There are two aspects to becoming an effective, confident public speaker. The first is to learn the techniques and the second is to work on the psychological side, building your inner strength and facing down your demons. If fear of public speaking is holding you back, a great way to erode it is to take an oblique approach and expand your comfort zone in other areas. To an extent, self-confidence is self-confidence and can be transferred from one activity to another.
A major challenge in a different sphere can put public speaking in perspective: once you’ve spent a night in the forest by yourself or bungee-jumped off a bridge, the prospect of making a speech or presentation will probably not loom as large as it did before.
But the main reason I so strongly advocate pushing yourself in areas unrelated to public speaking is that the psychological process of overcoming fear is pretty much the same no matter what you’re afraid of.
How to Overcome Fear
As I see it, there are three steps to overcoming fear:
1. Make sure you’re properly trained and prepared for the task ahead
Setting off blithely without adequate training and preparation is setting yourself up for failure (as I learnt the hard way on the Trans-Pennine Trail). Fear prevents this. That is the purpose of fear and, from this point of view, it’s your friend. Listen to your fear and take it seriously, then use its energy to take positive action. Make sure you really know what you’re doing. Think through all the potential pitfalls and how you would deal with them. Seek professional advice as necessary.
Proper training and preparation shines a bright light into the dark corners of the unknown, which in itself vastly reduces fear. Although it may take a bit of time and effort for the fearful part of your mind to catch up, it stands to reason that once you’ve acquired the skills and knowledge associated with making a success of whatever it is, you no longer have cause to be scared.
2. Examine your fear
If you lock your fear away and refuse to look at it, it will always be there, limiting your life and spoiling your fun. It takes courage to open the box and examine your fear but my experience has been that doing so is both illuminating and liberating.
Our deepest fears generally stem from childhood. We learn from our parents, siblings, teachers, peers and everyone else of influence in our early years, then take those decisions and live our life by them, without ever questioning them as we emerge into adulthood.
If you really examine what it is you’re afraid of, keep peeling away the layers until you uncover the kernel of what has been scaring you all these years, I’m willing to bet heavily you’ll find it’s archaic, if not completely unfounded. For example, a friend of mine was in the habit of checking under the bed every night before she went near it to climb in. She’d lived with a nebulous fear as long as she could remember and it wasn’t until her husband finally persuaded her to take out her fear and examine it that she realised it dated back to the nights when her older brother used to hide under her bed and grab her ankles. She had forgotten the root of the fear but preserved the fear itself. Once she realised what it was about, it was easy for my friend to let go of it.
Many of my clients have a vague, often unspecified, sense that it’s arrogant to expect a group of people to listen to them. When we examine their resistance to public speaking, it comes back to a parental injunction not to show off. Once they see that for what it is, they’re able to move on from it.
Let go of any fear that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If your fear is current and well founded, go back to step 1. Otherwise, employ mental discipline to take control.
3. Think practically to block out fantasy
When the time comes to do the thing you (used to) fear, it’s essential you don’t allow in any fantasies. Do not indulge your fear in this way! Instead, keep your mind on the practicalities of what you’re doing. If there are gaps in that, fill them with thoughts that anchor you in the here-and-now reality.
In terms of public speaking, this means engaging with what you’re saying. If there’s a gap, for instance if someone else is making a little contribution in the middle of your presentation, you need to stay in the moment, in the current reality. Instead of allowing fear to chase you around the darkest recesses of your mind, listen to what your colleague is saying.
Build Up Gradually
As is pointed out in this article about using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to overcome specific phobias, it makes sense to build up gradually. Trying to do too much too fast is likely to be counter-productive.
Get your training and put your psychological strategies in place, then set yourself a low-level challenge in the area that scares you. Once you’ve accomplished that, do something harder. And so on until you’re no longer afraid.
Expand Your Comfort Zone
If public speaking is your biggest fear, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of learning how to do it well (see step 1 above). Beyond that, though, it can help a great deal if you expand your comfort zone in other directions. As I’ve already said, the psychological strategies involved in overcoming fear of something totally unrelated can stand you in excellent stead for public speaking.
I’m struck by this time and again as I learn more about different activities and expand my own comfort zone.
