Sweaty palms, a shaky voice, stumbling over our words, losing our train of thought: many of us struggle with public speaking. It's not something we're often called to do, so when we are presented with the challenge of giving a presentation in the workplace or as a part of another commitment, the pressure can be overwhelming.
How challenging this might be varies from person to person; some simply feel that they haven't much experience, others may describe the feeling as being closer to a fear, known as glossophobia. You may feel intense nervousness, dread, and physical symptoms of discomfort when you imagine talking in front of a group of people. This fear can be paralysing, and you may have a strong tendency to avoid situations where you may be required to speak publicly – perhaps you have even passed up promotions or declined taking part in projects or activities because your fear of public speaking is so strong.
You may find public speaking difficult in some situations, but not others. For instance, talking to a group of strangers might not faze you, whereas talking amongst your peers does. Whatever your particular trigger, a fear of public speaking can really feel like it holds you back from living the life you want. Having confidence in public speaking can boost your career, help you make stronger connections, and help you to promote your ideas successfully.
While we spend much of our lives talking to others, we don't necessarily have a great deal of experience in giving presentations or public speaking to a wider group. And, often, we'll be called to do this in a situation where the outcome matters, whether at work or to mark a special or important occasion. We therefore worry about how we might come across, and whether we will be successful in carrying out our responsibilities.
We may also have had bad experiences with public speaking in the past – perhaps your first experience of this was at school, and you felt judged or you felt you made a mistake. When things like this happen in our childhood and adolescence, often they can stick with us as we try to protect ourselves against repeating an uncomfortable situation. We can become fearful of the fear – we assume that all future public speaking scenarios will be the same, and instead of trying again, we opt out and avoid it.
Even if we can't identify any previous negative experiences with public speaking, to some extent fearing being in the spotlight is in our DNA. Being watched is hardly a restful situation – in fact, we're hardwired to believe that if we're being watched, we're under threat (from predators, way back when). When we feel we're in existential danger, our body enters the fight-flight-freeze response and we're flooded with adrenaline, the blood pumps towards our muscles and away from our brain and we struggle to think rationally.
It is worth noting that a fear of public speaking can be related to broader issues around anxiety. If you feel this applies to you, it may be that there is an underlying cause to your anxiety that would be best worked through with a psychotherapist or counsellor.
If you feel generally OK, but your relationship to public speaking is holding you back from achieving desired goals, working with a coach may benefit you.
Coaching is a process where you will work one-on-one with a coach, with the aim of helping you overcome specific obstacles. Confidence in public speaking is an area that coaches can help you with. Often coaching is a structured process, where you will set specific tasks to accomplish with the help of your public speaking coach, designed to help reinforce your skills and confidence, and overcome negative thought or behavioural patterns.
For instance, a coach may help you adopt a different attitude to public speaking. If we feel that public speaking is an act, a performance, that requires a special skillset – one that we don't possess – we may put too much pressure on the idea of being the performer, considering the act of public speaking to be an evaluation. If we can shift our understanding to consider that it isn't solely a performance, but rather that the goal is as much to have your ideas properly understood, then we can treat an audience as we would treat someone close to us whom we wanted to share our thoughts with.
Coaches can also help you with practical tools to prepare for your presentation and tips for public speaking in an impactful way, empower you to feel reassured that you know what you are doing, and work with you to overcome any feelings of imposter syndrome.
Last updated 28 October 2020