Overcome your fear of public speaking the proven way

Advice on overcoming the fear of public speaking is easy to come by.

You may have been told, “Just go out there and do it, take every opportunity you can to speak”. But you still get nervous. Here’s a story from someone who has suffered through just going out and doing it:

At one point in my life I was a teacher. I did fine with students, but when it came to parent-teacher conferences, I would dread the experience (the “exposure”) weeks and weeks ahead of time. The anticipatory anxiety and fear was so strong that it gripped at my stomach and made me feel like it was bloody and raw. Over the course of nine years, I was required to go through thirty-three weeks of parent-teacher conferences. I was exposed to one of my greatest fears, and the repetition and further exposure to this fear did not cause me to lose my anxiety and feel more comfortable. Instead, I faced my fears and my fears became even stronger.

Maybe you know that as well as going out there and doing it you need to “think positively” – so you’ve practiced affirmations and visualized your success. If it works for you that’s great. But for many people, positive thinking is not the answer.

Use proven psychological strategies

I believe that we should approach overcoming the fear of public speaking with the same approaches that have been proven to work for other anxiety issues.

That’s because the fear of speaking is on a continuum with severe anxiety. The continuum has a huge range. From slight nervousness before you get up to speak. To loss of sleep for weeks before your presentation. And for some, it’s so debilitating that they avoid public speaking altogether.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the recognised treatment for severe anxiety. The Social Anxiety Network says:

Meanwhile, in study after study, cognitive – behavioral therapy began to prove to be the therapy of choice for many mental health care problems, including depression and the anxiety disorders. In fact, large-scale, long-range (i.e., longitudinal) studies over the past decade have consistently shown cognitive – behavioral therapy to be the only therapy that can be dependably relied upon to help people overcome clinical anxiety disorders.

The National Institute of Mental Health is the largest scientific organization in the world dedicated to research focused on the understanding, treatment, and prevention of mental disorders. It says:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is very useful in treating anxiety disorders. The cognitive part helps people change the thinking patterns that support their fears, and the behavioral part helps people change the way they react to anxiety-provoking situations.

So if you get nervous before giving a presentation, use the principles from CBT which are proven to work.

What does this mean?

CBT involves both a behavioral approach and a thinking (cognitive) approach.

Maybe you go out there and present frequently, but you still get nervous. That’s because just going out there and doing it (the behavioral part of CBT) is not necessarily enough on it’s own. You have to change the way you think as well.

In the next post, I’ll look at the common thinking patterns that many of us have about presenting – and which contribute to making you feel nervous. I’ll look at how to replace those thinking patterns with rational and empowering thoughts.

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11 Comments

  1. Hey Olivia,

    i think “thinking it” is the first step and “doing it” is the next step. Though I do not know what kind of thinking patterns do we have, I do konw that positive thinking works well for me.
    For me “thinking” and “doing” are like a virtuous circle. The more I think positively, the better I will do the presentation. And the better I do the presentation, the more I built my confidence. The more confidence I have, it arouses my interest, to do more presentation.

    • Hi Jing
      That’s great that positive thinking is working for you – and that virtuous cycle is great.

      For others reading this – positive thinking doesn’t work for everyone – because you do have to believe that what you’re telling yourself is likely. For example if you say to yourself “My presentation will go really well and the audience will smile and nod” but don’t really believe it you’ll have another voice in your head go “Nah – that won’t happen.” If you can relate to this you may find CBT more effective.

      However, if positive thinking is working for you, that’s great.

      Olivia

  2. Hello Olivia,

    I’m reading this with great interest. My problem is that i’m not doing public presentations often enough to be able to get over my fear, and i can see that the more it goes, the worst it becomes. My problem is becoming so acute that for the first 2 mins on stage, i litteraly loose the use of my voice; my heartbeat goes mad, and my throat becomes tight. It’s all going the wrong way, and i’m really keen to resolve this!

    • Hi Manou
      I feel for you. It’s not pleasant to go through that experience. I recommend you join a public speaking club like Toastmasters where you can get regular practice. Most clubs are very supportive and you will be encouraged by other people who have gone through what you’re going through. Go well.
      Olivia

      • i really like yr suggestion

  3. Hi folks, I have found that a practical exercise is what many people find useful to control nerves. The brain anticipates some negative event in the future and creates anxiety, the body only recognises and reacts to the present. The aim is to get the brain to do the same as the body and focus on the here-and-now. To achieve this I draw from a martial art called Aikido which alerts us to our ‘centre’ (a couple of inches below our navel and in the centre of our body). There is unsufficient space here to go into much detail, but focussing on our centre and breathing deeply makes the lower half of the body feel ‘heavy’ and the feet feel planted to the ground and the earth’s core beneath us. For many people their shoulders relax as a result, their voice lowers and they realise they’re ‘in the moment’. Contact your local Aikido teacher to learn more about exercises to help develop your ‘chi’ and all the amazing things you can do with it. Good luck!

    • Thanks Fergus, for telling us about this aikido exercise.

      Olivia

  4. Hi Olivia

    You talk briefly about CBT as a way to overcome fear of public speaking. Any recommendations as to who or where I go next to find out more about this topic? I think CBT may be an effective way to combat my dibilitating fear of speaking to more than five people

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  7. Great advice, certainly positive thinking and changing your belief systems.

    What I would add which has helped many of people we have worked with is to change your focus to thinking about “what you want your audience to get out of the presentation”. This way it will help get past those self doubting internally focused negative thoughts.

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