The Fear of The Fear of Public Speaking

According to StatisticBrain.com, 75% of women and 73% men suffer from speech anxiety or the fear of public speaking, also known as “glossophobia”. Borrowing from a Jerry Seinfeld routine, he noted that people are more afraid of public speaking than dying, such that “given the choice, people would prefer to be in the casket than delivering the eulogy for the person in the casket.”

About five years ago, I suddenly developed glossophobia. It happened as I approached my 40’s. It struck with horrifying consequences. Suddenly, in the middle of a presentation, I would experience a panic attack. I was unable to continue, my heart racing and unable to catch my breath. I immediately forgot everything I was going to say. It really frightened me because I had not previously experienced such anxiety. And throughout my life I’ve been very comfortable presenting in front of very large audiences. I’ve hosted entire IT Conferences, single-handedly, without a trace of serious nervousness. Worst yet, the panic attacks continued. I started dreading doing any presentations and then even conference calls with large audiences. Something had changed and I desperately needed to find out what – and correct it.

“Suddenly, in the middle of a presentation, I would experience a panic attack. I was unable to continue, my heart racing and unable to catch my breath.”

I started searching for examples of others who had experienced such problems and stumbled upon a number of very successful stars who were in a similar situation. Celebrities like Donny Osmond, Leann Rimes and Paula Dean all struggled with social anxiety and panic attacks.

For me, Osmond was the most intriguing. At the same time I was searching and coping, I actually happened upon a television special specifically about Osmond’s issues. As he described, in the mid-nineties in the middle of a run of starring in Jason and the Technicolor Dreamcoats, Donny Osmond started suffering panic attacks. The child star who had been performing in front of thousands since age five suddenly was calling in sick, or faking his way through performances. What had happened? He was Donny Osmond! How could he feel such anxiety? How would he correct this? In short, he ended up in lengthy therapy and taking all sorts of anxiety minimizing drugs. Neither of those options seemed palatable but the idea that others had experienced the same onset of anxiety made me feel that there was hope.

The best part of the situation is that I had a boss that was quite supportive and would keep an eye out for my attacks, jumping in and taking over. He sat and listened to me, in astonishment, as he watched someone who had been so outgoing and confident now nervous about presenting on information that I knew very well. I also had peers and direct reports that I confided in who would also rescue me if they noticed me faltering.

Now that I’ve generally been able to address my anxiety without therapy or medication, I want to pass along some tips and techniques that work for me – and some interesting information that I’ve found after speaking to other speakers that I consider dynamic and talented.

The Fear of the Fear

My first revelation was that I was starting to fear the feeling of fear. Having a panic attack is a horrible feeling – one that you don’t forget. After a few panic attacks during presenting, I started to worry well before my next presentation. I was feeling that panic feeling days and weeks before my presentation. It would come and go, but when I had it, it was as if I was presenting and panicking. My brain was making me relive the worst possible moment over and over, and it caused me to dread presenting. Was I having a mental breakdown? Was what I was feeling unique to me?

“My first revelation was that I was starting to fear the feeling of fear. “

I decided to find the answer by approaching my peers who I thought were very good speakers and asking them directly “do you get nervous before presenting?” The answers I received were interesting and reassuring. A summary of the most common answers included:

  • “Yes, I still get a little nervous but once I get going on stage I get over it very quickly.”
  • “Yes, but I would not describe it as nervousness. It’s actually more like adrenalin and I’ve learned to almost like that feeling.”
  • “Yes, I get very nervous, but then I realize that I’m totally prepared and so I talk myself to a more calm state.”
  • And from one speaker who always seems so confident and cool while presenting: “I’m nervous the whole time. I’m not panicked, but in the back of my head I do get a little edgy. It keeps me on my toes.”

The message was most speakers still feel that twinge of nervousness prior to the limelight, but they are able to muscle through it. Some presenters do a good job of hiding it. Or, they change that nervousness into excitement. Now this was a technique I could practice!

It did feel good to know that even the best speakers have some derivative nervousness just like me. I’m not so special after all, and that was okay with me!

So given my research and my experience, I would like to present the ten things I did to basically overcome my panic attacks and push through the nervousness to present and present well.

1. Prepare

I used to speak completely off the cuff, with few notes. I knew what I wanted to say and was able to pivot quickly. But when nervousness set in I would often find myself completely lost on my next point or not recalling key information that I wanted to pass along.

So, to address this I started actually writing out word for word what I was going to say. I would write it out exactly how I wanted to present, including pauses, colloquialisms and interjections, and I would bring those notes to my podium. I didn’t read the notes word for word, but I did skim over them as I spoke. I used this technique early on, knowing that eventually I would have to abandon this. Presenting while staring at notes standing behind behind a podium did not exude executive presence. But this gave me a crutch and, early on, helped me get back out in front of people. These days I don’t write out such detailed notes.

2. Improv

Since my early twenties, I had been interested in comedy and improv. I actually had performed some open-mic stand up comedy while living in Jacksonville and generally enjoyed it. Now, twenty years later, I wondered if improv could help me with my nervousness. I signed up at the venerable SAK comedy theater in Orlando and proceeded to take and pass Levels 1 through 4. I stopped and did not proceed to their Conservatory Classes, something I might take up down the road.

Improv was an interesting experience. I had always thought (and received feedback) that I was quick, clever and funny. So I had a high level of confidence. What I found was that there are a LOT of people who are funny – and it felt like most were funnier and quicker than I was. It was a unique experience, both enjoyable and humbling. I had a fantastic instructor in Level 1 named “Bob Kodzis” who was quite supportive. I made a number of friends that I still have today.

