Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Influence

Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Change Anything

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I feel very shy when speaking at a public place, whether in front of family members or colleagues, or in team meetings. Even if I have talking points, I struggle to share my thoughts. This is creating problems in my career as well as in my social life. Can you share some tips for overcoming my fear of public speaking?

Overcoming Fear

A Dear Overcoming Fear,

You are certainly not alone concerning this fear—in fact, it ranks as many people’s number one fear. Perhaps, you’ve heard the joke by Jerry Seinfeld: “I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing—number two was death! That means to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

This bit of humor doesn’t downplay the seriousness of people’s fear to speak in public. As I address this issue with some advice, I take confidence in the conclusion we uncovered when researching our book, Change Anything—people can and do change all the time. I’ll also share some of the principles and tactics from that research as well as my own personal experience.

Learn some lessons from snakes. We’ve been fortunate to associate with world-renowned psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura for decades. He has done foundational research on behavior change. One of his early studies dealt with people who had a serious snake phobia. So serious in fact that their fears kept them from work, from outings with their friends and family, and even from going out to dinner or seeing a movie. And most lived with this paralyzing condition for many years despite trying various “cures.”

Dr. Bandura put a small ad in a paper inviting people with this problem to come to the basement of the psychology department at Stanford. What did he do? Or more importantly, what did he not do? He didn’t lecture. He didn’t rely on verbal persuasion. As you probably know, others speaking to you endlessly about the fact that many people feel shy and scared or that those in the audience want you to succeed isn’t motivating enough to get you over your fear. Lectures don’t produce results.

Dr. Bandura didn’t lecture, instead he used vicarious experience. Vicarious experience works by allowing people to safely watch others do the behaviors that lead to the desired outcome. He asked the people with a phobia of snakes to watch the therapist handle a snake in order to see what happened. Small step by small step, the subjects saw someone model a safe way to handle a snake in a way that also appeared doable. And, after three hours of this observation, the subjects sat with a boa in their laps. Their fear dissipated because they had a vicarious experience that taught them that they could deal with snakes safely. The advice: don’t rely on your personal thoughts or the verbal persuasion of others. Rely on your own experience. The next tip deals with how you might do that.

Create an opportunity for safe, deliberate practice. I’m suggesting a number of doses of vicarious experience for you. Can you set up a situation where you see others practice some of the small steps of speaking in public? You don’t want to start by giving a talk and getting feedback. That’s what you fear. You want to watch others read short segments and have other people tell the speaker what they liked. Then step by step, you can watch, respond, try, try again, increase the length and difficulty of the speech, and repeat until speaking becomes more natural. Such deliberate practice in a supportive and safe environment will give your brain evidence that you need not fear.

One option is Toastmasters. Their model: “A Toastmasters meeting is a learn-by-doing workshop in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere.” They have a process that can at least get you started. And I’m sure there are other groups and online resources that will allow you to start. Nothing that I can advise is more important than encouraging you to find a way to have safe, deliberate practice. First work on your competence and that will build your confidence. This is true for overcoming fear of snakes, fear of public speaking, and all sorts of other fears.

And now a word on shyness generally. Over the years, I’ve chatted in depth with a number of people who are sad, lonely, or disappointed in ways that they attribute ultimately to their shyness. Now I’m not saying that introversion is better or worse than extroversion. I’m talking about a group of people who claim to be shy and claim that their shyness is a cause of their misery. To this group, I also advise small, safe steps in a way that helps with deliberate practice.

As I’ve observed and coached some of these folks, I’ve noticed that they have a problem with initiating and reciprocating. When someone smiles at them, they don’t smile back. When someone greets them and asks, “How are you doing?” they say “Fine” and don’t greet and inquire in response. Also they don’t initiate smiles, greetings, or inquiries. This pattern is true in other interpersonal encounters. They don’t invite people to lunch. They don’t invite others at the water cooler to have small talk. And they don’t reciprocate when someone invites them. Because of this lack of reaching out to others, sooner or later, it seems, others quit initiating the smiles, greetings, inquiries, and invitations. The consequence is that the “shy” person feels left out, unhappy, or lonely.

In your question, you mention that you are very shy and that it is affecting your personal and professional life. I address this larger issue, because you may want to use the same advice to create for yourself opportunities for safe, deliberate practice. Find several friends with whom you can practice smiling, greeting, making eye contact, shaking hands, small talk, and invitations. Then ask the friends to coach you privately when you are trying your new skills in other settings.

Too many people justify the less-than-desired results they have by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” I believe that by working carefully and safely to increase our skills and competence, we can change for good.

I wish you well,

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5 thoughts on “Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking”

  1. Lori

    I would suggest caution in using the words “shyness” and “introversion” in the same context. Shyness is a fear whereas introversion is a preference. People can be one and not the other. There are shy extraverts and there are introverts who are comfortable with interaction and public speaking (just worn out as a result).

  2. greg

    Good article.

  3. Dorothy McKinney

    I completely agree that deliberate practice is the best way to overcome the fear of public speaking. In addition, I have found a few perspectives/techniques can make it a little easier (especially for people whose opportunities for practice may not be as supportive as a Toastmaster’s meeting).

    I discovered these techniques by reading (although I don’t have the citations handy), used them myself and now recommended them to others. They include:
    — Make your audience less intimidating in your own mind (one approach to doing this is to imagine the audience members to all be in their underwear — or naked, whichever makes them feel less intimidating to you)
    — Stop concentrating on yourself (which fosters performance anxiety). Instead focus on your audience, and think about why THEY want the information that you have to share. If you focus on thinking of them, and how you can help them, instead of focusing on whether you can be a good speaker, it is more likely your message will come across well to them.
    — If you find the size of your audience upsetting, focus only on a few people in the audience, and speak directly to them. If you have a whole auditorium full of people in front of you, choose one person (preferably with a sympathetic and interested look) in the front row, and one on each side of the room. If you alternate talking to these individuals, you will come across as speaking more personally to the entire audience.

  4. Vernel

    The Dale Carnegie training addresses both of these issues. Students learn to speak out and to reach out. Reading his books is helpful, but does not have the impact of the course. It changed my life for sure.

  5. yusuf sanda

    how can I overcome shyness or fear when speaking in the pub.

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