October 16, 2019 ~ 4 min read

Overcoming fear of speaking by putting in your reps

Weekly TipsSpeaking

Public speaking is the number 1 most common fear, more common than fear of death.

I was just speaking with Matt Broberg from OpenSource.com, and he told me that the first time he had to get up in front of coworkers and speak, he almost fainted. He couldn't get a word out.

I've seen other people freeze when asked simply to introduce themselves, barely able to speak.

But here's the amazing thing - all of those people overcame their fears. And it didn't take magic.

It took the simple act of repetition.

Everyone can overcome fear of speaking

When I spoke with Matt, he was about to go lead a workshop in front of a large group of strangers at a conference. And he was not afraid.

When I was active in Toastmasters, I saw people go from being unable to introduce themselves to giving 5-7 minute pre-planned speeches.

And while my personal story starts in a less dramatic way, I've gone from feeling uncomfortable speaking in small group settings to giving talks and leading panels in front of hundreds.

And there is no secret - the transformation comes through the simple act of repetition, particularly in safe and supportive environments.

Habituation: How exposure works

Repetition works through a fundamental psychological attribute called habituation.

When we are afraid of something, like public speaking, our body's fight or flight response is activated. Our blood pressure rises, our pulse races, and we want to freeze, lash out, or run away.

But this reaction is very hard on our body (not to mention our emotional state). It's not adaptive to trigger it all the time. So we have evolved a way to tone it down.

Every time we do something that scares us and nothing bad happens, our fear reduces. It's as if our body or mind is saying "hey, that wasn't so bad... maybe I don't have to freak out quite so much".

This automatic response is at the root of exposure therapy, which is used to combat serious mental health challenges like OCD and PTSD, and it's the root of how you can get better at public speaking.

By finding a safe and supportive environment to practice and deliberately speaking again and again, you will get more comfortable in speaking.

Finding a safe environment

The 'safe and supportive' part of this is key.

Sure, once you are super comfortable as a speaker then criticism and harsh feedback may help you improve, but when your body and mind are freaking out about just getting in front of people, you don't need that.

So find a group of people you can trust. I always recommend Toastmasters for this because the entire organization is designed to be supportive of people learning to speak in front of others, but there are plenty of options.

If your workplace is supportive, you can start there. If not, find a local meetup group; they are always looking for speakers and most are extremely supportive.

Whatever it is, if you feel safe, you'll feel better able to get up and do the work.

Stage time, stage time, stage time

There is nothing that will improve your speaking more than doing it. And time "on stage" is an order of magnitude more powerful for helping you learn and grow than time "in practice".

There's a great speaker & teacher named Darren LaCroix who emphasizes this a ton. It's the advice given to new stand-up comics, and it's the advice I now give to everyone who is learning to speak.

The more you get on stage, the faster you will improve.

It's a lot like working out. Yes, there are techniques you can learn that will help. And those make a huge difference, especially as you advance further in skill.

But at the root of getting stronger, there is no substitute for putting in your reps.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.