"Fear of Speaking" Can Make You a Better Speaker
Tracy Copyright © 2003
Fear of public speaking is the number
one source of apprehension in the United States. This was first pointed out
in a survey of 3000 Americans by the Sunday Times of London in 1973.
The findings have been verified by countless other surveys and studies in
The Times survey found that 41% of the respondents listed "fear of public
speaking" as their number one fear, while 19% listed "death."
For the businessperson, either in a small company or a large corporation,
the ability to speak coherently and persuasively is a vital skill, but "fear
of speaking" holds many otherwise competent people back.
Such fear of speaking can be a disaster for the sales person, but it need
not be so. Speaking skills are easy to acquire once the fear is controlled.
In the hundreds of workshops I have conducted, I have found a high percentage
of intelligent people becoming apprehensive at the prospect of giving a
If you suffer from that same anxiety, rest assured you are in the main stream
of the American public. In this article, I'll provide advice on how to make
this nervousness work to your advantage so that you actually become a better
public speaker because of your fear.
DON'T KILL THE BUTTERFLIES
Among the physical manifestations of nervousness can be a queasiness frequently
labeled "butterflies in the stomach." Someone in the field of speech training
once said you didn't want to kill the butterflies; get them flying in
I certainly agree with the basic premise of controlling, not eliminating,
nervousness. I find it disappointing when colleagues and competitors in the
field of presentation skills training promise that if you buy their book
or attend their workshop, you will never again fear speaking in public.
That is absolute rubbish. It causes people to make overcoming Fear of speaking
their main objective. That objective should be to frame and deliver their
message in such a way that they persuade their audience to adopt the point
of view they are advocating.
I have seen many nervous speakers do an excellent job because they believed
in their message, and I have seen speakers so calm it seemed rigor mortis
had set in. Their calmness made them appear indifferent, and they bombed.
You want to be somewhat nervous. It releases the adrenaline that gets you
"pumped," that shows passion and enthusiasm. It is the same as the pre-game
jitters of athletes which allows them to convert nervousness to energy.
Presenters must make the same conversion into that positive energy which
demonstrates the presenter's belief in his or her message.
A TRIO OF FEARS AND THEIR ANTIDOTES
1. FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN
As human beings, we tend to be more afraid of what we don't know. For presenters,
the audience is the great unknown. You will wonder: "What do they expect
of me? Do they know much more about the subject than I do, etc.?" You will
have the tendency to magnify the knowledge of the audience at the expense
of your own knowledge.
Convert unknown to known. The more information you gather on the audience
and the more intensive your practice session the more the unknown will be
converted to known.
Guard against procrastination, however, because we tend to accomplish what
is in our comfort zone, and put off more difficult tasks, such as systematic
audience intelligence collection and rigorous practice. Bite the bullet,
and you will have those fears of the unknown dramatically reduced.
2. FEAR OF FORGETTING.
When told they will have to make a presentation, most people are consumed
by the fear their mind will go blank, and they will stand in front of the
audience without the slightest idea of what they are to say.
They play it safe, write out their presentation, and read it verbatim to
the audience. This is a guarantee to lose their audience. People in an audience
want to listen to a speaker who is connecting with them, and is looking at
them, not at a script.
If you have practiced diligently, even a temporary "power outage" of your
brain can be handled.
The solution I have always used is what I call the two-card tango. Place
a startling statistic or interesting fact that you have had to delete for
reasons of time on a 3x5 card.
On the second card, place a bullet outline of the main points of your
presentation. If convenient, place these cards in your pocket or on the
When the "My mind has gone blank" syndrome sets in, merely take both cards
and say to the audience "Let me digress for a moment and share with you...."
then relate the information on the first card. If you have prepared well,
your mind will kick back in, and you can continue where you left off.
If it does not, slide the second card to the front, and look at the bullet
points. Select one point and continue the presentation. Your audience will
be none the wiser.
Although I always advocate honesty with your audience, I do not recommend
that you say "I forgot what I was going to say." You may get temporary sympathy,
but audience members will wonder why they are sitting there if the issue
is not important enough for the speaker to remember what he or she was
3. FEAR OF UNANTICIPATED QUESTIONS.
Many people are not worried about making a presentation, because they are
"on their turf." These same people, however, are terrified at the prospect
of answering questions, believing they will be embarrassed by not being able
to answer questions.
Seek to anticipate the questions. If you have acquired accurate "intelligence"
on the audience's needs, concerns and problems, then you should be able to
preempt certain questions in your presentation, anticipate others, and develop
succinct answers to others.
No one expects you to be able to answer every question, but they do expect
you to be honest. Don't give a false answer to avoid the embarrassment of
saying: "I don't know." That honest phrase, followed by the words "but I'll
get that information for you," must be in every presenter's vocabulary.
When you make the commitment to get the information, remember that you have
a moral obligation to do just that for the questioner and perhaps the entire
Apply these antidotes, and you'll find that the "fear of speaking" will be
the catalyst to make you a better speaker.
About the Author:
Larry Tracy, described by then-President Ronald Reagan as "an extraordinarily
effective speaker," conducts coaching workshops for corporate executives
and government officials. His website,
is in the number one position for "presentation skills for executives" on
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