Why We Fear Public Speaking (And How to Actually Enjoy It!)
Got A Phobia?
The best speeches are the ones that feel like conversations.
Somehow the distance between the speaker on the stage and the audience in their seats seems to fade away to almost nothing, and the size of the room seems to gradually shrink until it’s just one person talking to one person.
The best speeches are personal. Intimate. Vulnerable, in an intentional way. And way more often than you think, the audience will meet the speaker in that place. They’ll get honest and real when you do.
One of my favorite questions to ask crowds is if anyone has any phobias… that they want to share with a whole room full of people. Surprisingly, people are only too happy to share.
Is that last one even a fear? Or just something that feels weird?
My favorite is “Feet.” I mean, how do you live? Every time you look down… there they are.
But I can’t judge. I have a pretty weird fear… I’m afraid of sharks. In any kind of water. Like a lake. Or a river. Or a good-sized pool. You don’t know what’s in there. When I’m a pool I’m constantly picturing sharks attacking me. On the upside, it makes me a very fast swimmer.
There are a lot of things that bring on fear of physical discomfort or danger. But what about emotional discomfort or danger?
It turns out that we tend to respond to our emotional fears the same way we respond to physical fears: we stay as far away from them as possible. It’s perfectly natural. It’s also the slowest, and most ineffective way of discovering our own personal relationship to that specific fear. From a distance, anything can seem terrifying. From up close, sometimes you can see the strings holding the costume in place. You see the sweat on the brow. The fear in the eyes. From up close, sometimes what’s scary is not so scary after all.
And chances are, you might be brave in some specific area where most people would never dare tread. Maybe you can swim in the ocean, beyond where your feet can touch, without much fear. To me, that’s amazing.
If left up to our imagination, any of our fears can feel totally likely, imminent, and inevitable. And statistics haven’t helped much when it comes to my fear of sharks, even if I’m in more danger when I’m driving to a pool than when I’m swimming in it.
Because while my fear of sharks means I’ll almost never swim very far out into the ocean, that doesn’t affect my life very much. I don’t want to do that. So what happens when it comes to a fear standing in the way of something we really want to do?
Our response to fear determines where we can and can’t go in our lives. And it might be acceptable that I won’t be a deep-sea diver, | can’t imagine a life where I wasn’t able to share what I care about with an audience.
“The ability to master fear determines the direction of, and the size of, our lives.” – Jonathan Harris, internet storyteller, digital artist, TED speaker (this is a quote from a conversation we had in a grocery store, by the way)
Our response to our fear is very, very important. We can listen to it, and stay as far away as possible, or we can go right up to it, and find out if it’s really scary as we thought. And maybe, just maybe, find out we have what it takes to overcome our fear.
This is what happened to me when it came to public speaking. And | tell this story because it taps into something so many people feel: fear, discomfort, even danger around.
Why We Fear Public Speaking (And How to Actually Enjoy It!)
“A recent survey stated that the average person’s greatest fear is having to give a speech in public. This ranked even higher than death, which was third on the list. So, you’re telling me that at a funeral, most people would rather be the guy in the coffin than the guy giving the eulogy?” – Jerry Seinfeld
Every time I ask an audience the question, “How many people here do not like public speaking?” approximately 88% of the hands go up. It’s such a common anxiety.
There are a lot of fascinating reasons for this, which I’ll get into, but for now please take encouragement from the fact that if public speaking fills you with dread, you’re not alone. You couldn’t be less alone. In fact, the people who feel completely at home in front of a crowd are the ones who aren’t normal. (I can say that because they’re not reading this book.)
I suffered from terrible stage fright when I started speaking and performing. I once went on stage in front of 75 people and could only speak in gibberish for the first five seconds. I shook it off and kept going, and it ended up going great. But let me tell you, those first five seconds felt like five years.
When you examine the science behind the fear of the public speaking, it’s no wonder this kind of thing happens. For some reason speaking in public is our modern danger, meaning it triggers our fight-or-flight response:
The fight-or-flight response is an ancient survival mechanism designed to recognize and respond to danger. Our ancestor’s continued existence was totally dependent on this, and so the fight-or-flight response has been literally hot-wired into our systems for generations.
