15 baby steps to overcoming the fear of public speaking

In the three previous posts (Overcome your fearNo perfect presentation, Seven thinking sins) I have talked about the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach to overcoming the fear of public speaking. I’ve focused on the cognitive principles on the basis that if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably doing presentations (the behavioral part of CBT). But maybe you know somebody who gets so nervous at even the idea of presenting that they avoid it whenever they can. This post will look at what they can do to help themselves, using the behavioral principles of CBT. On the assumption you’ll forward this link to them, I’ll now start talking directly to them.

Here’s the important thing about the behavioral approach. It’s not about just going out and doing it. You need to take a gradual approach. In psychology this is called systematic desensitization.

Imagine if you were frightened of birds. A therapist working with you would gradually expose you to a bird. They might start by showing you a small picture of a bird and keep it far away from you. You’d be nervous at first, but gradually you’d realise no harm was going to come to you and your symptoms of fear (heart beating, sweating) would die down. Then the therapist would bring the picture closer and wait again till your symptons faded. The therapist would then repeat the process with other pictures, then a feather, then a stuffed bird, then a bird in a cage, and finally a live bird flying free. So the process is slow, graduated and systematic.

To apply the same process to public speaking, start by making yourself a list of behaviors related to presenting – but which don’t involve an actual presentation – until the very last behavior on the list. The behaviors will involve speaking to one person or several, and some should include making requests which are likely to be turned down. This is important, because often one of our fears around public speaking is the fear of being disapproved of or rejected.

We call these behaviors Must-busters – because they are about showing you that your “musts” are not true. If you have a strong fear of public speaking, you probably have some strong musts, like:

“I must not make a fool of myself”

“I must not humiliate myself”

“I must always be approved of by anyone I talk to”

So here are some examples of Must-buster behaviors:

  1. Initiate a one-on-one conversation with your manager about something inconsequential
  2. Speak up in a small meeting at work (2 or 3 people)
  3. Ring a wrong number on purpose and say “I’m sorry, I seem to have dialled the  wrong number.”
  4. Ask for change in a shop
  5. Initiate a one-on-one conversation with your manager asking for feedback on your performance
  6. Ask for change in a shop which has a sign “No change given”
  7. Initiate a one-on-one conversation that you’ve been putting off
  8. Speak up in a slightly larger meeting at work
  9. Go to a networking event with a friend
  10. Initiate a one-on-one conversation with your manager to explain an idea that you have about how processes could be improved at work
  11. Go to a networking event with a friend and initiate a conversation with one person you don’t know
  12. Go to a networking event without a friend and initiate a conversation with one person you don’t know
  13. Go to a Toastmasters meeting (without speaking).
  14. Joining a Toastmaster club
  15. Enrol on a public speaking or presentation skills course
  16. And finally, giving your first speech at Toastmasters or giving a short presentation at your next team meeting at work.

These are just examples to inspire you. Make yourself your own list because we’re all different in terms of what we find most frightening. Once you’ve made yourself the list, rate each behavior according to how hard you think it will be for you. Then put the list in order, starting with the easiest behaviors though to the hardest.

Commit yourself to a schedule to complete these behaviors, it could be one a day, or one a week. Expect to feel fear as you approach these tasks. Part of the learning is that you can handle feeling the symptoms of fear. It’s helpful to share what you’re planning with a friend, so that they can both support you and keep you accountable.

It is possible to overcome the fear of public speaking (note: it won’t go away altogether!). Overcoming this barrier and being able to speak up when you want to will make a difference to your career and to your personal life. Go well.

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