Why are many people afraid of public speaking, and what can be done about it? Ros and Neil Johnson, speech and drama specialists at Theatresaurus explain.
The fear of public speaking is known as glossophobia. According to one estimate, 74 per cent of people suffer from various forms of this phobia and ten per cent of people are genuinely terrified. The fear of public speaking is the number one phobia in America and is more common than the fear of heights or the fear of snakes, which rank two and three respectively.
The symptoms of glossophobia
Symptoms of glossophobia range from knots in the stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaky legs and tightness in the throat. In extreme cases, sufferers experience nausea, panic attacks and excessive anxiety. Glossophobics will therefore go to great lengths to avoid speaking in public.
Most of these symptoms are due to the increase in adrenaline produced by our bodies because we are experiencing the flight-or-fight reaction. The concerns we have before a speech or presentation – worrying what people will think of us, worrying that we will stumble over the words or forget what to say – are enough to trigger the natural or instinctive reaction to run away.
Once we can learn to control these feelings and conquer the urge to flee the perceived danger, we can begin to enjoy the process of public speaking.
Many famous people have had a fear of public speaking
Many famous people have suffered from glossophobia, including actors, politicians and even presidents. Some notable examples are Renée Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Sigmund Freud and Thomas Jefferson. At some point, they all mention actually going out of their way to avoid speaking in public. One extreme case was Gandhi. According to an article in The Atlantic, Gandhi was due to be speaking in a court and only managed to say the first sentence of his speech before he dried up and an assistant stepped in and finished the speech for him. They have all had to devise strategies for overcoming this fear.
Take a breath
Breathing is a very important factor in overcoming the nervousness caused by the increase of adrenaline. Excess adrenaline makes us breathe shallowly, i.e., in the top part of our lungs, and too rapidly.
How to help yourself relax and control your breathing
Relaxation and breathing techniques are invaluable when trying to calm your nerves. When we are nervous, we often take shallow breaths. This leads to added anxiety, so slowing down our breathing and learning to relax are invaluable.
Make sure you know your subject
This may sound obvious, but it is important that you are confident in your subject. Plan your speech, practise it, say it out loud. Imagine a positive outcome of the speech. This will help you get into the right frame of mind for the speech you are about to make.
Practise again and again, and learn the points where you need to use emphasis or pauses. Mark them on your speech in a clear and precise way.
Take the stage like an actor
Actors will spend a few minutes before going on stage working out where they have just come from as a character and what they have been doing. This distraction takes their minds off their concerns about their performance.
The same habit can work for someone just about to speak in public. By spending a few minutes before your speech thinking about the positive aspects of what you are about to do, you can take your mind off worrying about your performance. So you might ask: What will be the outcome of my speech for my audience? What will I have achieved by giving it? You can then take the positive emotions these questions evoke onto the stage. The emotion may be excitement or a sense of fulfilment, but the effect is the same in that it will create a distraction and provide an outlet for your adrenaline.
Do some gentle exercise
A short burst of physical exercise is another good way of countering the effect of the adrenaline that our bodies are expecting to use in our muscles.
Make adrenaline your friend
A final thought from an article in Forbes from 2011: ‘Make adrenaline your friend because it makes your body and brain work better’. Once you get used to controlling your adrenaline, you can then make sure you always have enough to give your speech or performance that extra boost, but not so much that it makes you feel like running away.
Ros and Neil Johnson are founders of Theatresaursus, which runs Shakespeare workshops, drama courses and holiday courses. This blog post is an edited version of an article which appeared on the British Council Voices magazine on the 10th October 2016.