Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

“Overcome Your Fears and Speak Effectively,” was an article published in The Toronto Sun on June 23, 2010. The article quipped about how Jerry Seinfeld joked, “Most people would prefer to be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.”

This is so true! I have had the privilege of teaching, coaching, and judging public speaking in the United States for the past 17 years. I have witnessed students vomit, start crying, pass out, and run out of the class. One time, I thought a student was having a heart attack so I called 911 (Emergency number for the US), and within 5 minutes the Los Angeles City Fire Department (Engine, and Ambulance) were parked with sirens blaring in front of my building at Los Angeles Valley College while the emergency technicians stormed into my room…. After caring for the student and diagnosing him not to be having a heart attack, the paramedic turned to me, and very professorially said, “Did you know that public speaking is the greatest fear in life? Your student is having an anxiety attack because of the speech he has to do for this class” …I could go on all day about students being scared! However, I could also go on all day about students overcoming their fears, and successfully standing up and speaking.

When a student takes the time to get proactive with managing their nerves more often than not, he or she is successful. The very first step in controlling fear – as I have told every class, and every client I have ever taught for the past 17 years — is preparation!

If you are prepared, you are still going to be nervous, but your nervousness is going to be controlled because you will be able to lean on the fact that you are prepared.   Preparation equals confidence!  The above mentioned Sun article reads, “Overcoming fear of public speaking requires practice.” I could not agree more.

Often public speaking is referred to as “platform speaking,” this is because one of the many different definitions for the word platform (if you have a good dictionary), is preparation! The word platform, when regarding public speaking means “to prepare on all levels.”   The foundation of any successful public speakers platform is practice!

If you are prepared on all levels, and you have made your practice a priority – you will still be nervous, but you will be in control.   Your nervousness will be countered with the confidence that can only be created by being prepared.

I’m speech coach Duane Smith. I have served groups and individuals in the corporate and academic areas develop and improve their public speaking skills. I'm also a tenured public speaking professor at Los Angeles Valley College.

8 Comments on “Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking

  1. “Practice makes better”
    This article explains the common responses that people have while being under pressure because of public speaking. People always hear that the number one fear is indeed public speaking, but no one really believes it or takes it seriously until they actually have to speak and present in front of an audience. It is very different from just hearing these scenarios and actually experiencing them. I definitely do believe public speaking is the number one fear. Being under pressure and put on spot in front of an audience, whether the audience is 1 person or 1,000 people, presenting to the audience can definitely cause anxiety attacks, mental breakdowns, vomiting, and running out of the class. I believe having that pressure put on someone all at once is the cause of panic because they feel as though they will do something wrong and embarrass themselves in front of their audience or instructor as well. I think the article proves an amazing point stating that preparation is the biggest key to public speaking. Being prepared can be such a success not only towards public speaking, but also any other subject or performance someone has. Knowing that you have a big exam coming up can cause panic attacks and anxiety, but if you prepare ahead of time and know that you are prepared for the test, you will be less worried and have less anxiety when the test comes around. Same goes for public speaking. If you know you have a speech to present and you know you haven’t prepared and have no clue what you are going to speak about, guarantee you will have panic and anxiety attacks and run out of the class. But if you take the time to prepare and keep practicing there will be a more controlled nervousness, like the article mentioned. Practice makes better, the more you practice the better you’ll be.

  2. Be Youself

    What are your thoughts on the topic? What did you think of the article?
    Public speaking is nerve wracking and effects a lot of individuals due to the nervousness and shy to speak. Overcoming your fears is a great success and achievement. Depending on the individual if they are shy to speak it is an amazing feeling to get over your fear of public speaking but for those individuals that are social amongst others as well as in a large crowed they do not have a problem amongst public speaking. Great written article, and I learned that about all the different types of emotions individuals get in front of class from tears, screaming, and vomiting. The more you communicate with individuals the more you get comfortable and can talk for several minutes without any hesitation. When it comes to public speaking that is my only struggle. I learned that you must learn the audience and get the attention and do anything that it takes for you to be comfortable and professional. This article explains a lot from all the effects speakers get and how to prepare yourself. Speakers are all different and they have their own way of presenting. Practice is the key and the more you practice the more you become comfortable and you know what to say. Researchers have said looking in the mirror and presenting your speech to yourself at least four to five times a day helps you get over your fear. For others, cramming all the information the morning of the presentation will help them. We all get nervous but to control it is the key.

    • Elias_Musallam
      I agree that public speaking is nerve wracking and that it does definitely affect us as individuals both mentally and emotionally. And overcoming this fear of public speaking is a tough aspect to achieve but it is definitely achievable, with the right amount of practice and dedication, and of course work ethic. I agree that this article was greatly written and truly inspired me to become more prepared and believe in myself more because no one is going to do better for me than myself. It does take time and hard work to get to where one needs to be, but it is definitely capable and doable, with the right amount of practice. Practice really does make better, and the more you practice the better you will get whether it is for a speech, or a test, or an interview, or anything else. It can really relate to almost anything and everything.

