Three Misconceptions about Public Speaking Anxiety that May Be Hurting You

I’ve often wondered how many fine speeches go undelivered, and how many smart people go unnoticed because they fear getting up in front of a group to speak. In this post, I’d like to point out some misconceptions that may be holding them back from their true potential.

Mistake #1: You think you get more nervous than everyone else before a presentation or a speech. Sure, it’s common knowledge that public speaking is the top fear in America today, just behind death. (As Seinfeld said in one of his sketches, that means that if you’re at a funeral, you’re better off being in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.) But that common knowledge does not comfort you; you see others confidently taking control of the stage and compare yourself unfavorably. They might get a little nervous, but they don’t suffer the pangs of anxiety that fill your mind in those excruciating minutes before it’s your turn to speak; they don’t know the doubts that bounce around in your brain the night before the big presentation; they’re not wrestling with the real possibility that your throat will constrict and squeeze the first words out of your mouth into a high-pitched squeak.

The real truth is that everyone does get nervous. I’ve made my living speaking to groups for 20 years, and I still get nervous. Some of the best-known actors and performers have struggled with stage fright throughout their distinguished careers, among them Barbra Streisand and Harrison Ford. Cicero, one of the greatest orators in history, said: “I turn pale at the outset of a speech and quake in every limb and in all my soul.” Mark Twain said “There are two kinds of speakers: those who are nervous and those who are liars.”

Mistake #2: Everyone will be able to tell how nervous you are. Because you’re the expert (otherwise, someone else would be the speaker that day) and you’re well prepared (right?), you may be more concerned about appearing nervous than about flubbing your material. They will notice your rapid shallow breathing and hear your heart beating right out of your chest, and that will make them doubt you and mistrust your message.

The real truth is that you seriously overestimate the extent to which others can tell your internal feelings. Your feelings are perfectly obvious to you, but they are hidden inside your mind—they don’t leak out nearly as much as you might think. It’s called the illusion of transparency, like when you look through a mirrored window—although you know you can see out but others can’t see in, it still feels like they may be looking right at you.  Studies show that speakers rate themselves as more nervous than the audience thinks they are. In some of those same studies, researchers have found that merely informing speakers that their nervousness is not visible, often makes them feel less nervous. Consider yourself informed.

Mistake #3: Nervousness is bad. You think that your anxiety will keep you from performing at your best, which makes you even more anxious about your performance, which can lead to a vicious circle of doubt.

The truth is that your nervousness is a normal feeling of arousal in your mind that is helping you gear up for extraordinary performance. It’s a manifestation of the fight or flight syndrome, which turbocharges your body and primes your mind to perform at greater than normal levels. Nerves show that you care, and in fact, if you’re not nervous, that’s when you should be worried. Self-confidence may lead to complacency, which may have contributed to President Obama’s flat performance in his first debate. Embrace the feeling of nervousness before you get up to speak, be glad that you have that extra fuel that’s going to add energy to your speech and your gestures, and will actually make you look even more confident than you feel.

To sum up, your nervousness before a presentation is a secret asset that will make you a more forceful and dynamic speaker, as long as you view it properly. If this short post can convince one person to deliver a speech in site of their fear, it will be more than worth  it.


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