-Learn to refocus your fear into something useful.

I was scared, nauseous and anxiety-ridden. Tomorrow I would give my first presentation in my college public speaking class.

When I first signed up for the course, I considered it a convenient option to fulfill a communications requirement for my business administration degree. Looking back, I had no idea how public speaking would affect my life.

I had a love/hate relationship with public speaking. I loved the thrill of speaking in public and at the same time, hated the fear it evoked in me. Because of public speaking, I decided to pursue an acting career after college (even though I had a business degree) until I realized it wasn’t the money-maker I had hoped for. 

On this particular day, my roommate who was naturally more relaxed than I was noticed my distress. “What’s the big deal?” she said. “It’s just a class.” Her detachment was like a bucket of ice water thrown in my face. it woke me up to how much pressure I had been putting on myself to perform well.


Performance anxiety is fear about your ability to perform a specific task. You worry about failing at something even before you start it. You dread failure because you believe it will result in rejection and humiliation.

Anxiety around public speaking is called stage fright. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects approximately 73% of the population. The National Social Anxiety Center says that the underlying fear is the potential judgment or negative evaluation by others.

In our careers and lives, we often have to give presentations. It could be for a sales, investor or idea pitch, a business briefing, accepting or presenting an award, or community outreach and intervention. Here is what I learned from my experiences as a professional actress which has served me well in public speaking and assuaging most types of fear:

The judgment game.
Psychologists generally believe that our judgment fears come from prehistoric times. Being part of a tribe was an essential survival skill to fend off predators and weather harsh elements. If the group rejected us, it most certainly would lead to death. Speaking to an audience makes us vulnerable to a different type of rejection. Unfortunately, this fear, if left unchecked doesn’t feel much less isolating or different.

When stressed, the fight, flight or freeze response in our brains activates changes in our bodies to protect us. Suppose something goes wrong in the middle of a presentation, like a technical glitch or forgetting the point we were trying to make. Without intervention, our brain may interpret these incidents as life threats that require urgent attention.

In short, judgment fears are the natural default settings of our nervous system. For most of us, F.E.A.R. could be an acronym for FORGET EVERYTHING AND REACT. We react in ways that are detrimental to our success. We panic and do whatever we can to feel safe again, no matter how irrational.

How to win at the judgment game.
Once your brain goes into fight, flight or freeze, you can minimize the damage by transforming F.E.A.R into FOCUS ENERGY AND RESPOND. In this scenario, you pause with a breath to regroup all the energy that wants to fight, flight or freeze. You embrace what is happening instead of resisting it. This acceptance gives your brain the time and space it needs to re-interpret what has happened in a more positive light.

Pausing with a breath is something you can do while you are rehearsing as well as when you are presenting. This way, if something does go wrong, you will already be comfortable with this strategy of regrouping. You will have created the habit of pulling your energy back periodically to make sure you are distributing it in all the right places.

Effective public speaking always includes moments of silence, intended or not. The audience will benefit from few extra seconds to take a breather and process what they have heard.

Do your best by not playing the judgment game.
There is another strategy for doing your best at public speaking and that is not to play the judgment game at all. Recognize beforehand that you are not living on the Great Plains anymore in need of the protection of your tribe. This understanding means that potential mistakes are not deadly, lightening your load and reducing the pressure to perform at an impossible, perfectionistic standard.

Probably the toughest thing to overcome about public speaking is the notion that your “failures” will be very public. Try to view public speaking as public service. You are there to inform, persuade, entertain or inspire action in others. When you focus on your positive intentions instead of the level of your performance, you are more present with the audience. They will feel your authenticity. When you speak with the fear of making a mistake, the audience will sense your discomfort and mistakenly interpret you as insincere.

Today, when I speak in public, I still get nervous, but the quality of my nervousness is much different from years ago. I don’t label it as fear. Instead, I consider it valuable energy that I can channel for good. I refocus it into thoughtfulness about what points I want to make, into constructive rehearsal experiences and into the passion I need to connect as best I can with each person who has come to listen.

How about you? Could you transform your public speaking fears into something more useful?

Work Your Inner Genius.

  1. What is your biggest fear about public speaking?
  2. If that happened, what would be the worst outcome as a result?
  3. If that worst-case scenario happened, what could you do to recover? How could you practice that recovery beforehand?

Like what you’ve read? This was a reprint from my Authentic Success Newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Til next time…..

Jo-Aynne von Born, Certified Professional Coach
Executive, Leadership and Success Coaching

By Jo-Aynne

Professional and Personal Development

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