“I wish I could have the confidence to speak like you”

I remember initially responding to people with phrases like “you can do it, all it takes is passion and practice” or “just deep breathe and you are good to go”.

Years of one to one coaching and research on the anxiety that fuels this fear has helped me to change my approach. Primarily being more empathetic but also understanding where the problem arises from in order to be able to coach better.

For this article I want to talk about the main problems that stop people from being able to speak in public. I will follow up with another article to explain how we can approach tackling this.

Glossophobia or speech anxiety is the fear of public speaking or of speaking in general. Symptoms include severe anxiety before an event or physical events such as dry mouth, increased heart rate, sweaty palms and the stiffening of muscles. Often this anxiety can result in people speaking with tense or quivering voices and in some instances can result in nervous tics or vocalised pauses.

Whilst there is no conclusive data as to what causes glossophobia (in the US it ranks as bigger phobia than death or spiders, affecting some 75% of the population) here are some of the reasons that I, and some of my contemporaries, have found that cause this anxiety.

  1. Fear of failure
    When people see someone else delivering a polished presentation at business conferences or the ever popular TED, comparing oneself to such speakers can cause great anxiety. If we add to this an experiences in the past, whether as a child or adult, were a public speaking experience went wrong, this can sometimes reinforce those feeling of failure.
  2. Fear of being judged
    This one I see quite a lot when I work in academia. Some stellar teachers and lecturers who would normally wow a class of students suddenly freeze up when they are tasked to speak in front of their peers. A fear of judgment as to what they have to say can bring on serious speech anxiety.
  3. Fear of saying the wrong thing
    This is an interesting one. It is linked to both of the points made above in that being judged or failing can be because you said the wrong thing. Anxiety caused by not saying the right words effects many not just in public speaking to an audience, but I often find this what holds back a lot of people from attending networking events.
  4. Fear of the mind going blank.
    This is what I often call over thinking. When individuals overplay scenarios in their mind that they may forget everything they are going to say. Whether a high stakes presentation or not, this is a common reason why a number of clients I have worked with have seriously been afraid to speak in public.
  5. Bad preparation.
    This may not seem obvious but a lot of people feel anxious because they have not put in the time to actually prepare for a speech. This could be down to a number of reasons. Some procrastinate because they were too afraid to say no or just didn’t prepare because they had a heavy workload. Either way a lack of bad prep can cause serious anxiety.
    Take it from someone who had to learn the hard way, not to wing it.
  6. Worried as to how you come across
    Similar to point 2, worrying how one comes across can be quite debilitating. Often there are those who are comfortable in a one to one situation with friends and colleagues but put them in a larger environment and suddenly a wave of self consciousness washes over them.

So these are but a few of the actual problems that make people feel incredibly anxious about speaking in public. They affect a lot of people and not only manifest in keynote speeches but also sales presentations, networking events and high stake interviews. Getting to the bottom of this is important if you are working in a space where your authority and gravitas is important.

I will be sharing later on this week some of the ways managing such anxieties and becoming a better speaker in my next post.

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