In his inspiring book Microadventures, for example, Alastair Humphreys has this to say about sleeping wild without a tent:
“In our imagination we tend to think that every hedgerow, every copse of trees is patrolled by angry farmers, policemen, and axe-murderers. This is nonsense. Think how rarely you see any of those things during daylight. At night they are even rarer. Like everyone (except you and me), they like to sleep in their beds at night, lulled to sleep by terrible television. So don’t worry! Use your common sense, be courteous and ask permission if there is anyone to ask permission from. But don’t over-think it. You’ll feel very open, conspicuous and slightly silly as you lie down to sleep on top of a hill, but you’ll soon relax and enjoy the novelty of being right out in nature.”
I can assure you, his advice is good. I’ve tried it. It’s all about not allowing in the fantasies and remembering that although this is a big deal for me, it’s really not for anyone else. They almost certainly won’t notice – and if they do, they are not going to chastise me. As long as I’m properly prepared and have taken sensible precautions, all will be well.
As the great Eleanor Roosevelt said:
“The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before.”
And as Dale Carnegie said:
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
Some Suggested Challenges
Here are some ideas to help you expand your comfort zone. See what interests you, what draws you, and give it a go.
Survival, Bushcraft, Wild Camping, etc
There are many organisations around the UK that offer courses in survival, bushcraft, animal tracking and similar outdoor pursuits. An online search will show you what’s available where.
If you’re looking for an easy, gentle way into this kind of thing, I recommend Taste the Wild. With these lovely people in north Yorkshire, you can learn skills such as foraging and how to cook with fire. There is a mild amount of bushcraft involved and it’s an excellent starting point for a slightly nervous beginner.
To have your own little adventure independently, let Alastair Humphreys fire your imagination with his book Microadventures (quoted above).
To confront heights in a controlled and secure environment, you might enjoy (at least in retrospect!) Aerial Extreme.
Overcoming Other Specific Fears
More and more courses are being developed to help us all to overcome our fears of various things and activities, so it’s always worth checking to see whether and where your own fear can be addressed through a professional programme. Here are a couple of examples of what’s available:
Other Physical Challenges
Any sort of physical challenge can be a great way to expand your comfort zone. Experience providers such as Red Letter Days offer a wide range of them, including skydiving, extreme driving and white water rafting.
Get out and about alone. If you feel self-conscious out and about on your own, start by doing something relatively easy, such as going shopping or to the cinema. Then perhaps attend a lecture or a talk at a bookshop. Go to the theatre. Have coffee in a café. Build up to having a meal in a restaurant or a night away in a bed-and-breakfast or hotel.
As you become more confident, you could try going a bit further afield. Travelling alone, particularly abroad, can offer a lot of scope for testing and building your strength in all sorts of areas: making decisions, coping with stress, fending for yourself and getting what you want in unfamiliar situations. If this sounds scary, think how capable you’ll feel when you’ve managed a solo trip (obviously assuming you don’t live in any of these places) to London, Dublin, Paris, Mallorca, the Outer Hebrides, Sicily or wherever you chose to go. Even if you didn’t do as much as you intended to while you were there, you still got there, had a bit of a look round and got back. Huge achievement!
Meet and interact with new people. If you’re shy, start by forcing yourself to have little chats with people you probably won’t see again, for example, in a queue or at the bus stop.
Consider joining a group doing something that interests you – have a look at MeetUp to find out what’s going on in your area. Or enrol on a course or in a class.
By all means, remain a bit reserved and don’t open yourself up to reactions that may reinforce your worries but, if you have reclusive tendencies, I encourage you to resist them. If you don’t engage with the world on a regular basis, it will become more and more difficult for you to feel comfortable in company. Take it slowly, protect yourself as you go, but do push yourself to be seen and heard.
Every time you come into social contact with people, it’s a chance to strengthen your interpersonal skills and to train yourself to accept the rough and tumble of life without feeling personally attacked or undermined by it.
Volunteering can provide both physical and social challenges and be immensely satisfying. Many organisations will support you in it, among them:
National Trust Working Holidays – Do your bit for UK conservation with this charity. Have fun, make new friends and help protect historic places and green spaces for posterity.
Pod Volunteer Working Holidays Abroad – Volunteer your time, energy and skills on a project abroad, through this non-profit organisation. Have an adventure while doing something useful abroad.
Come to Love Public Speaking
Although my coaching sessions are nothing like the yoga-based workshop described in this article about overcoming fear of snakes, many of my clients have emailed me after their speeches or presentations, expressing similar feelings to those of the journalist: “At the end I felt elated and strangely disappointed that the experience was over”.