How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "TED Talks" by Chris Anderson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have a fear of public speaking? Why is public speaking so scary?

Almost everyone fears public speaking. In fact, multiple surveys list it as people’s number one fear—more common than a fear of heights, snakes, and even death. According to Chris Anderson, the author of TED Talks, the fear of public speaking is normal, but it must be overcome if you want to be successful in any professional endeavor.

Here’s how to overcome the fear of public speaking, according to Anderson.

Why Is Public Speaking So Scary?

Anderson says the fear of public speaking is two-fold: There is the in-the-moment fear of temporary humiliation—stumbling over words, forgetting what to say, and so on. Then there is the long-term fear of a damaged reputation. Most people care deeply about what others think of them, and they worry that a public flop will change the way they’re viewed. While these fears are normal and common, Anderson stresses that they must be overcome. Why? Because you’ll likely have to speak publicly at some point, whether you fear it or not, so you might as well reap the rewards of doing it well.

Public speaking used to be reserved for politicians, activists, and academics. But today, Anderson says, almost everyone has to speak publicly on occasion. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be on a stage in front of a crowd (although that might happen too). Rather, public speaking might look like addressing your company at an all-hands meeting, presenting your expertise at a conference, or speaking on an online platform. Anderson describes public speaking as any situation where you’re formally addressing others—and in a world that’s becoming increasingly collaborative, there’s no escaping it.

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking: Fight It on Two Fronts

If you have an intense fear of public speaking, psychologists recommend that you attack the speech and the fear separately. Attack the speech by preparing as much as you possibly can—practice the words and movements, and visualize yourself delivering the speech successfully. This is not enough in itself, however: Thorough preparation won’t eliminate the fear of speaking.

For this reason, you must attack the fear by learning how to manage your emotions—for example, if you tend to become overly energized with adrenaline, make a plan for how you’ll handle that excess energy before speaking. If you tend to get light-headed, practice breathing exercises and make sure you eat beforehand. 

If you try to suppress your fear, your anxiety is likely to increase. Accepting that you will feel fear allows you to manage it.

Anderson asserts that by learning to speak effectively, you’ll experience greater confidence and success—particularly in your professional life. Great public speaking has the power to influence. With the right presentation, your ideas can spread like wildfire and inspire positive change. 

In addition, when you share your expertise and unique way of thinking, Anderson says new opportunities will find their way to you. The ability to influence others combined with a constant flow of opportunities is a recipe for professional and personal success.

(Shortform note: Communication is one of the most sought-after skills in the workforce. In addition to the benefits that Anderson lists here, it’s also valuable because effective speaking results in fewer misunderstandings and better outcomes. If, at the end of your presentation, your colleagues or employees know exactly what to do and are fired up, they’re likely to complete their assigned task with quality and enthusiasm.) 

So how do you master the art of public speaking? Anderson says the first step is to face your fear by demystifying common misconceptions. 

Misconceptions and Their Truths

Misconception: Great public speakers are eloquent and perfectly polished.

Truth: Incredible speeches can be delivered in a conversational style.

Anderson says if you can talk to your friends at a dinner party, you can speak publicly. He stresses that being yourself is crucial if you want people to listen. The second an audience senses inauthenticity, you’ve lost them. This is good news—it means you can unburden yourself of the expectation that every word must be powerful and perfect. 

(Shortform note: Being overly formal in a speech is generally frowned upon, which is why there are resources to help speakers develop a more conversational style. One tip this video offers is to write your speech as if you’re talking with a friend or colleague whom you deeply respect—you won’t be too casual, but you also won’t speak as if you’re addressing the President.) 

Misconception: You need to have a stage and an audience to be a public speaker.

Truth: The internet is a universal stage available to anyone, and there’s always an audience waiting.

You don’t have to be a keynote speaker at a large event to make an impact. Anderson says that the internet is the largest stage there is, and with it come infinite platforms and diverse audiences. Whatever you’d like to speak about, you can.

(Shortform note: Most of the advice in this book is directed toward in-person speaking (and digital recordings of those speeches) although Anderson does acknowledge online platforms. Online public speaking is so common that it now has a name—digital oratory—and it’s being taught as a skill in all levels of education. Synchronous speaking refers to streaming live to an audience, while asynchronous speaking is recording, editing, and uploading your speech to the internet.)

Misconception: To be worthy of a public speech, your idea must be revolutionary.

Truth: Small but meaningful ideas and observations have value.

You don’t need to have the vision of Steve Jobs or the experiences of Nelson Mandela to be worthy of public speaking. Anderson says the most impactful talks are often ones that tweak the way we view the world, or simply highlight its beauty. Planting curiosity is just as valuable as upending someone’s worldview—so don’t use the excuse of being ordinary as a reason not to speak.

(Shortform note: People love to learn—in fact, neuroscientists have shown that humans receive a rush of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) in their brains when they learn something new. In Talk Like TED, communications coach Carmine Gallo says that if you can teach your audience something new, they’ll link what you say to their positive emotions and be more receptive to your ideas. As Anderson notes, this doesn’t mean the idea needs to be new to the world; it need only be new to your audience.) 

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chris Anderson's "TED Talks" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full TED Talks summary :

  • A nuts-and-bolts guide to public speaking that takes you from the initial idea to your final bow
  • TED curator Chris Anderson's public speaking advice on everything from scripting to wardrobe
  • A comparison of Anderson's advice to that of other public speaking experts

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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