The emotional journey of fear? – Where does the fear of speaking in public come from?

I’m Anne and I get to hear a lot of amazing presentations in my day to day as a Public Speaking Coach. I specialize in communication in multicultural and multilingual environments which brings an added challenge and fear to the way you prepare for and deliver a presentation.

I have become curious about the origins of this fear and I currently spend some of my free time researching this phenomenon and having conversations with professionals about it.

Before moving on I think it’s important to first clarify the concept of Public Speaking means:

“Communicating something in an organised way to a group of people. It’s an art we can all learn to master by practising, finding our style and expanding our comfort zone. Like any art, it takes time and practice. Speaking in public cannot be learnt by reading a book or taking a written test. Same as you won´t learn how to drive a car or play the piano by reading a book, neither can you learn how to speak confidently. “

My observations on Fear

Over the last 12 years of repeatedly seeing the same problems and working on overcoming them with my clients, I have been able to define the three steps that one can go through in the journey of navigating through the discomfort of speaking in front of an audience. 

It doesn’t matter if you are a Junior Developer, a Senior Solutions Architect, a Data Scientist or in HR, Sales or Legal. These phases are common to human behaviour.

  • Fear of being different
  • Fear of being seen
  • Fear of making a fool of yourself
  • Fear of not being liked
  • Fear of getting a blank mind
  • Fear of… (and the list goes on)

Once you have identified the presence of fear, the key is to start comfortable feeling it.

The emotional journey in 3 steps:

1) Fear of speaking in public is paralysing.

2) Survive your presentations and learn to detect and manage that fear.

3) Enjoy your presentations and start feeling comfortable feeling the fear.

This emotional journey is a long windy road (on average 4-6 months) with numerous speed crashes and collisions. There is no shortcut or quick fix. 

Money has no magical effect here either. Just by paying for the most expensive Public Speaking course or coach for sessions, you won’t break through this fear either.

This journey is intense and you can definitely notice the physiological and physical effects along the way. I say it’s the pain of breaking through your comfort zone. 

The good news is that it is a feasible option for everyone. Any age, gender, economic background, religion, location or social class. Any human who is ready to look in the mirror and face their fear.

Where does this fear come from? 

In primary or secondary school, do you remember having to speak in public and present something in front of your class and teacher or perhaps an examiner? If so, how often?

Do you remember having a class on “How to speak in public?”

Did anyone ever teach you how to prepare for a presentation?

The answer to these 3 questions very often is NO, NO & NO.

Things are now changing in the education system (YAYYY!). Now children are taught how to prepare presentations, how to speak about emotions and how to handle them. 

I don’t think I’ve ever heard people of my generation, that some teacher actually showed them how to prepare a presentation yet alone speak about the emotional rollercoaster of standing up and speaking up in front of an audience.

So it’s quite normal that we can still feel the horror of having to talk in front of a scary audience. That nauseous feeling in the stomach. I can still feel the tension in my body just recapping my memory of having to do so.

I had to call my mum whilst writing this article and ask for some specific details of HOW and WHY exactly I ended up speaking in front of an examiner who was assessing my speaking skills at the age of 9. I think my mind must have erased part of the experience out of sheer horror or fear. 

Let me tell you my story.

Our school, St Anthony’s College, a British international school on the south coast of Spain, had yearly examinations through Trinity College. The examiners would come from the UK and I remember I took 2 golf clubs to the exam to show a quick demo of how to play golf and I had memorized a short poem “5 minutes more”. 

I was 8 or 9 at the time. I also remember crying at home with my mum trying to memorize that stupid poem. I had only started in St. Anthony’s 3 years before, English was my third language. I can´t remember how good my English was, so my mum filled me in. I was struggling, but so were the other international kids, those whose mother tongue was not English either.

When will you speak in front of an audience?

Schools CAN indeed help you become a more confident speaker. It can and should be taught to kids by teachers. 

But I truly believe that this can be cultivated through non-threatening activities. These Trinity College exams I´ve just mentioned were 110% threatening.

Other than raising your hand to respond to a question in class or engage in group work, many students don´t need to speak in public or out loud. The only opportunity they get is if they are part of extracurricular activities such as drama, debate clubs, sports or social clubs. Or perhaps they are involved in some activities or games at home with the families such as telling jokes or even playing charades.

What about when growing up to de young adults?

Then the children grow up and go either to work or to university. Here I´ll ask again. 

Did you have projects where you had to present in front of your year, lecturers or examiners?

At university, I was lucky as I did, from day 1. 

We had to present in front of our class. PowerPoints had just come out. They made presenting so much easier. Our style was to do a text dump on the slide and be ready to present. So we thought at the time. We knew nothing better.

Text dump or not, by doing on average 5-8 presentations a month for 3,5 years including my thesis presentation, allowed me to quite comfortably navigate the discomfort and also to be comfortable being a bit nervous. 

That memorable first presentation

I still remember my favourite presentation I did in English Communication class in 2005. I presented Disney and Mickey Mouse. I nailed the presentation and I loved it. What had changed from the days of text dumping and reading your slides a few semesters before? 

Firstly I had a topic I loved! Secondly, I used images instead of text. Mickey mouse rocks!

Nowadays

Even to this day, I still have the butterflies in my stomach when I am about to go and speak in public. I´ve learned to manage and feel comfortable with my fear, emotions and nerves. The accelerated heartbeat is just there to remind me alive and motivated.

How about at work? 

Have you had any training on how to prepare presentations or speak and engage with your audience? 

The better question would be, do you have time allocated to prepare for the presentations?

Usually,  in your second or third job (for some the 5th or 6th) employers expect professionals to have excellent verbal communication skills. 

If they were not taught at school, not at university, you were never the football team or chess club captain during your studies. 

Where do you learn to master “The Art of Public Speaking”? 

How can the system expect the children, the young and the adults to excel at something that was never taught?

Where do you learn to be that confident professional who people look up to and say “They do it so naturally?”

Do you believe that some are born with a natural talent for speaking in public?

Final words

Taught or not, public speaking is a skill that can be learned by doing. 

Whether in your mother tongue or second language, communication is part of you, your style, and your branding out there in the world. 

Public speaking in my eyes is so much more than just some PowerPoint slides and a text dump. It’s like a tango with the audience. 

Finding ways of connecting with them. 

So why are we so scared of that?

Can you imagine being excited to go and talk to “them” and just share your goodness, know-how and knowledge? 

P.s. If you feel completely stuck when speaking in front of audiences, why not lighten it up a little by presenting yourself a little differently.

Here is a TECH PROFESSIONAL’S GUIDE TO CATCHY INTRODUCTIONS THAT CONNECT AND CREATE CURIOSITY.

Cheers,

Anne

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FREE BRAND NEW MASTERCLASS: Story-Teching Your Way into the Audience’s Emotions