Overcoming the fear of public speaking, part I

Charles R. Knight, Cro-Magnon artists painting woolly mammoths in Font-de-Gaume

Charles R. Knight, Cro-Magnon artists painting woolly mammoths in Font-de-Gaume

Below, you’ll discover valuable tips from the Pitch Avatar team to empower speakers at online events. It is divided into two parts—mind training and body training. This first part addresses intrusive thoughts that hinder public speaking and offers strategies to overcome presentation anxiety. The second part will provide insights on how to prepare and deliver a presentation confidently.

Have you ever been anxious, worried, or fearful about an upcoming presentation? Well, you’re not alone. The majority of people worldwide encounter similar challenges to varying degrees. Numerous studies in the US reveal that 75-95% of individuals experience anxiety or fear before delivering a presentation (Gitnux).

But why? Our natural disposition isn’t geared toward public speaking. Throughout history, humans lived in small, close-knit communities where public performance wasn’t a necessity. Daily interactions were familiar, and only a select few, such as leaders and shamans, possessed oratory skills. Consequently, it’s no surprise that public speaking only comes naturally to some people. However, we can still cultivate confidence in this domain.

Embrace the fact that you are safe and sound.

Prehistoric Man Battling Ferocious Animals (chromolithograph)

Prehistoric Man Battling Ferocious Animals (chromolithograph)

To conquer fear, confront it head-on. What is the root of your apprehension when speaking in front of an audience? The fear of not being well-received? Why do we dread negative evaluations from the same group we address? What lies beneath this fear?

The answer is simple — we are social beings. Throughout history, humans have thrived within communities. Being disapproved of by the group posed a significant threat, as it could lead to expulsion, making survival in the harsh conditions of the Stone Age nearly impossible. Our instincts compel us to seek the group’s validation, fueling our fear of rejection.

Take a moment to breathe, relax, and engage in rational thinking. Times have changed. We no longer depend on the absolute approval of a single group amidst a hostile environment. The disapproval or dissatisfaction of an arbitrary audience during a specific presentation does not pose a significant threat, even for commercial presentations and, less of all, for student presentations. Remind yourself of this frequently.

From freeze to flow.

Louis Figuier – Fending off an attack of the Great Bear

Fending off an attack of the Great Bear by Louis Figuier

One common issue related to the fear of public speaking is the speaker’s tendency to freeze. We’ve all experienced it in school. You’ve just recalled the verses, rules, or facts you’ve learned, and suddenly, your mind goes blank: thoughts vanish, and your head feels empty. It’s all due to fear.

The truth is that the fear centers in our brains have a strong impact on our memory. Fear triggers stress responses, and stress hormones act as a switch, activating our instinctive reactions. Essentially, fear hormones knock out our frontal lobes. This mechanism served us well for survival in the wilderness. When facing a predator, there’s no time for deep contemplation like Hamlet. All analysis boils down to the primal “Fight or Flight” response.

Now let’s leave the primeval forest and return to our civilized era. When speaking in front of an audience, we risk falling into a cycle of stress: fear triggers stress, which leads to freezing, resulting in more stress from freezing, and the process continues until we forget where we placed our cue cards and exit the stage resembling the Tin Man. While standing in front of an audience, we can’t physically fight (at least without facing legal consequences) and eventually must figuratively flee.

However, in the context of an online presentation, you’re comfortably seated in your chair with your script open in front of you. That means you’re free to “strike” (metaphorically, of course). By this, we mean that even in moments of stress, you can confidently engage with your audience. After all, you don’t risk forgetting your script or the sequence of actions. Everything you need is right there, beautifully displayed on your device. Once you begin actively interacting, you’ll experience the ice covering your brain melting away, leaving no trace.

Leave worrying about mistakes behind.

Charles R. Knight– Tiger holding Hunters at bay.

Tiger holding Hunters at bay by Charles R. Knight

In public speaking, one of the most significant stumbling blocks for speakers is their fixation on mistakes. This tendency to obsess over errors, hesitations, and pauses often plagues perfectionists and even those who aren’t. However, it’s time to break free from this self-imposed trap and redirect our focus.

Let’s take a moment to transport ourselves to a different era – when mistakes had dire consequences. In the days of our ancestors, survival relied on avoiding errors during hunts or identifying safe sources of sustenance. But today, the landscape has changed. The mistakes we make in our modern lives, especially during presentations, bear no significant long-term consequences.

In the fast-paced digital age, where information flows endlessly, your audience won’t dwell on your slip-ups. They’ll swiftly move on, engrossed in a sea of distractions. So, it’s crucial to recognize that any mistake you make on stage will be quickly forgotten.

Instead of fixating on the blunders, shift your focus to resilience. Embrace the mindset that mistakes are fleeting and inconsequential. Learn from them, adjust your approach, and carry on with confidence. Develop a personal mantra, like “and this will pass” to remind yourself that errors are merely fleeting moments in your speaking journey.

Remember, becoming a remarkable speaker involves practice, not perfection.

Shift the focus from yourself.

Early Humans Making Fire - Louis Figuier

Early Humans Making Fire by Louis Figuier

Amidst the chaos of fears we’ve explored earlier, it may seem unlikely that the biggest culprit behind our apprehensions lies within ourselves. 

Paradoxically, our public speaking anxieties revolve not around the audience but our own insecurities. Questions like, “Do I look good? Will they believe me? Will they appreciate my performance?” stem from a self-centered perspective. But here’s the truth: your presentation isn’t about you.

To truly captivate your audience, you must understand their needs, goals, and desires. By shifting your attention away from yourself and towards your audience, you can forge a genuine connection that elicits the desired reaction – whether they decide to purchase your product or invest in your startup. Adopt the mindset of a trusted colleague, genuinely interested in contributing to their success. 

People crave discussions that revolve around their interests, and by embracing this principle, you not only conquer your fears but also deliver a presentation that leaves a lasting impact on your audience.

This principle has stood the test of time. Ancient hunters passed down wisdom to their successors, teaching them to think like the very animals they pursued. “If you want to find a deer, think like a deer,” they would say. This age-old wisdom holds true even in the realm of public speaking.

So, let go of self-centered worries and embrace audience-centric presenting. Unlock the power of understanding and connecting with your audience on a deeper level. By doing so, you’ll conquer your fears and deliver a presentation that your audience will be grateful for attending. It’s time to shift the spotlight from yourself to those who truly matter – your audience.

Human reaching out to a robot inside a phone
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