself: Why do I care about it so much? If the topic resonates with you, it will resonate with your listeners. If you are selling a product, then learn everything about it; become excited about it; convince yourself that this is a product worth using. If it is an idea you want to sell, then research the strengths and weaknesses of the idea; know the facts supporting your view. The key here is to master the content of your story long before you step up to the podium. (And if you don’t have anything to say, then shut up, please. The world is noisy enough. There is no need to add yours.)
The second key is to genuinely care about your audience. Why are they here? How will your words make their lives better? If they do what you are asking, will they be richer, healthier, happier? People can sense when you care about them.
The brilliance of these two keys is that they take the “self” out of the equation. Instead of focusing on yourself, you focus on the ability of your idea or product to help your audience. It is the ego that breeds fear. By turning your attention outward—to the story, to your audience—you cut fear out of the picture.
This is why the acquaintance I mentioned earlier felt no fear at the idea of giving an impromptu speech to a large audience even though he is a self-described neurotic when it comes to public speaking. In that hypothetical scenario, he had mastered his story: Get out now. Go through the marked exits. Stay in the big green building to the left of the abandoned warehouse. In that scenario, he knew that his words could save the lives of his audience, and he focused on that instead of himself and his own fears. Fear simply had no place to nest in this instance.
How I overcame my fear of public speaking (in another language)
I was born and raised in Nigeria. You cannot miss my distinct African accent from my first hello. I spoke publicly routinely back in my college days in Nigeria, but since coming to America I noticed I had become reticent. I decided that my accent was an impediment to hide. I became fearful of speaking in public. To overcome this newly found fear, I decided, in 2014, to compete in the World Championship of Public Speaking (yes, there really is such a thing). It is a contest organized by Toastmasters International. That year, over 30,000 members entered the six-stage competition. The final was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
To prepare for success, I tried all sorts of speech techniques but still struggled to connect with the audience. I found inspiration in an unlikely place: the love lives of my fellow African friends. They were dating, and in some cases, marrying Americans. If their thick accents didn’t prevent them from getting love, I reasoned, why should mine prevent me from living my dream? Upon closer analysis, I discovered that my African friends were successful because they focused on how their message—love—could positively impact their would-be mates. I used this formula in preparing for the speech tournament.
I mastered my story of how gratitude has led me to feel less pain and thought often about my audience. I know we all feel pain at some level. I also know from my own experience that an attitude of gratitude alleviates pain. I really wanted my audience to get my message, and adopt gratitude as a way of life. I titled my speech “The Pain Killer.”
With that speech, I won over other contestants, stage after stage, until I won District 68, a region that comprises most of Louisiana and some parts of Mississippi and Texas. I defeated native English speakers with standard American accents (many of them speak for a living) because I had a compelling story that I told with the passion of a 19th century street preacher. I wasn’t focused on winning, to be honest; I was focused on having as many people as possible live with gratitude. I eventually tied in the 10th position overall in Kuala Lumpur. I made it into the top 10 out of 30,000 speakers by not caring one hoot about speech mechanics.
To be clear: I am not against the idea of improving the art of public speaking. There are some basics that must be met. For instance, you want to dress so as not to call attention to yourself (unless your dress relates to the story somehow), and you don’t want to speak under your breath. But beyond these obvious elementary tips, I doubt the effectiveness of much of what is sold in the speech-coaching industry today. And, like everything else, you get better by doing. You will develop your own art, your own style, the more you speak. Just make sure you have something to say, master your story, and care for your audience. Then watch the fear of public speaking take a back seat.