How to Conquer the Fear of Public Speaking

Bill Abbate

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You have likely heard it said the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death. As a young man in my twenties, it was certainly true for me! I was deathly afraid of public speaking. I eventually overcame this fear and went on to speak to thousands of people in numerous meetings, associations, and organizations. If I had only known a few simple things, I could have overcome this fear much sooner and will share what I learned with you here.

I was first called to speak in front of a group in my mid-twenties. I was so weak in the knees if there had not been a lectern to lean on, I would have collapsed. I recall sweating profusely and afterward wondering what was wrong with me. I had not experienced such fear at any point in my life, including service in the military.

Training, Learning, and Teaching,

The call to speak came more often as I rose through the ranks. I approached my employer and was able to convince them to pay more than $700 (about $2,000 today using an inflation calculator) for a Dale Carnegie course on “Human Relations and Public Speaking” in the mid-1980s.

While the course helped me tremendously, subsequent learning put me over the top. I read several books adding to what I learned in the Dale Carnegie course and began helping others sharpen their skills. They say the best way to learn is to teach, and that is certainly true for me.

I then uncovered three critical things to calming my fear when speaking to a group, regardless of size. The first was preparation.

“Best way to conquer stage fright is to know what you’re talking about.” Michael H. Mescon

Preparation

Knowing your subject well is critical to public speaking. I learn my subject so well I can practically do the talk in my sleep. The secret to this is preparation, preparation, and more preparation. I find if I am not prepared the old fears can return.

As with any subject in life, if you are to show confidence in front of a group, you must know your subject well. If you do not know a subject and attempt to speak about it, be prepared for the consequences. When you speak in front of a group you are most often seen as an authority on the subject. If you are not, become one, or make it clear you are not!

For real confidence in front of hundreds of people, I find it best to know my subject inside out, upside down, and sideways. As I used to teach, “You can’t swim in a puddle - you need a pool of knowledge deep enough, not to drown, but to learn freestyle!”

The way I prepared was to learn as much as I could about the subject, then rehearse to the point I could put a few keywords outlining the talk on a 3x5 card. I would take this 3x5 card with me in my pocket on stage. While I rarely pulled the card out, if I did, it had just enough information on it to keep me on track.

Yes, early on I did rehearse in front of a mirror (not as easy as you think!) I would also record the entire talk and listen and/or watch it (an unpleasant but necessary process!) Years ago, I heard it said if you listen to a speech or talk six times, you internalize it. In other words, it becomes part of you and your thinking. Without question by the sixth time, I had it down pat.

Over time the disciplines I used in practicing paid off tremendously, and I was able to ease up on some of them and still do very well.

“Grasp the subject, the words will follow.” Cato The Elder

The Audience is on Your Side

The second revelation I had about public speaking was that the audience is friendly! When you go to hear someone speak, have you ever thought “I hope they screw up and fail”? I never have and know no one that would admit to such a thing. If people are taking time out of their life to listen to you speak to a group, they are there for their benefit more than yours. They want to get some good information or insights and do not wish you harm. They are your friends!

If you come across as nervous, they likely feel for you and have a desire for you to succeed anyway. They want you to be successful, not just for your benefit, but for theirs as well. So long as you put forth honest effort in preparing, no one will find fault with you. Over the years I have found people wanted me to succeed, provide them with a beneficial presentation, and applauded 99.9% of the time, regardless of my performance.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou

Know Yourself

The final item that helped me enormously when I started speaking in public was getting to know myself. As I began learning about self-limiting beliefs, and self-empowering beliefs, everything about me began to change. I learned I had a younger part of myself trying to protect me from failure and was a major cause of the fear I experienced.

It happened when I was about 7 years old. I was in a school play and tripped going on stage. The entire world saw me (at least my world at the time). My family, classmates, teachers, and everyone else saw me trip. Being a shy introvert, I was embarrassed for no reason other than the way I saw myself and thought at the time. This 7-year-old Bill Abbate’s little incident was so traumatic in my young mind, it affected me for years.

That experience sounds silly now, but I have found many others have been affected by a younger part of themselves in similar ways. I finally came to realize this 7-year-old part of me was simply trying to protect me from embarrassing myself again. Once it was exposed, I learned to thank the 7-year-old in me when I would start to get nervous and tell him I had it handled. As I spoke more and more frequently, I found the fear lessened greatly, and the good experiences far outweighed the bad. I had finally conquered the fear.

"Always be yourself and have faith in yourself.” Bruce Lee

Conclusion

There you go, a simple way to overcome the fear of public speaking. It takes some work, but the rewards will be more than worth it.

To summarize:

  • Learn all you can about public speaking.
  • Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more.
  • Remember the audience wants you to succeed.
  • Know yourself and where the fear originates.

There was no greater propellant in my career than learning to speak in public with confidence. Find any opportunity you can to speak. Volunteer to speak whenever you can. There is no better training than practicing this art to strengthen who you are and who you are becoming.

Lastly, the nervous feeling may never leave completely, but I assure you it will subside greatly over time. It is a good thing to have a tiny bit of fear as it keeps you sharp and ensures you do not become complacent. I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite people to consider as you go forth and speak.

“There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.” Mark Twain

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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