Chris Anderson: Why Is Public Speaking So Scary?

Why is public speaking so scary? Why are so many people terrified of addressing a large audience?

According to Chris Anderson, the head of TED and the author of TED Talks, 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.

Here’s why we are so terrified of public speaking and what to do about it.

Why Is Public Speaking So Scary?

Public speaking used to be reserved for politicians, activists, and academics. But today, 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.

Why is public speaking so scary though? According to Chris Anderson, adrenalin comes with the territory—it’s normal to feel fear and anxiety when the stakes are high. And while the fear of public speaking is normal and common, it 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 good public speaking.

Fight the Fear 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.

Managing the In-the-Moment Fear

Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or not, Anderson says adrenaline comes with the territory. He explains that adrenaline gives you energy and animates your voice, which can be great for your speech. However, in large doses, it can also make you shaky, give you dry mouth, and cause anxiety. The following are ways that Anderson says you can manage your adrenaline and project confidence:

1) If your adrenaline is high enough to make you shaky, do something physical to get rid of the excess.

2) Five minutes before you speak, drink five or six ounces of water. This is enough to keep dry mouth at bay but not enough to fill your bladder. (Shortform note: Even if you’re hydrated, your mouth can still get dry because of nerves. For the stage, experts recommend that you stick to flat, room temperature water.)

3) In the minutes before speaking, focus on your breathing. Make sure the oxygen is going all the way down into your stomach (shallow breathing does more harm than good) and hold it for a moment or two before exhaling. (Shortform note: Too much oxygen in the blood raises its pH and leads to dizziness, tingling, anxiety, and chest pain. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, breathe into a paper bag or hold your breath for a few seconds before exhaling.) If all else fails (you begin stuttering or your mind goes blank), Anderson says to simply tell the audience you’re nervous. They want to root for you, and admitting that you’re experiencing nerves only makes you more relatable. (Shortform note: Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous, and those who are liars.” Nobody in the audience is going to judge you for feeling nervous.)

Chris Anderson: Why Is Public Speaking So Scary?

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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