Fear of Public Speaking

Public speaking. It is the stuff of nightmares. Standing in front of your peers, colleagues, managers and bosses, words that you’ve prepped for weeks rendered to a mere whisper. 

It’s incredible the number of senior professionals, business owners, chief executives and managers – highly intelligent, articulate, funny and above all inspiring people – who hate the idea of public speaking.

Why is this? Is it because many professionals are afraid of being seen to fail or look stupid?

If so, this is a crying shame, because leaders need to be honest. We all love success stories, new client wins and triumphs in the face of adversity. And stories about your failures can provide more insight than your successes. 

Not only are you acknowledging that, yes, things don’t always go to plan, but you’re creating a supportive culture where success and failure are treated in equal measure, where honest conversations can take place to foster deep learning which can be applied to future projects. 

We start young

In any case, this fear is odd because we spend our entire lives speaking publicly. In nursery, we share what we did at the weekend. In primary school, we have “show and tell”.

When we are young, public speaking is framed as sharing, explaining, and telling stories that are close to us. The comfortable environment we speak in ensures that it doesn’t feel like a terrible moment under the spotlight, but a chance to communicate with peers. 

Yet by the time we head off to university, public speaking undergoes an incredible shift of formalisation. Suddenly it counts for 20% of our grade, and we have to speak in front of strangers and a ticking clock. Our heart rates are all over the place, our palms are sweaty, the week leading up to the event is filled with sleepless nights, and we are debating our escape routes. 

This demon doesn’t leave us when we enter the workplace. Instead of being judged by equals, we’re now surrounded by giants. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this. So how do we fix it?

Practice, practice, practice public speaking

There isn’t a silver bullet; the only way to become more confident at anything is to do it a lot and so to get good at public speaking we have to practice. 

This isn’t an excuse to stand in front of the mirror. Instead it means speaking to real people and, crucially, receiving honest feedback. 

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The key to a great talk lies in the content. If you are knowledgeable about your subject matter and have a clear idea about where you want the ideas to go, then speaking about it can be straightforward. It is the environmental factors that induce fear. 

Whether we talk to our friends about Love Island, Game of Thrones or speak to colleagues about a client we know inside out, the atmosphere should be treated the same. Both are an opportunity to air ideas, share expanded thoughts, and offer a renewed perspective, or way of thinking, to our audience. 

Join the conversation

What about encouraging others to speak? Even if you’re a confident person who can own the room, your office may be full of introverts who prefer to sit in the background. But ignoring them stifles creativity, productivity and professional development. 

As a manager or boss, it’s your job to bring them into the conversation, give them the confidence to express their ideas, and enable an open honest dialogue.

Learn to ask questions without providing definitive answers. Use breakout sessions to involve the entire team and allow them to have their voices heard. Encourage team leaders to step back and let their talented colleagues flourish.

Public speaking is not only incredibly powerful, but natural, too. From a young age, we are all orators. In order for this to continue, we must take the manufactured pressure off public speaking, lower the pedestal we have placed it on, and go back to the basics. 

It seems we have a lot to learn from “show and tell”.