Why is public speaking so god damn terrifying?!
I’m curious, what would you rather – speak in front of 100 people or be slowly crushed to death by a sweaty sumo wrestler?
I bet you’re considering the latter option aren’t you? That’s how much people hate public speaking!!
In my experience, the best way to start overcoming this fear is to understand where it comes from – because it’s not public speaking you’re scared of, it’s actually rejection, abandonment and death.
Yikes, that’s a bit much isn’t it! Let me explain…
Your brain and public speaking
Your brain’s number one priority is survival. So everything you think and do is driven by this need to keep you safe – so you can continue to exist, procreate and keep our species alive.
As far as your brain is concerned, another key requirement for survival is a tribe. You need people around who are invested in keeping you safe, as you simply can’t do it on your own.
I’m of course talking about the primal part of your brain, which still operates as it did back when we were cave people – and when a tribe was absolutely critical for survival. We needed someone to make babies with, someone to protect us, someone to hunt and gather food, someone to defend our land, someone to keep us warm…without these things we would certainly die.
So we develop a link between our tribe and survival, and rely on their acceptance to feel safe and secure. Nowadays however, this need for acceptance tends to get extended beyond our tribe, and we look for it from everyone and everything around us.
So when we’re speaking in public, we’re subconsciously seeking approval from every person in the room because our brains believe that’s what’s necessary to survive – and we inevitably get nervous because we fear this collective acceptance might not happen, and as a result we’ll be left exposed, vulnerable and unsafe.
How to overcome your fear of public speaking
By this point we know there are two key drivers for the fear:
- A need for acceptance
- A need for survival
So to overcome the fear of public speaking, these are the two areas we need to focus on.
Need for acceptance
Let me start by telling you that you’re never going to get the acceptance you want from everyone. People have different belief systems, attitudes, experiences, hormonal cycles! How they respond on any given day will differ greatly, and won’t necessarily reflect what they’re really thinking and feeling anyway.
One thing we know for sure, is that we can never control what people think – so worrying about it is futile.
Therefore, the trick to overcome this need for acceptance/fear of rejection is to focus all your attention on how you can add value to your audience, and tell yourself that everyone will take from it whatever they need at that moment.
For me, my only goal whenever I speak is to ensure I make a positive difference to my audience. For some that positive difference will be a full “ah-ha” moment that will help them to alter the course of their life, for others it will simply be that something I said made them smile and gave them a momentary break from their incessant thoughts and worries.
Both scenarios are perfect, because they gave that person what they needed at that time.
So before you go on, remind yourself that it’s not about you, it’s about what’s in it for them. So all you need to do is focus on delivering your content in the best way you know how, and everything else will take care of itself.
Need for survival
If we know the brain’s number one priority is survival and public speaking can make it feel like it’s in danger, we can easily ‘soften this blow’ by making it feel safe in other ways.
This allows you to go into the ‘dangerous’ situation with a greater sense of comfort and therefore a greater ability to manage whatever comes your way.
Here’s a few ideas to easily make your brain feel safe:
- Take some deep breaths into your entire torso
- Rock out to a favourite tune
- Watch a cute puppy video on YouTube
- Scroll through some old photos on your phone
- Go for a little stroll in the fresh air
- Listen to an inspirational audio clip
The trick is to find a couple of little things that make you feel happy, calm and/or content, and take the time to do them right before you speak.
This communicates to your brain that you’re safe – because if danger was present you’d need to be fighting or running away, which is the opposite of happy, calm and content. So your brain knows it can calm the heck down and allow you to speak with confidence and focus your attention on delivering value to your audience.
My pre-speaking routine includes:
- Watch a comedy video while topping up my make-up
- Do some voice warm ups
- Jump around to my “speaking song”
- Do some deep breathing
- Remind myself that my goal is to make a positive difference
- Remind myself that I know my shit and the words will come
By the time I step on stage or in front of the camera I’ve built up a nice safety blanket for my brain, so all I need to focus on is delivering the best experience I can…and having fun!
Take your time with public speaking
As with everything, change takes time. The more regularly you do this, the faster your brain will start to realise that public speaking isn’t a dangerous situation, so you will naturally begin to feel more calm about it anyway.
Although it’s also important to note that you may never totally get rid of the nerves – and that’s ok. I still get butterflies before I present. But by sticking to strategies like these consistently, you’ll be able to feel the fear and do it anyway…and that’s the real goal we’re striving for.