Inside Glossophobia: Overcoming the Fear of Public SpeakingShare
Fear of public speaking is the most common fear in America - but with public speaking invariably intertwined with leadership, motivation, and change, people all over the world are working to overcome it.
Glossophobia, or fear of public speaking, is a condition that effects as much as 75% of people. During a flare-up, symptoms may include sweaty palms, shortened breath, heightened blood pressure, nausea, stiffening of neck and upper back muscles, dry mouth, and a distinct desire to flee the premises. Fortunately, a number of organizations exist to help victims overcome this affliction.
Toastmasters International is a non-profit working in 116 countries to help its 280,000 members become better public speakers through peer workshops, communications-based assignments, and competitions. Each year, the competitions – which involve 30,000 competitors worldwide - culminate in a World Championship of Public Speaking to determine the world’s #1 public speaker. This summer, THNKR had the pleasure of attending the championship in Orlando, Florida. Afterwards, we talked with Dr. Nick Morgan, one of America’s most prominent communication theorists and coaches, about the experience, and the important things to remember as you prepare for a big speech.
Nerves Are Natural
“It should be good news to speakers everywhere at every level that even the best of the best get nervous,” Morgan says. In fact, he argues, that’s exactly what makes it possible for a person to give an inspired and unforgettable speech. “The smart ones,” says Morgan, “use those nerves as welcome signs of what they actually are – adrenaline – because they know they need that adrenaline to do their best.” This fight-or-flight response, often referred to as an “adrenaline rush,” is caused by a stress signal sent from the brain to the adrenal gland. The hormone released, called epinephrine, speeds up the rate of respiration, thus quickening blood flow to the muscles, increasing oxygen to the lungs, and giving the body a surge of temporary energy. While some people may feel overwhelmed by this burst of energy and the heightened awareness that comes with it, it can also be harnessed to give speakers just what they need to ace a speech. “There’s moments when you’re nervous and you’re fearful—” says Andrew Kneebone, one of the nine finalists at this year’s championship, “—well, that’s a friend now, not a stranger.” Nerves are natural – and can work in your favor. So embrace your nerves, and allow them to fuel the energy that will make your speech come alive for your audience in an authentic way.
“Audiences these days demand authenticity from their speakers,” Morgan says. “In many ways the biggest challenge the Toastmasters speakers face is bringing the authenticity to a speech each time they deliver it.” Public speaking experts agree that one of the most important steps in preparing for a speech is practice. Yet after giving the same speech so many times, it can be difficult to maintain an authentic voice, especially once nerves kick in. More than anything, a successful speech hinges on your ability to know your audience and establish a connection. “If you’re able to actually take [the audience] on a journey with you, just like in a movie, then you’ve sealed the deal,” says Palaniappa Subramaniam, another finalist. Shape your speech around a subject that you genuinely care about and try to focus on what you have to offer your audience. Your concentration will naturally shift away from what is at stake for you personally, calming your nerves and allowing you to connect to your audience in a real way. Then, tell a story. Take the audience on a journey. While there are many aspects that will contribute to the success of your speech, it is the authentic, heartfelt moments that will be remembered most.
Not every speech has to change the world. In many cases, speeches are meant merely to celebrate an individual and can be intimate, entertaining, and memorable without aiming to revolutionize. But if we look at public speaking in general, the tone shifts towards the profound. According to Kathy Caprino, career and executive coach, the main goals of public speaking are to “motivate, enliven, inform, and educate.” Whatever the occasion, you were chosen to speak for a reason. So embrace the challenge, trust that you have something important to say, and don’t be afraid to aim big. “You have an obligation as a speaker to go up there and not just say something that you care about, but something that can really change the lives of people,” says Ryan Avery, another finalist at the Toastmasters competition. “The public nature of a presentation means that all eyes will be on you, the speaker, in a way that doesn’t often happen,” Morgan says on his blog. “Don’t miss the opportunity to change the world – for the better.”
The importance of learning to speak in front of an audience is undeniable – invariably intertwined with leadership, motivation, and change. While Glossophobia is common – in fact, the most common phobia in America – it is certainly a fear that can be overcome. Even a few of the Toastmasters finalists, now ranked with the best speakers in the world, admit to having once being gripped by the fear of public speaking. But the power of spoken word is reason in itself to push past that fear, and they exist as proof that it can be done.
So remember, first, that nerves are natural – even for the best public speakers in the country. Use your nerves to propel you through the speech, and know that your physical response to stress will only make the speech all that much more rewarding once you finally step down from that stage. Second, be authentic. Pick a topic that you truly care about, and the audience will be stirred to care as well. And finally, don’t be afraid to aim big. You were chosen to speak for a reason, and you have a meaninfgul story to tell. So take a deep breath and change the world.