Leading Blog


Afraid of Public Speaking? You Should Be

Afraid of Public Speaking

RECEIVED WISDOM is that public speaking is one of people’s greatest fears. But the Chapman University Survey of American Fears (yes, that’s a thing) — the gold standard for fear assessment — doesn’t seem to agree. In the 2020–2021 findings, public speaking is fear #54 on the list, scoring lower than another pandemic (#6), identity theft (#21), and even sharks (#51).

This seems reasonable. You should be more afraid of pollution (#9) than giving a toast at your best friend’s wedding — though the obvious connection between the two (cocaine, hairspray, tik-tok based dances) — need not be underestimated.

It never really made sense to me that public speaking caused this much fear in a world filled with so many things to be fearful of. So I was naturally relieved to see in my research that most Americans were plump with the same anxieties that actually keep me up at night.

Make no mistake — public speaking put in a great showing. It’s basically the only work-related fear that even makes the top 100, other than the quirky “fear of being caught in an embarrassing zoom moment” (#87) — a perfect distillation of the pandemic’s mental health hangover if there ever was one. Thanks, Toobin.

But does that mean that public speaking is no longer something to be afraid of? Does this mean that if you fear getting up on stage or Zoom or leading a meeting — assuming you’re fully clothed — that you should be derided like someone with a debilitating fear of clowns (#94)? Or does this mean that you don’t have anything to worry about if you’re pursuing a career path that involves public communication and effective persuasion?

Au contraire. You should be afraid of public speaking. Very afraid.

I’ve been a paid, professional public speaker for the last 20 years and have coached many executives/founders on their speaking skills. I have seen firsthand the fear that grips newbies or professional aspirants as they work to master the skills of the stage. Whether they are doing their first TEDx talk or just trying to scale the leadership ladder at work, they almost always feel fear and anxiety about the effort.

And I’ve heard, hundreds of times, people saying, “I want to be confident and unafraid of public speaking” when asked about their goals.

Yet, this is impossible. Unless you’re a sociopath — and if you are, stop tracking my data (#17) — you should fear public speaking.

I still do.

You’d never be able to tell from my talks, but I get anxious every time I get up on stage. Hundreds of speeches, panels, and sessions later — most folks are shocked to hear this. “But you don’t look nervous,” they’ll say about my TED talks, or “I couldn’t even see you sweat,” they’ll intone if I wear dark colors. When working with me or taking my courses, they’ll try to emulate that cool, calm exterior — thinking it matches the interior monologue.

But the truth is that being afraid of public speaking is part of what makes me really great at it. I do two things with fear and anxious energy when I’m presenting, and you can too:

1. Lean into the fear.
2. Channel the fear in the right way.

Leaning into Fear

First and foremost, acknowledge that you’re going to be nervous/anxious/afraid, and that this is expected. Instead of trying to completely remove fear in the hour before a talk or pitch, I’ll focus my energy on using that nervous bubble to propel me forward. I know from experience that my fear and anxiety will subside by around 90 seconds into the presentation, and I’ll naturally pop into a “flow” state. Then, I won’t notice the room or my nerves or anything other than being one with the material and the audience. The anxiety is great fuel for success, and I know that as long as it doesn’t control me, I control it.

Channeling the Fear

Focusing the fear in the right way also tends to produce superior results. Most novice speakers are primarily afraid of forgetting the material. That is, getting up on stage, blanking on what they’re going to say next, and being embarrassed. This is the reason many newbies focus on scripting every word they’re going to say tightly — as if more and more and more anxious, angry work will produce optimal results. Spoiler: this never does.

But what experienced speakers know is that the “right” kind of fear in a talk is not the fear of forgetting the material but rather that the audience won’t pick up what you’re trying to say. That is, will you have persuaded them that your ideas matter, that you are credible, and that they can change their lives/the world with what you’ve told them? This is a great fear to have and means you care about what the audience gets from your work.

If you have a good technique for memorization (spoiler #2 — I teach a great one), over time, you’ll learn to feel that fear and direct it toward the audience and your delivery rather than toward the risk of something bad happening. This also tends to produce great results.

You should be afraid of public speaking, therefore, because it is a job with tremendous impact, and you have an obligation to deliver on that promise. After all, a room (or Zoom) full of people — on someone else’s advice — are giving you their attention for 20, 30, or even 60 minutes. They are there because they expect to be entertained and informed, and this is time they will never get back. It’s also a time when you’re able to plug directly into their minds in a way that is impossible in any other medium. The pores of their learning faculties are opened as wide as they will ever be, and you are the thick, delicious, intelligent moisturizer that’s going to plump their brains with knowledge and empowerment. Squandering this limited opportunity would be a waste. No matter how small the stage, or how familiar the audience, treating every talk as important — and every fear of failure as valid — is your opportunity to change the world.

Setting aside for a moment all the psychological explanations for why you might be afraid of public speaking, let’s just take it as a given that it is intimidating. Know that even experienced speakers feel some kind of anxiety, but that we’ve learned to harness it. Understand that there are skills you can use and techniques you can deploy to help you perform at your best, and that putting in the work to channel your fears and improve your communication skills will help. Maybe then you’ll be able to get your fear of speaking down to something more reasonable, like murder hornets (#77), ghosts (#88), or zombies (#89).

Really? Zombies?

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Leading Forum
Gabe Zichermann is an entrepreneur, author, investor, and leader whose books, speeches, and workshops focus on gamification and behavioral design. Companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon have adopted Gabe’s theories and practices, leading to significant revenue increases over time. A frequent keynote speaker and speaking coach, he’s helped hundreds of successful entrepreneurs, executives, and celebrities communicate beautifully in all settings. His new book is The A-ha! Method: Communicating Powerfully in a Time of Distraction. Learn more at gabezichermann.com

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