Glossophobia: The fear of public speaking. We have all seen the statistics, they range from 75% to up to 90% of the population listed as having the fear of public speaking. Overall, fear of public speaking ranks as American’s biggest phobia. Where does this fear come from? Often it comes from a place of social anxiety, a fear of a new situation, a fear of being judged, making a mistake, and a fear of being seen. While genetic tendencies, environmental and psychological factors also play a role, prior experience can often play a very big role in this fear.
While common, the fear can really impact and limit one’s life, especially professionally. So, how do you overcome this fear? The good news is that training can help. Surprisingly, age can also help as we work on losing ego and letting go of the fear of judgment. While both of these are exciting possibilities to overcoming the fear of public speaking, I’m going to share what I recently learned and what I feel has been a big lesson for me in conquering this fear and has helped me take control of other emotions that prevent me from living in alignment with the way I wish to show up in the world.
I have not always had a fear of public speaking. In fact, I used to love to public speak, even sought it out. I was raised as an only child and as a child I absolutely loved being the center of attention. I must admit, I still carry some of that inside of me today. Being the center of attention meant that I loved to public speak. I enjoyed signing up for speech classes in high school and in college. I enjoyed impromptu speeches the most. However, something happened to me in my young adulthood. It happened when I went into the practice of law at 24 years of age. I was a young woman and a racial minority in a field dominated by older white men. I did not feel like I belonged there even though I had a degree behind me and was gaining experience daily. My ego was front and center and I never could quite shake the feeling of not belonging. I was afraid of making a mistake, being caught off guard, and being publicly proved that I really didn’t belong. I lost my love of public speaking. As the years went on, even after I stopped actively practicing law, I not only felt the fear, I had physical manifestations of the fear. My voice at times would crack, my mind would go blank, and my breathing was no longer a voluntary act but took a rhythm of its own. At one point, I went to a public speaking specialist, a former national news anchor and national speaker who was a self-proclaimed recovered glossophobic. She videotaped me giving short speeches and we would go over the tapes together. Honestly, I did quite well during these sessions and saw her no more than three times. But, looking back, I really didn’t need practice in front of a camera, I needed practice in front of an audience.
So, despite my success in my short-lived consult classes, my fear of public speaking continued and kept me from voicing opinions as I sat on committees, even when sitting as an officer, including in President and Vice-President positions on boards. My fear of public speaking made me doubt in my own my opinions and my worth as a contributor.
Looking at how this fear was holding be back from sharing my life lessons and my truth with others, I knew that for me to realize my true potential in this world, I needed to take control of this fear. I realized that much of my fear stemmed from past experience. Therefore, I decided that it was necessary for me to have a positive public speaking experience to build from. I began looking into Toastmaster classes and found that there was one that met weekly just down the street from where I live. I almost joined but there were just too many unknowns for me. Would I vibe with the group? The leader? Could I handle the time commitment? Then, one night while watching Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee and quite honestly enjoying Champagne, I stumbled across an episode of Eddie Murphy and Seinfeld. As I sipped my champagne, I thought , “Well, stand-up, that looks easy.” And I woke up the next morning finding a confirmation email that I signed up for a local stand-up comedy class. Thank you, Champagne! The class took place weekly for a total of 4 weeks. The 1st class was a nuts and bolts session, the 2nd and 3rd classes involved coming to class and performing my own material in front of the class. The 4th and final class was show time, performing my original material at a packed theatre, located in Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market, in front of nearly 220 people.
I learned so much from my comedy experience. And yes, it was a positive public speaking experience! But first and foremost, and why I’m sharing this here, is that I learned the power of pulling on an emotional cousin. Historically, I would have told myself to “calm down” when I felt that anxiety rise as I waited backstage for my name to be called. Ever tell someone who is angry to calm down? Or someone who in my similar situation of feeling anxious, to “calm down” or “don’t feel anxious”? It simply doesn’t work. Instead of falling back on my usual self talk, I found a similar emotion, a cousin emotion. A cousin emotion is an emotion that resonates at the same level as the emotion that I hoped to change. For me, excitement resonates at the same energy level as anxiety when it comes to public speaking. So, I honed in on the energy I was receiving from the anxiety and channeled it into excitement. I focused on the excitement of getting the opportunity to perform a bit that I wrote, on a stage in front of a full theatre. Who gets to do that? That’s exciting. And it worked. I was excited and it felt great. And that excitement allowed me to communicate fully and effective with the audience.
We all have emotions that we’d like to change to align with our desires. Looking at these emotions, what are some other emotional cousins that you could work with? Instead of Hate, find Love? Instead of Fear, find the Thrill. Instead of Sadness move to Acceptance? Instead of Boredom find Serenity? Look for those emotional cousins to help you through tough emotions instead of trying to talk yourself into an “opposite” emotion which doesn’t carry the energy and intensity that you are currently feeling. It is gentle movement, it is gradual, and it works.