The Led Zepplin song “Stairway to Heaven” makes me emotionally schizophrenic. It reminds me of the first time I ever purposely mustered up enough courage to manage a deep rooted fear. Back in middle school when we had our first dance, I really wanted to dance with a girl named Kristen. I had been so excited at the prospect of slow dancing with her that I could not wait for Friday night to arrive. However, after my mother dropped me off (far away from anyone’s view of course), I entered the disco ball lit cafeteria and I froze with fear. What if Kristen didn’t want to dance with me? What if I stepped on her toes? On the other hand, what if she did want to dance? What if she did like me? I was struck by the fear of all the things that could go wrong, as well as all the things that could go right!
My fear was almost paralyzing. I’m not sure if it was the hormones or just plain insanity, but I did ask her to dance, and she said “yes”…whew. That experience not only ignited my desire to attend more dances, but it also led to my life-long desire to understand fear, particularly public-speaking anxiety. Throughout my career, I have been fascinated both with the study of fear and the courage required to overcome it. Here, I provide some practical guidance on how simple courageous acts can help people manage their fear of speaking in public.
Courage has many facets and phases. We most often see courage as a one-act wonder – the firefighters who run into a burning building, the lone protestor who stands before an oncoming tank. However, these acts of courage represent only a small percentage of all of the courageous behaviors performed each day. More often, courage is about persistence in the face of fear and resistance. I deeply respect my students and consulting clients who are willing to challenge their fear of speaking in public — a fear that haunts over 85% of Americans and is rated “the #1 fear people have.” Even attempting to battle speaking anxiety is truly admirable.
It’s important to remember that speaking anxiety is not binary. There is no on-off switch. People don’t report feeling extremely nervous, perform some magical behavior, and then never feel nervous again. As with addressing any other fear, managing speaking anxiety can be a long, arduous process. There are often set backs and dead ends before real progress is made. In the book, Switch, Dan and Chip Heath (authors of the must read Made to Stick) argue that successful change can only occur if you create an expectation of failure at the beginning of the process. Let me be clear – the Heath brothers are not suggesting that you should expect to fail to achieve your goal. Rather, you should expect that failures will occur along the way to reaching your goal. To my mind, truly courageous people are those who experience countless failures and continue to persist, trying new techniques, combining techniques, re-thinking situations, etc. Courageous speakers recognize that trial and error are simply part of the process.
Courage not only allows us to continually confront our fear of public-speaking, but recent research suggests that acting courageously actually reduces your fear. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science found that when people act courageously in the face of fear, they dampen their anxiety response. So when confronted with a speech, you can volunteer to go first or challenge yourself to present in a new way. These simple acts of courage will reduce your anxiety levels and bolster your confidence.
Courage is implicated in another anxiety management technique. Too often, speakers focus on what they need to say, regardless of the audience. The better, more compelling approach is to focus on what the audience needs to hear. While speaking can be great talk therapy for the speaker, a huge opportunity is missed if speakers fail to give their audience the right information. Yet, it takes great courage to move away from being self-focused to audience-focused. It is hard and uncomfortable, while in the grip of fear, to say “I am here for you. I want you – my audience – to get something of value from me.” We can accomplish this courageous audience-centric shift in three ways. First, we take the time to understand our audience, their needs, and their expectations prior to constructing our presentations. Second, we connect our content to our audience by using relevant, understandable evidence. Third, we take questions when we are done speaking to allow our audience to validate their understanding or correct any confusion.
Clinical practice and academic research have repeatedly shown that marshaling courage is one of the most powerful tools for managing speaking anxiety. Much like I did when I got up the nerve to ask a classmate to dance, I challenge you to muster your courage to confront and address your public speaking fears.