Public speaking is considered to be the greatest fear a person can have – even greater than the fear of death. There is even a fancier name for this fear and that is, “glossophobia." Glossophobia is very common, in fact, as many as 75% of the people you know likely suffer. Statistically, far too many of us claim that we would prefer death rather than delivering a speech to an audience! So, how can you and I persevere? Here's my story.
Every year, we sit down as a family to work on our bucket lists. When the following December rolls around, we sit down again to see which items we can cross off on our list. One of the best things about a bucket list is that you are never behind. No deadlines, no stress, no failure. It is just you and your dreams! Whether you keep something on the list is up to you. Dreams change. Goals change. Plans change. And that’s perfectly fine!
A couple of years ago, our family bucket list had several to-do items that included joining Toastmasters and skydiving. My husband decided to join Toastmasters and I decided to attempt skydiving. When asked about the reason for my choice, I said, “With skydiving, it’s going to be just once and then I will be done with it, whereas with Toastmasters, I could potentially die every week when speaking in front of people”. That is when I realized that I was suffering from some serious glossophobia.
Now, let’s delve deeper into the term “glossophobia”. It's derived from two Greek words: “glōssa” meaning tongue and “phobos” meaning fear. Many people have this particular phobia, while there are others that have even broader social phobia or social anxiety disorders.
Symptoms of glossophobia include:
The celebrated American author, Tony Robbins, has a great quote that goes, “If you can’t you must, and if you must, you can.” If you are afraid of heights, maybe do a little therapy, but eventually jump off the plane – just get past it. Similarly, if you think you just can't speak in front of others, then you must.
I know the feeling all too well - my chest used to tighten up with panic and my head would start spinning. I would start focusing on the thoughts that were racing through my head rather than what should be coming out of my mouth. Sometimes, I even forgot to breathe, causing my voice to crack. That is how bad my fear of public speaking used to be. Each time I stood in front of an audience, a ball of tension started to form deep within my chest, and I would immediately know that all was lost.
I decided to do something about this fear. Before I get into the details, I want to be clear – I am not convinced that it is possible to completely get over the fear of speaking in front of several people. In fact, I believe that a little bit of nervous energy is healthy – it keeps you on your toes and that can be channeled positively. It is very much possible to bring your fear down to a manageable level.
Here’s how I did it and, yes, you can too.
Find a Safe Place to Practice
My husband recommended that I join a Toastmasters club. The quickest way to get better at speaking in front of an audience is to practice as much as possible. The great thing about Toastmasters is that it provides a safe space to practice your public speaking. Everyone is there because they want to get better, not because they want to show off. You will also get constructive feedback on your speeches from the group veterans. Groups like Toastmasters are as close as you will get to taking a public speaking class without paying an awful lot of money for it.
Whether you choose Toastmasters or a more formal public speaking course, the key is to find a place where you can practice speaking to an audience – without the pressure of a high-stakes spotlight. This is really the first big step to becoming more comfortable with it.
Put Yourself Out There
While practicing every week at Toastmasters meetings, I take every speaking opportunity that comes my way and prepare for it rigorously. For example, I prepare for the meetings in advance and consciously gather possible inputs based on the theme. My opportunities at times are as short as presenting a safety moment at the start of a meeting. And you know what? The more I practice, the more comfortable I become with speaking to an audience.
The lesson that I learned and continue to learn is this: even if I don't feel entirely ready, I should actively seek out every speaking opportunity that comes my way – whether it is as simple as talking to a few colleagues or as scary as presenting to a room of 30 people.
A couple of years after joining Toastmasters, I volunteered to deliver a 30-minute HR training session to 100 employees. Then, I started presenting in 8-hour workshops as part of my job. With every opportunity that I got, I realized that I was getting better and feeling more confident.
It is my 2018 goal to speak in front of a large audience to further challenge myself. I submitted a speaker proposal for the HR Practitioner Day at the 2018 Gulf Coast Symposium on HR issues in Houston, TX. It is one of the largest HR conferences in the country – about 1,500 professionals attend the symposium every year. My speaker proposal was accepted and I am preparing hard to achieve my mental goal of speaking to a large audience.
Learn from the Experts
I also spend a lot of time watching the experts talk about public speaking and body language. One of the best sources of inspiration for me comes from a well-known talk by Olivia Fox Cabane, a leadership coach who specializes in teaching charisma. The video is long, but is worth every minute – Cabane gives excellent advice on how to be more charismatic and provides a perfect example of a riveting speech.
Another video that had a big impact on me was Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on “How Body Language Shapes Who You Are Internally”. Your body language impacts your psychology, which in turn controls your behavior, and that in turn influences final outcomes. For example, explains Cuddy, if you sit or stand in a “low-power pose” - like with your arms crossed in front of you - just two minutes, your stress levels will rise. Take on an expansive pose with your legs and arms outstretched (a “high-power pose”), and you will begin to feel more confident, at ease and in control. I decided to test this out before my first 30-minute speech. About five minutes prior to the talk, I went into a bathroom stall and proceeded to strike a “high-power pose” for a couple of minutes. It worked! This was my very first talk during which I felt calm and collected.
The truth is that I have a long way to go before I can consider myself a great public speaker. By finding a safe place to practice, taking cues from the experts, seeking out opportunities to speak in front of audiences and re-thinking certain personal notions about who I am and what I am good at, I have taken great strides in getting over what used to be a debilitating fear of public speaking. Take a leap of faith, practice often and I'm sure you'll conquer your own fear in no time.