It is automatic, irrational and unconscious. We do not choose to feel threatened or anxious. Just as we do not choose the circumstances that trigger our fight-or-flight response, we do not choose to trigger the response itself. It is activated whether the threat is only in our minds or real.
Once the response is stimulated, the part of our brain called the hypothalamus sets off a series of actions preparing the body to face the danger (fight) or escape the threat (flight). Adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol (the brain’s response to stress) are released into the bloodstream and complex patterns of nerve cell firing occur. Our body is put in a state of high alert. Breathing and heart rate quicken. Muscles tighten.
We become hyper-vigilant and sensitive and our body’s entire focus shifts to repelling the threat. Body functions that are deemed non-essential to survival (digestion and speech) are slowed as the energy running them is refocused elsewhere.
How crazy, crazy ironic is it that the challenge of public speaking actually affects our speech functioning, resulting in a wavering voice during the very moment when people are listening to your voice? I mean, come on.
I share this not to talk you out of public speaking, but to point out that this stuff only happens in the beginning. Sure it’s scary, but it’s only going to be that way for a finite amount of time.
When I go back to that evening in my mind, freezing on stage is not what I remember most. I never think about it. What I do remember, and I do think about, was the pure joy of powering through that awkward beginning to have a great performance that really showed me what I was capable of. That’s what you’ll remember later.
If being on stage doesn’t sound fun to you as much as it sounds frightening, then also know that this is why I’m writing this to you. Because I believe, with 100% certainty, that if you are willing to try this, and stick with this, you will have so much fun you won’t even believe it. But first, we’ve got to beat those pesky little butterflies.
Beat The Butterflies
Nausea. Light-headedness. Shaking hands. Profuse sweating. Inability to eat. Wavering voice.
I’m well acquainted with these feelings. In the beginning of my career, I would usually spend the entire week before a gig feeling incredibly apprehensive. I would completely dread the moment I had willingly volunteered for. I would always think, why did I sign up for this? The butterflies would be more and more intense up until the show, and then, just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d be up on stage. And then I’d be fine. And afterwards I’d feel great. And then the next show offer would come in, and I would say yes, having forgotten all about the agony of the anticipation. And then the process would start all over again.
And it honestly did not get easier. As I had more experience to draw from, I still had the terror. Every single time. Although I did notice that it was getting incrementally less nerve- wracking. It was a barely perceptible difference after each gig, but over time, I started to notice how much it had diminished.
By the end of my first year, I had done around 50 gigs. Open mics, shows, storytelling events, speaking events. Any time I stood in front of people and spoke, counted. And then I was asked to do a 20 minute set in a comedy show. | felt like the organizer was taking a big gamble on me. I mean, it’s just a lot of time to map out, a lot of moving parts, a lot of content to work through. When she offered me the gig, I remembered thinking, “20 minutes? That is a long time to be on stage. I feel like I should bring the audience some magazines or something.” You know where this is going: I said yes anyway.
Then something strange happened. Or more accurately didn’t happen. In the week of the show, I didn’t feel nervous. Just excited. The day of the show: not nervous, just excited. They called my name, and I walked to the stage, just excited to be there. The butterflies were gone. And I have not felt them since.
A simple pattern of making decisions out of courage instead of out of fear actually rewired my physiology. I have spoken to audiences of over a thousand, and I’m as relaxed as if I’m having a conversation with a friend. And let me tell you, it’s a lot of fun to share a message with an audience when you’re hot nervous. You get to really just enjoy all the fun aspects of the speaking environment. A booming microphone. A professionally-lit stage. An audience ready to hear the message. It’s a blast.
But I didn’t know any of that when I started. Which is why I’m telling you so I can save you time.
If any of the techniques I teach in the free video series Overcome Public Speaking Fear (A Comedic Guide) help you jump onto your stage, I’ll be so happy to have been able to give you the tiny nudge you needed.
If you’d like to overcome your public speaking discomfort and be completely comfortable while delivering presentations, check out the free video series Overcome Public Speaking Fear (A Comedic Guide).