How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

A woman from Romania wrote and asked Adam Khan this question:

I don't know what kind of anxiety problem I have exactly. I don't really have physical symptoms but at social situations, like parties or speeches or facing many people at once, I feel the anxiety of an important examination. I feel an intense fear and I want to go away quick.

I have an eating disorder and I will start a support group in my area (Romania) in January. I feel I understand EDs pretty well and I can communicate very well with one person at a time, however more people at once scare me. I feel I am inferior to them and constantly worry I will blow it. This is really important to me and I feel I can help these girls.

Do you have any advice on how to look forward to this with more ease? I am afraid I will be so damn anxious that everybody will notice it (my face starts trembling) and will laugh. :(

This is really weird because I seem to like to strike up conversations and people think I am intelligent and funny. I have no problems initiating with men either. Once I am at ease, I communicate well.

Here is Adam's answer:

At one time, I had exactly the problem you do, so you asked the right person. I have always been at ease around one or two people, and I like to interact with people, and I like to talk, but then when I got up in front of a group, I got really nervous and shy.

Here's how I got over it:

First of all, I realized that being nervous in front of a group is natural if you're not used to it. It's like swimming. If you've never been in a pool or ocean all your life, and you get pushed into deep water, you will feel scared. If you've been swimming since you were a kid, you wouldn't be scared at all.

It is an entirely different situation to talk to a group than to talk to one or two people. They are not the same task, no matter how much they look the same. More people means you don't get feedback and nods and the give-and-take you get with just one or two people. And nobody is interrupting. It's totally different, and you aren't used to it. You haven't worked your way up to it. If you spent three weeks talking regularly to three people, and then another three weeks talking to four people, and so on, you would have a chance to get used to it, and you probably wouldn't be scared when it went from 49 people to 50.

So that's the first thing: Realize there's nothing wrong with you. It is normal. You may be a little more nervous than some people, but less nervous than some other people. And even people who have been doing it for a long time often get "nervous." I'd say almost all people. In fact, a famous talk-show guy here in the U.S. named Johnny Carson, who had a show on TV before a live audience for years and years, once was having heart trouble, so a doctor was keeping track of his heart rate. Right before he went on stage to do is opening monologue, Carson's heart rate went from 80 beats per minute to 150! And this was a guy who had been doing it every day for years.

That was the second very important thing I learned: Stop calling it nervousness. Have you ever competed in sports? I used to do track and field, and before every race I got "nervous" but I never thought of it as nervousness; I called it being jacked up or amped or pumped up. I was ready to go. I expected to have butterflies in my stomach. I expected my heart to beat faster. I knew the adrenaline was helping me be my best.

So the second thing, and it made a big difference, was that I stopped trying to resist my adrenaline rushes. I stopped trying to get rid of them, and I stopped calling it nervousness. It is the same feeling you get when you are on a roller coaster and you PAY for that! Your orientation to the feeling, your interpretation of it, makes it either anxiety or excitement. So make it excitement by thinking of it in those terms. Welcome the feeling and use it.

That's the third thing I did: I USED that adrenaline rush. Here's what I did, and I think it was the most important thing I did: Since every time I thought about an upcoming speech, I got an adrenaline rush, I thought maybe I could use that as a reminder. Even the smallest passing thought would give me a rush. So every time I felt that rush, it was my cue to think about what I really wanted to happen. I wanted them to understand, I wanted them to change their lives, I wanted them to be happier, I wanted their lives to be better. I wanted to have a good time. I wanted to crack them up. I thought of as many things as I could think of about why I really WANTED to speak to those people, how important it was that they understood my message. I made each adrenaline rush a new infusion of desire.

Every time I had a little adrenaline rush, I did either that, or I would go through my outline in my head so I knew the order of my points really well. In a short talk, you will only make three or four main points, so when you get a little burst of adrenaline, say your points to yourself in order. Then you will know you have it down really well, and you will know you won't forget the order of the points. That, in itself, makes you feel more confident. And, by the way, that's the only thing I memorized. NEVER NEVER NEVER memorize your talk. Only think about what you'd like to say, but never rehearse it. That is one of the worse things you could do.

Another thing I did that might have been at least as important is that I made sure everything I said, every point I made, every illustration I used, were things I really liked a lot. I made sure it was all stuff I liked to say, I felt good about, I felt was true and good and enjoyable to say. I took out any illustrations that I just thought would be merely clever or anything like that, and replaced them with illustrations I knew I liked, regardless of whether or not I thought the audience would like them. I tried to have as much personal integrity in the content of my talk as I could.

And when I spoke, I gave all my attention to my message. I didn't worry about how I looked or what my gestures were or any of that petty stuff. It was all about the message, all about sincerity, all about really helping these people. That's what I did, and it worked great. I never would have believed it was possible, but I actually ended up looking forward to speaking, I liked it and enjoyed it. I wish the same for you.


Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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