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The Origins of Public-Speaking Panic

It's Lonely in the Spotlight

As a speaker, you're a person apart from the crowd. People are more comfortable in groups than leading them; that way, no one is on the spot, and others can carry the conversation if you run out of ideas. Speaking isolates you; it removes you from your peers and designates you as different from everyone else—you're the one who has something worthwhile to say. Some people relish this attention; others, understandably, find the sudden spotlight daunting. The trick is to accept being singled out; it's temporary, and it's probably an honor, too. So try to see it as an honor, because your perception of the event will be crucial to your success.

It also helps if you don't let the spotlight become a barrier. Many novice speakers blow up their isolation in their own mind, until it takes on exaggerated importance. Think less about yourself and more about your audience. As you perceive yourself not as isolated but as part of the group you're addressing—a group that wants to hear what you have to say—some of the fear will leave

How Am I Doing? (It's Hard to Tell)

Except for optional question-and-answer sessions, speaking is a one-way street. You don't get the direct feedback conversation provides. You're not sure if people are really following you. You can see their eyes—though not very well—but you don't know what they're thinking. A person may leave the room, and you feel personally rejected, even though he is only stepping outside to make a phone call. A joke you've told many times with great success may not get a laugh.

What's missing is swift feedback and knowledge of where you stand, and the absence of this throws you off. Everyone, not just speakers, needs feedback. To prove this point, a man in a pub took bets from people in the pub and challenged one of England's champion dart throwers that he could make the expert falter in less than four throws, without interfering with the throw itself. The challenger held up a piece of paper in front of the champion just after he released the dart—so the champion could not see how he did—and then removed the dart before the next throw. Sure enough, the champion's game went to pieces in three throws. Without seeing—instantly—the results of each throw, he missed the next shot.

People do get reactions to their speeches—afterward. Knowing that during the speech you will plunge ahead like the dart thrower, without feedback, accounts for much of the nervousness speakers feel. But forewarned is indeed forearmed. Expect the pauses, the small silences, and they won't seem strange. Different audiences will also react differently; don't expect the same noises from both a general audience and one with a very technical bent. Ask any actor in a long-running show why they don't get bored doing the same show night after night and you always get the same answer: "The show may be the same, but the audience is different every night." And don't misread reactions out of sheer nervousness. Silence can indicate deep thought and agreement as much as it can alert you to boredom.

I once saw a speaker address a small group in a classroom seating arrangement. At the back of the room, a man seemed to be paying no attention; he spent the entire speech scribbling and gazing into space. During the break, other people in the audience asked the speaker how he could tolerate the noticeably rude man. The speaker was relaxed; he said he just focused on the rest of the seemingly more interested audience. But after the session was over, the scribbler came up to the speaker, identified himself as a reporter, said he was particularly fascinated by the presentation and would be writing an article on it, and thanked the speaker. Moral: Don't guess at what your audience's reactions mean. It detracts from your effectiveness to worry about those who don't seem to be listening, because they may be listening the hardest.

It's amazing how we get stuck on thinking about the negatives instead of the positives of a situation. If 99 out of the 100 people listening liked a speech, and one person was less than complimentary, we tend to focus on that one person's negative comment. If one person out of 100 isn't paying attention, that's where our attention naturally goes. But, as the above story demonstrates, you never know what's going on in the listener's head. And one person's opinion is just that—an opinion, not a fact. The more you speak, the more you learn to accept the compliments and laugh off the negativity.

I Don't Have the Gift

When I tell someone he or she can learn to be a commanding speaker, a common protest: "But you can't learn it; public speaking is a talent you are either born with or not." Not so. Public speaking is not an innate skill; good speakers are made—not born—through hard work and practice. As with any learned skill, some people are better than others, but everyone can work at it successfully. One of the most important kinds of power that speaking brings you is the power to change your perceptions of yourself—not to mention other people's perceptions of you.