  3. “Overcoming your fears. Period”

    This article accurately surveys the various biological responses experienced under the pressure of public speaking. These range from mild elevation in heart rate to full on anxiety attacks as was experienced by one of Professor Smith’s students. What triggers these physiological responses to the stimuli presented by performing a speech in front of an audience and how can one overcome them? That is the intention of a speech class such as communications 101. Several methods exist for overcoming fears, these methods can be observed in treatments addressing phobias, although treatments range in degree of exposure, fundamentally, these techniques simply aid the afflicted in “getting over it”. If interpreted simply, stimulus is interpreted by the human brain when it is novel, once the stimulus persists and the brain adequately assesses it, it becomes background noise, similar to noticing when the air conditioning unit powers on but tuning out it’s sound within a few minutes. Using this knowledge in the approach to overcoming fear of public speaking, one simply needs to become so accustomed to and comfortable with the stimulus experienced during speech performance, it lowers to ignorable background levels. Anxiety then becomes a secondary issue whose manifestation is contingent on the presenter’s level of comfort with giving a speech. However, secondary variables can affect a presenter’s experience during a speech presentation, leading to a net negative experience which in the future, memory of the event, can trigger anxiety. This is where risk mitigation comes into play, and Smith’s dogma of preparation proves essential. Preparation addresses most, if not all, potential issues which can arise and result in a humiliating, disempowering experience for the presenter. Given the direct relationship between a speech’s content and a presenter, any fault is perceived to be directly caused by an inept presenter. Partially, that may be so, after all the adage goes, “failing to prepare, is preparing to fail

  4. Let me start off my saying I HATE public speaking, every time I would look at what classes I need left and I would see speech, I would cringe of the though of taking the class. I would even tell myself I won’t finish college because I’m not about to take speech. I hate people looking at me and I can’t even stare someone in the eye when I’m talking to some one. I though I would be one of those people that cry because of my fear. When I did go up there I could not believe that I actually did it with out crying. I may not love public speaking but I can say that after taking your class and making us feel comfortable and teaching us so much. I feel like I’m able to go in front of a group and speak with a little fear.

  5. Personally, public speaking does not terrify me not more then death. Does it scare me sometimes when I anticipate I will be called on: yes! One thing that has helped me and I would recommend joining, is the organization Toastmasters. There are literally hundreds of thousands of clubs around the world. Some top companies make it mandatory for their CEO’s and employees to attend. I have met doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, sales individuals, and performers through this organization. It is a great place to network as well. I have become less scared to public speak since I joined a year ago because I practice getting up in front of professionals every week. The people that are in my club are very supportive and non-judgmental. However, they do give me feedback on what I did well and what I can improve on.
    On another note if you think you are the only one scared to public speak or perform. You are not alone! Did you know that top performers are people too, and they get terrified? Just a few of the performers who state they get the willies from performing include: Barbara Streisand, Megan Fox, Hayden Panettiere, Adele, Brian Wilson, Karen Elson, Amanda Seyfried, Annie Lenox, Steven Fry, Ella Fitzgerald, Carly Simon, Cher, Tom Yorke, and Fiona Apple. That was just to name a few but there are hundreds of performers who are scared to get up in front of people. So you are not alone if you think you are the only one. Adele told rolling stone 2012 “I’m scared of audiences. I get s@#$&y scared. One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple times. Once in Brussels, I projectile- vomited on someone. I just got to bear it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.” I think it scares everyone to perform in front of others. What makes them so successful and to be able to speak and perform in front of thousands “Lip reading.” Just kidding it is practice and preparation they use their fears to drive passion instead of freezing up. As Duane puts it public speaking is the number one most important thing in life that will directly predict your future success.

    • I know that lots of people are scared of public speaking but I never thought performers and actors are also scared. Adele OMG I could not believe that; she is such a great singer a person I would never think that would be afraid of such a thing. When Mr. Smith told up about CEO’s passing out I was also so shocked these people make millions and never thought they would be scared. Well I never knew public speaking was that terrifying but I guess it is. Especially after seeing have our class drop out the day are speeches started.

    • Eric_Lavin
      That is very interesting that public speaking does not terrify you more than death, because almost half this world is the complete opposite! But that is truly amazing and such a gift that you are not afraid of public speaking! I also agree that yes the thought of public speaking definitely scares and anticipates me as well. I also loved your story about the clubs you have joined and what you had to do and what you had to go through within those organizations. I also knew about what Adele told Rolling Stone and I believe that is incredible that such a successful artist still gets terrified in front of audiences. It really does make us feel like we are not alone.

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