Your palms are warm and damp. Beads of perspiration appear on your forehead. Your pulse quickens. You feel like fleeing for the restroom.
These are all symptoms of stage fright, a common social phobia. Whether known as nerves, butterflies, performance anxiety, fear of public speaking, or the technical term glossophobia, stage fright affects most people at some point in their lives. As Steven Pressfield reveals in his book The War of Art, even a seasoned actor like Henry Fonda was throwing up before each performance—at the age of seventy-five.
So now you’re thinking, “Great. Henry Fonda couldn’t control his nerves; what am I supposed to do?”
There are some specific techniques you can apply when you feel that nervousness before you speak. Communication pro Nick Morgan offers these five suggestions and you’ll find a few ideas in our book as well.
But what about the long-term? Is there anything you can do that will help you feel less nervous over time?
Yes—I believe there are some concrete steps you can take that will help you get past your fear of speaking, and probably some other anxieties as well. But let me share a story with you first.
Why I Didn’t Want to Go to Disney World
A few years ago, my wife and I made plans to take our three young children to Disney World during their spring break. We’d fly from Illinois to Florida, stay at a Disney hotel, and spend five days at the different Disney parks. A perfect family getaway, right?
Shortly after we left our home to drive the 45 minutes to the airport, I had to pull over and let my wife drive. My stomach was tied in knots, my breathing was rapid and shallow, and I was on the verge of passing out.
What was going on?
At the time, I wasn’t sure. Fear of flying, maybe? Looking back, I see a number of factors:
- Apart from visiting our families in Indiana and Oklahoma, we didn’t travel much
- I’d been in the same job, teaching at the university, for over ten years
- We’d lived in the same house during that time as well
- I was approaching my fortieth birthday
As I shared this experience with some older mentors, the term “mid-life crisis” arose. More than that, however, I think it came down to one thing:
My life was static.
For nearly a decade, little in my life had changed.
But when change showed up in the form of a seemingly harmless family vacation, my well-ordered world was turned upside down.
Don’t Let Fear Move In
I had a few more episodes like that over the next several months but I didn’t want my life to be defined by fear. If given the space, fear and anxiety will move in and take over. And I’ve got work to do, a family to love, change I want to make.
You probably do, too.
At their core, social phobias are about public embarrassment. We don’t want to appear stupid or awkward before others. And this is exactly why giving a speech or presentation can be so frightening: everyone is looking at you and you’re thinking, “What will they think of me if I screw up?” I’ve certainly felt that way before a presentation and most people have.
It’s helpful to realize, though, that people want you to do well. The audience, in most cases, is on your side. So relax.
In some cases, your anxiety may be significant enough that you need a professional’s help. Many of us, though, just need some direction and a push.
An Unconventional Regimen for Dealing with Your Public Speaking Fear
Are you ready to move past your fear? Here’s how you can do it:
- Take cold showers for a week
- Break something that has little value
- Talk to a stranger
These are a few of the exercises that Julien Smith suggests in his book The Flinch. It’s free, short (you can read it in an hour) and available for the Kindle. You don’t need a Kindle to read it–you can read it on your computer, phone or tablet with one of these free apps.
The flinch is our response to change and pain, and it shows up in our fears and anxieties. We’re comfortable where we are and change is hard. That vacation to Disney World meant change for me, and it was hard. If you don’t give presentations often, they’re hard. Actually, even when you do give presentations regularly, they’re still hard. Remember Henry Fonda?
When you do the exercises in The Flinch, however, you train yourself to be uncomfortable. The exercises will teach you that being uncomfortable won’t kill you. They will help you build a resistance to the flinch as well as a catalog of memories from which you can draw when you feel fear. They will help you learn to recognize the flinch and then push past it.
Start doing the opposite of your habits. It builds up your tolerance to the flinch and its power. —Julien Smith
If you want to overcome your fear of public speaking in particular, I’d add these two exercises to your anti-flinch training:
- Practice – Many people never practice their speeches or presentations. Rehearsing, though, is one of the best ways to prepare. The more prepared you feel before the “real thing,” the less fear you’ll feel.
- Speak – Practicing will only get you so far. You’ve got to get in the game to get good. Does that make you uncomfortable? Good! That means you’re on the doorstep of change and about to get better. Teach a lesson at your church, speak at a business club meeting, talk about what you do at your kids’ school. These are all opportunities to get better.
No one else can say what you have to say. Get The Flinch, face your stage fright and tell us your story. The more you do it, the more the flinch loses its power and the more comfortable you’ll become.
Just so you know: I wouldn’t ask you to do something I hadn’t done already. I took the cold showers.
By the way–if you’ve read this far and you still think this is a dumb idea, you’re flinching.