Giving a speech is not a natural, ordinary event. Speakers who expect to feel at ease are kidding themselves. It may seem hard to believe that even the most polished, experienced speakers get nervous, but they do. So don't expect, or long for, relaxation; expect the nervous excitement and energy that come from the task at hand. In other words, use fear to your advantage; charisma and adrenaline are closely linked.

Make Fear Work for You

Fear is nature's way of helping you protect yourself. New or dangerous situations trigger the "fight or flight" response: Your pulse quickens, your muscles tense, and the resulting rush of adrenaline equips you for any extra effort you might need. Whether you face real or imaginary fear, physical danger, or emotional stress, the reaction is the same. And speakers benefit: The adrenaline becomes energy; their minds seem more alert; new thoughts, facts, and ideas arise. In fact, some of my best ad libs come to me in front of my toughest audiences; it's yet another gift from the adrenaline.

Nervousness can give your speech the edge—and the passion—all good speeches need. It has always been so; 2,000 years ago Cicero said that all public speaking of real merit was characterized by nervousness. But how can you draw the line between nervousness that boosts and fear that debilitates? By understanding and tackling the four fears shared by all speakers:

  • Fear of performing poorly.

  • Fear of the audience.

  • Fear of embarrassment.

  • Fear your material is not good enough.

Tame the 4 Fears of Public Speaking

Fear of Performing Poorly

You are not alone. Worrying about your performance comes with the territory. It haunts novice and experienced performers alike: Even after 50 years of acting, Helen Hayes worried she would forget her opening lines. Red Skelton was always a nervous wreck before performances. Barbra Streisand's stage fright is notorious; it kept her from singing in concert for many years.

Even the most practiced public speakers do battle with nerves; it's a sign you're a true speaker. One night at a convention, a woman entered a room and saw the evening's keynote speaker pacing frantically. She asked him why he was so nervous. "What do you mean? Who's nervous?" he demanded. "If you're not nervous," she replied, "What are you doing in the ladies' room?"

  • The Power of Privacy. Speaking before a group may seem like the most public act possible, but you still have privacy on your side. You don't have to reveal your nervousness; you can keep it to yourself. You gain nothing by letting others know you're worried; if you act confident, you begin to feel that way, too. People rarely look very nervous, no matter how jittery they feel.

    In my public-speaking classes, 95 percent of the people are amazed when they see videotapes of themselves giving a speech. They don't see on the screen the nervousness they felt. But they have to believe the camera and believe in an audience's positive response. Letting go of the fear means realizing it doesn't matter if you feel nervous; the audience doesn't know how nervous you are and won't be able to see it either.

    Keep in mind the example of the frightened boy walking past the cemetery on a dark night. As long as he walked casually and whistled gaily, he was fine. When he decided to walk faster, he could not resist the temptation to run; and when he ran, terror took over. It's the same with public speaking: Don't take that first fast step. Don't give in, don't show fear, and don't talk about your fear.

  • Tap Into Creative Visualization. Expectations have a way of fulfilling themselves. If you assume your audience is hostile, you will adopt a defensive and abrupt manner, which is sure to alienate some people. Instead, form a mental image of how you want to look: Creative visualization is a technique that works for many public speakers and performers. Close your eyes and remember the positive points and audience rapport from your last speech. Imagine an audience of friendly, accepting people. Substitute that vision as the reality in your mind's eye and keep it there. Visualization is also a good way to try out new jokes or openings you are afraid to use. Imagine a positive audience reaction, and you're halfway to getting just that.

    Greg Louganis, the great Olympic diver, always visualized a perfect dive, even if he didn't take off from the board's "sweet spot," the area on a board that gives a diver an advantage if he hits it when he dives. Louganis took what he got and made it perfect nonetheless. Gold medals were the result. The key to a good speech is envisioning that you are hitting a sweet spot, even if everything isn't going perfectly, and even if you are nervous. When I speak, I envision myself totally in control—a gracious, charming, warm, and enthusiastic presenter. The key to visualization is controlling the mental image of yourself; don't let what you think the audience is thinking affect your image of yourself.

