Social Anxiety and the Fear of Public Speaking
I’ve had trouble with social anxiety throughout my life. It’s been an impediment even in the most innocuous social situations — interacting with cashiers, for example.
It’s an issue that I’m still actively battling, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. There’s one area of my life though, in which I’ve managed to conquer my anxiety almost completely: public speaking.
Why Public Speaking Was the Easiest Anxiety for Me to Beat
It may come as a surprise that I’ve learned to confidently speak in front of crowds, even as I continue to struggle with anxiety while having conversations in small groups.
In many ways, it seems backward. Public speaking involves more people and it places all the attention on me at once. Shouldn’t that be more anxiety-inducing than chatting with a stranger in line?
For me, the key difference that made public speaking easier to get over than other social anxieties is that it takes place in a structured setting.
As a lawyer and teacher, I do the vast majority of my public speaking in courtrooms and classrooms. In both cases, I have a clear expectation of how my speeches will go. This means that I can adequately prepare ahead of time so that when I’m actually speaking, I’m confident about what I’ll say.
Even when things deviate from my plan, they deviate in a clear, structured way that I can be prepared for.
Most public speaking engagements follow this pattern, even outside of courtrooms and classrooms. You can prepare for any type of public speaking to a much greater degree than you could for a casual conversation. This makes public speaking the perfect candidate as the first type of social anxiety to practice.
How I Got Over My Fear of Public Speaking
So how did I actually get past my fear of public speaking? As I said above, it all starts with careful preparation.
At a minimum, I plan out exactly what I’m going to say. When I first started speaking in courtrooms, I literally wrote out word-for-word what I would say.
Once you’re actually speaking in public though, you can’t just read your words off a page or it will end up coming across as boring and monotone. So, I’d practice reading through what I had written down until I was totally comfortable with the words on the page, and then I’d switch over to using short notes.
I’d continue to practice giving my speech using just the notes, trying to further shorten them wherever I could. These days, I’ve done enough speaking in public that I normally skip straight to the note stage.
It’s important to actually practice giving the speech aloud. I’ve tried a few different methods, including speaking in front of a mirror, recording myself, and giving the speech to family members.
Before my first time teaching, my extremely kind brother sat through an entire two-hour practice lecture. Getting feedback from others is invaluable for improving.
Know everything about your topic.
Good preparation for public speaking extends past simply practicing your speech. In most public speaking situations, the listeners will have a chance to ask questions. In others, such as courtrooms or panel discussions, there could be a back and forth with other speakers that will lead past the initial topic of the speech.
I make it my goal to learn as much as possible about whatever topic I’m speaking about. Of course, you can never literally know “everything” about a topic, but I try my best to reach this impossible standard anyway.
The more I know about a topic, the more confident I’ll be when it’s time to speak about it, even if 90% of what I’ve learned never actually comes up.
It also helps to memorize the line “I’m not sure about that, but I’ll look into it and let you know.” It’s a way to confidently address issues that are outside your knowledge, without fumbling or feigning expertise. Your listeners will happily accept this honest admission.
Force yourself into public speaking situations
The first half of gaining confidence as a public speaker is preparing for your speeches. The second half is actually giving them.
Nothing has built my public speaking confidence more than speaking in public again and again, on an almost daily basis.
The more that I speak in front of crowds, the more routine it becomes. I get used to the experience, and I learn all the ways it can go wrong. Each time something does go differently than expected, I use it as a learning experience for next time.
But, I would never have gotten this practice in the first place if it hadn’t been for the fact that my jobs forced me into it.
The truth is, if public speaking wasn’t an integral part of my career, I would have had a much harder time sticking with it. I suspect that I likely would have given up the first time a speech was poorly received.
Having these jobs required me to keep going back to it, leaving me with no viable choice but to face my anxiety head-on.
So what can you do if you aren’t in a job that requires public speaking? Find something else that will force you to speak in public regularly. It could be a speech team in school, an adult speech-making club, or a public role at a church or charity.
The key is to seek out an opportunity that will require speaking in public regularly, and not just as a once-off event.
If you sign up to give a single lecture somewhere, and it goes badly, you’ll likely never want to do it again. If instead, you sign up to give a series of lectures, you’ll be forced to keep going until you’ve had time to get over the setbacks.
Public speaking isn’t easy, but don’t write it off as something you’ll never be able to do. Getting over my fear of public speaking took months of daily practice, but I did eventually become a confident public speaker.