Overcoming the fear of public speaking

Your mouth has gone dry and your notes are shaking in your hands. ‘Don’t Fuck This Up’ is all you can hear above your thumping heart. Everyone is watching, but there’s no way out. If you dread public speaking, Tanya Livesey has some advice

If you’ve ever been caught in the crosshairs of fully-fledged stage-fright it’s no laughing matter. It’s the very definition of ‘freeze’ alongside its ‘fight or flight’ siblings. But if it’s any consolation, you’re definitely not alone. Glossophobia, to give fear of public speaking its glamorous moniker, is one of the most common human fears and affects as much as 75% of the population.   

Unfortunately, as social creatures, we’re hard-wired to fear threats to our reputation. For our primitive ancestors, not being accepted by their tribes risked rejection from the pack and without its protection, they faced almost certain death. Fast-forward all this innate human paranoia to the 21st century and whilst we’re pretty unlikely to die for messing up a pitch or speech, our brains would have us think otherwise.   

However, it’s a fear that every aspiring creative leader has to learn to deal with. As Nils Leonard, Founder of agency Uncommon, notes, “Gone are the days when you could be a terrible  presenter and terrible with people and just be a brilliant creative. Now, public speaking is a key part of leadership”.  Nowadays, creative leaders are not just expected to perform in pitches and presentations, there’s pressure to be a visible public figure, speaking at endless industry events, on podiums, panels and even podcasts. Add to this the ever-watching social media and the potential audience to witness your humiliation is vast – so it’s not surprisingly a daunting prospect for those whose real talents are their creative rather than their performance skills.

The problem with performance anxiety is that one bad experience can tend to inform the next and before you know it, you’ve spiralled into a pattern of stage-fright that can feel hard to break out of. But the truth is, when the pressure is on to perform, even the most experienced performers and presenters can hit a wall: Richard Branson has been open about his dread of public speaking, John Lennon famously threw up before every live gig and even Margaret Thatcher battled with pre-speech anxiety. What the stories of these successful people tell us is that whilst no-one is immune to performance nerves, it is possible to learn how to deal with them so they don’t hold you back.