Get Rid of Public Speaking Fears, Once and For All

“There are three things to aim at: first, to get into your subject, then to get your subject into yourself, and lastly, to get your subject into the heart of your audience.” – Alexander Gregg

When it comes to speaking well, just like with anything, if we can “get into” it we can not only improve but motivate others. However, if we are so focused on the fear, we can’t even “get into” it. So what do we do if speaking is required of us? There are two things we have to do to get past our fears of public speaking. The first is to shift from the emotional part of our brain to the thinking part. We do this on a regular basis when we encounter new experiences.

For example, this weekend I went zip-lining. There were 6 of us in the group who zipped from one platform to another through a wooded valley – platforms with varying levels of height and distance from each other. It was my first time zip-lining and the first for two others of the group. We wanted to be there, but we were also pretty nervous. So to train us in how to manage ourselves during the jumps, our guides taught us two things – how to speed up en route to the next post and how to brake. Simply speaking, braking had to do with placing our gloved and leather-padded hands on the guide wire behind us and speeding up was all about shooting out our legs or pulling our knees into a cannon-ball pose.

After we each demonstrated our abilities from a training platform, we started the course. Were some of us nervous? Yes! I was and so were three others, including some who had done this before.  Our training platform was 8 feet off the ground and our first real jump was from a platform at least 20 feet above the area we zipped through. At each platform we tested our ability to handle ourselves – to focus on the facts of what to do vs. the fear behind our nerves. Most of us were able to make the shift, most of the time. For those of us who shifted, with weak knees we entered the platforms, we took a few seconds to boost our nerve before take-off, focused on the two critical skills – braking on the guide’s command and speeding up as needed – and soon we realized we could overcome our fears.

Of course each jump or zip is progressively more challenging, but we gained experience and confidence as we went. And we “got into” it! Soon not only were we able to get past our fears, we payed attention to what was going on around us. We encouraged each other, we applauded their progression and we saw zip-lining as a way to not only get past our fears, but enjoy new skills and the camaraderie of those around us.

To get rid of public speaking fears requires similar things. At its simplest level, getting past public speaking anxiety requires two shifts. First, we shift from our limbic system in the brain (the emotional center) to our frontal cortex (the thinking/deciding area). How do we do this? We immediately focus our attention with the phrase, “Here’s what I know.” Of course, this assumes that we have taken the time to plan our message, to keep it relevant to our listeners, and to add useful, clear information. This focus allows us to overcome our feelings about speaking and instead get into our message.

For some of us, that simple shift will also motivate us to do the second step Alexander Gregg suggests – get the message into us, meaning, remember what is important and energetically share it. For others, we need further motivation than just focusing on what we know. We need external encouragement. So for those people I suggest a second shift – shift focus from yourself to others. Look up, seek a friendly face and then smile. You have found someone you can relate your message to. Begin.

In case you think you can speak well without looking at others, re-frame your thinking. Speaking well requires looking around, connecting with your listeners, maybe even involving them. Without this connection, you will not get into their hearts and minds. You will only be staying in your own head. Get out of your head. Public speaking is not a sport of isolation. Think of it as team-work. If you didn’t need the second shift from yourself to others to help you control your anxiety, you do need it to be an effective speaker and connect with listeners.

That’s the end goal, anyway. Although getting into the heart and mind of your listeners involves understanding how to relate to them and their experiences, if you don’t accomplish getting into your subject and getting it into you, you cannot get your message into them.

As I mentioned earlier, we got better with each jump on the zip-lining course. Sure, there were times we didn’t brake well or speed up well, but we knew how to correct it next time. So we created a history of relying on 2 skills. Not only with one jump, but for all of them, we did well when we demonstrated those 2 skills.

The same is true with speaking. Shift from your emotional center to your thinking by focusing on “Here’s what I know”, and then shift from self to others by looking up, finding the friendly faces and relating your message to them. Not just once, but for all time. Soon you realize you have a formula for getting over your public speaking anxiety, once and for all.

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