Through Improv, I found confidence in performing, especially since Levels 1 and 4 had a “showcase” at the end where we put on a real show in front of a live audience. It was nerve-wracking and exhilarating – and great fun.

What Improv taught me was that I could stand in front of a group and talk about anything without any preparation. I didn’t need notes and could come up with material without much effort. It was a great confidence booster.

I think of this when I find myself nervous. I say to myself “heck, I could get up there and get an offer from the audience and create a whole scene, so presenting material I already know will be a breeze!” This helped.

3. Reality Check

Sometimes as I’m about to present, I think to myself “in an hour I’ll be back at my desk and this will be behind me”. I practice “mindfulness” and try to take myself out of the “right now” and think about what is happening to me as if I was a spectator.

Mindfullness is a useful technique that I use even when I’m not presenting.

4. Break Up The Monotony

Having to present twenty PowerPoint slides full of material is not only boring to the audience but it is also stress inducing. It’s just talking and talking, and it is difficult to allow for a few seconds of silence to catch your breath. So, now I try to add some multimedia. This accomplishes three things:

  • It allows me time to be “off stage” and catch my breath
  • It provides for more a more interesting presentation
  • It breaks my presentation into thirds or quarters and this allows me to track my progress towards completion.

I’m not suggesting that you pepper your presentation with home movies or clips from South Park. Any multimedia needs to be pertinent and appropriate. Also, it cannot be too long. A few minutes tops. And you should introduce the clip and summarize it afterwards.

Another technique I have is that I might find a co-presenter for materials or parts of the presentation. I introduce an expert to provide some additional insight. Again, this has to be well thought out and appropriate. And nowadays I don’t use this technique, though I found it helpful early on.

5. A Life Line

I found that having an outlet available takes away some of the anxiety. That is, I have one or more people who can answer any questions or elaborate on a particular point. This is like a co-presenter except that these individuals stay out in the audience. I may even let them know that “I might ask you to elaborate on this” so that they can be prepared.

If I became nervous, I could always say “hey Eric, what would you say is our potential list of customers” and let Eric expound on this. I would use this time to take a drink of water and gather myself.

But here’s the key, just knowing that I have that life line takes away a lot of anxiety. I rarely now have to use these life lines.

6. Turn Anxiety into Excitement

Like one of the survey takers said to me, nervousness and excitement are closely related emotions. I practiced turning my nervousness into excitement. I’d say to myself “Hey! I’m getting the chance to present and many people will not get this chance!” I knew that I do present very well and always get great feedback, so this is yet another chance to spread this joy to more people. I talk myself into being excited about the upcoming presentation. And when it goes well, I congratulate myself privately on doing a good job.

7. Calm Down

When you are about to go on, your nervousness can often peak, causing your heart to race and your breathing to speed up. I’ve found that forcing yourself to breathe deeply and slowly, and paying attention on how you are controlling your heart rate can actually make yourself feel calmer. This gives you the ability to control your body and your reaction.

Some people may need a relaxant to prepare for a particularly stressful presentation. And while I do not, I know others who do and find this useful. The challenge is not to look “drugged up”, unless you’re presenting in front of pharmaceutical companies.

8. Take Notes While Waiting to Present

One of the funniest things in comedy is called a “call back”, which in general is a reference to something that has already occurred. While waiting to go on, always have a notepad and pen with you. Take note of things the previous speaker said that you can emphasize as well. Also, sometimes things said can be used for humor. The current speaker may mention something that you can use as a light, personable attempt at humor. Have your presentation printed out and with you, and flip through it (quietly) as the current speaker speaks and annotate points that they made that you can make on the appropriate slide.

I recall one example where my boss’ boss presented something before me that was about the traits they are looking for to fill a particular position. The words he used included “never let you down”, “never give up”, “never lie” and to me this sounded like the lyrics to the Rick Astley Song “Never Gonna Give You Up”. I made a note, tried to remember and wrote down the various phrases in the song and then suggested in my presentation that Rick Astley could be the right person. Got a solid laugh and put myself at ease. In fact, as I read off the lyrics to the song, people quickly knew what I was doing, but I methodically went through the lyrics to the end before I announced Rick’s name as the best candidate.

By the way, taking notes has the added benefit of taking your mind off your presentation.

9. Rehearse

Easy technique to help with nerves. Rehearse and rehearse again. Driving to work, speak out loud to yourself and pretend you are presenting. Time yourself. Record yourself. But in general, know your material and your speaking points. This helps stem a key facet of insecurity while presenting.

10. Stand on Stage Beforehand

A simple technique that helps me is to get up on the stage prior to the session being opened. Walk around the stage to every edge. Look out over the empty chairs. Imagine what it will be like when there are people in those seats. Get comfortable with the layout of the stage, the location of the podium, the controls you will need to flip through your slides.

Also note that in presentations on large stages with a sizable audience, you will likely have spotlights on you. This has two effects: it makes it quite warm on stage, so be prepared to sweat. And it makes it difficult to actually see the audience. It’s why performers ask for the house lights to be brought up when addressing the audience. But it can help you because if feels like you’re presenting to an empty room. Sometimes you can see a few rows up front and that’s good because it gives you some feedback.

***

I can’t say that these techniques will work for you. Heck, you may need lengthy therapy and medication – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re like me, just knowing that others have similar problems can make you feel a little more confident that you, as well, can address the fear of public speaking. And maybe using some of these techniques you can get back to giving knock out presentations.

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