    Envision the role you want to play and act the part. Don't worry about seeming phony—we all have many sides to our characters. You want to show your confident side; it is there for you to tap. With practice, confidence becomes natural and comfortable, and visualization is a powerful tool for gaining that confidence.

  • Work With Your Body. Just as visualization works as a mental aid for speakers, these three exercises help you feel better physically:

    1. Proper breathing. Concentrate on deep nasal breathing using your diaphragm. Breathe through your nose so you don't make your mouth dry.

    2. Progressive relaxation. Working up from your feet, tense different parts of your body and then relax them. You'll lose much of that clamminess and nervousness.

    3. Easing neck strain. Roll your head in a circle from shoulder to shoulder, as if you were a limp rag doll. This relaxes your throat and vocal cords.

      You can do most of these exercises right on the dais (at least the first two). No need to resort to bathroom pacing.

  • Practice the 5 Ps:

    1. Prana: Prana is an Indian term meaning breath. One of the reasons that breathing through your nose helps relieve fear is that the nasal passages are connected to the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions. Deep breaths calm your emotions and help get nervousness under control.

    2. Perception: It's not what happens to us that counts—it's how we perceive what happens to us. Two people can have the same experience at the same time, yet one will see it as a creative opportunity, and the other will perceive it to be extremely frightening.

      Public speaking is a perceptive experience. The more judgmental you perceive the audience to be, the more nervous you will be. Most audiences are not there to judge—they are there to learn something or to be entertained. They want you to be good. They are pulling for you. Focus on what you have to say to them instead of what you think they may be thinking about you.

    3. Psyche yourself up: Imagine yourself not as you think you are, but the way you want to be. Hear the applause at the end of your speech, even before you give it. Use your creative visualization in your spare moments—not only prior to a presentation, but every time you have a few spare moments to daydream.

    4. Preparation: Preparation is so important that the entire next chapter is devoted to the subject. Just remember this: There is nothing as frightening as the unknown. You're prepared when you know your subject matter like you know your best friend's telephone number; you're prepared when you've made a checklist of all the props, visual aids, etc., you need for your presentation (and checked the list twice); you're prepared when you familiarize yourself with the space before you get up to speak.

    5. Practice: The more you practice, the more control you have over the entire speaking experience—and the less nervous you are. You don't practice so that you will be absolutely perfect (although that would be nice). You practice so that you will be comfortable in front of the audience, and so that they can be comfortable with you.

  • "Confidence Cards." Aptly named, these notecards help speakers by organizing information, including all the points the speaker wants to make. They bring a sense of control to what often seems like an unwieldy situation. Chapter 24 ("Delivering With Style") will detail how to add to your comfort level and assurance by using "confidence cards" (which don't have to be cards—it can be a clipboard or anything that helps you remember what comes next and prompts you, should you lose your place or forget).

Fear of the Audience

Audiences are not out to get you. In fact, your listeners are probably thrilled that it's you up there and not them. They want to put themselves in your hands, listen, and learn. And they listen best when you appear confident and in control. Great speakers convince the audience they are completely in control, no matter how nervous they may really be. It's difficult for an audience to relax if the speaker appears uncomfortable; appear confident and you're already winning the audience's appreciation.

At a conference on stage fright, musician Frederick Zlotkin, former first cellist for the New York City Ballet Orchestra, pointed out that how we perceive the audience affects our degree of fear and nervousness. He divides those perceptions into three kinds of anxiety: low range, medium range, and high range. Low-range speakers are slightly nervous but perceive the audience as basically neutral. Medium-range speakers assume negative thoughts on the part of the audience and consequently block out their listeners. They hide behind their lecterns and avoid eye contact. High-range speakers extend this mistake further and actually experience the audience as hostile and waiting for them to make a mistake.

  • Identify With Your Listeners. In each of the above cases, the audience is the same and the differences are in the speaker's mind. One way to avoid this me-versus-them trap is to think about your audience instead of yourself. The more you know about your listeners, the more you will see them as friends and the less nervous you will be. What are their backgrounds, interests, needs? How will they benefit by hearing you? They want to enjoy listening to you; how can you make that happen?

  • Give Passion a Place. A friend Christi is not a public speaker, but she talks with total confidence to groups of 300 people about the importance of self-defense. She says she's so excited about her subject and about helping her audience learn to defend itself that she doesn't even think about being nervous.

  • Communicate Your Excitement. Focus on wanting to tell your listeners something—something you feel is really worth your time and theirs. That kind of excitement is contagious; your audience can't help but catch it. And concentrating on teaching your audience something vital gets you thinking more about it than about yourself—the perfect antidote to fear.

  • Remember Who the Expert Is. A final note on audience fear: Remember the facts. You were invited to speak. You're supposed to know more about your subject than the audience; you are there because you are more capable of covering the subject than most people. Believe it. As Broadway star Ethel Merman used to say, "If the audience could perform better than I can, they'd be up here on stage singing."

Fear of Embarrassment

Many people are afraid to get up and speak because they think they'll do something foolish—they'll stumble over words, trip and fall, forget to include their most important point. The thing is, they're right! Embarrassing things do happen. It comes with the territory.

The good news is that audiences understand that we all make mistakes. What they want to know is how well you can handle them.

For instance, men have told me that their greatest fear was that they would standing up in front of an audience without realizing that their flies were open. "Well," I thought, "at least that's one thing I don't have to worry about!"

Once I was delivering a presentation wearing business slacks. Well into my speech, a man in the audience held up a sign that said, "Debbie, your fly is open." My face turned as red as a California tomato, while considering my options. Then I noticed the flip-chart in the corner. I slipped behind it, zipped up my fly, returned to center stage, spread my arms out wide, and said, "Ta da!" The audience loved it. As long as I was able to make light of the moment, they could too—and they knew they could trust me to handle anything else that might happen as well. And the audience wants to trust you, because for the time that you are standing up in front of them, you are their leader. They want you to take care of them. They'll understand if you fall down, but they don't want their leader to let them down.

Fear that Your Material Is Not Good Enough

This is the easiest fear to overcome because you are in control of preparation and content. You won't be on the spot if you know your subject thoroughly.

  • Construct Your Speech With Care. Do your homework. Research. Prepare. The more thorough your preparations, the more you will be convinced the material is good enough. Work and rework your speech until you know it is interesting, worthwhile, and meaningful to the audience. Then edit it. All good writers will tell you there is no such thing as good writing—only rewriting.

    Other chapters in this resource will cover the organization and preparation of your speech. But planning is only half the battle; practicing your delivery is the other.

  • Fear of New Material. Experienced speakers are often afraid to try something new: to change an opening that has always worked, to add new material that hasn't been tested. As scary as public speaking may seem, it's important to take risks. The first time I had to give physical directions to an audience, I was very nervous; my presentation required that at one point I ask everyone to move to the sides of the room. I panicked. What if no one moved? But I went ahead and there were no problems. Don't let fear keep you from trying something new to improve your presentations.

  • Practice Can Make Perfect. Arthur Rubinstein, the great pianist, used to say, "If I don't practice for one day, I know it; if I don't practice for two days, my critics know it; and if I miss three days—the audience knows it."

    Practice until you are 100-percent confident. One hour for every minute of your speech is a good rule of thumb. Practice in different settings, at different times, testing different presentation techniques. Practice in front of a mirror, into a tape recorder, for a group of friends—anyone who will take the time to listen to you.

    Even with all your practicing, keep the speech or presentation fresh. After two thousand performances of Othello, Sir Laurence Olivier forgot his lines. He felt it was God's way of keeping him anxious. Every speech, no matter how many times you deliver it, should sound fresh.

    Of course, the best kind of practice is public speaking itself; the more you do, the better you become. But don't be misled by unrealistically high expectations. Public speaking is an art that only improves with time. Keep at it. You may still be nervous, but you'll also be better.


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