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10 Signs You Have a ‘Hidden’ Fear of Public Speaking

Stage fright, however, may still be at the root of your reaction. Here are 10 signs that you may be dealing with a ‘hidden’ form of fear that’s disguising itself as something else. Overcoming your speech anxiety is never easy. This way involves a little thinking and self-examination to help you figure out what’s really going on.

Worrying About Performance over Process

If you’re worrying about your performance, you’re actually making it more difficult for yourself to perform well. I know: confusing. The best way I can explain this, is to share with you what I call the actor’s paradox. Stated simply, it’s this: You can’t give a good performance by trying to perform well.

Actors in a role are all about truth—the realness of what’s happening in the script and how the character reacts. No good actor ever thinks about himself in the moment of performance. They are there to serve something larger and better: the audience’s belief in the unfolding drama. Your truth is the audience’s understanding of what you’re saying. Aim to serve only that.

Becoming a Mind Reader

Speaking of minds and deciphering their inner workings: how’s your crystal ball? Is it showing you things clearly . . . and are you making sure you’re bringing it along to all of your speeches and presentations?

A classic manifestation of speech apprehension is imagining a) that you know what the audience is thinking, and b) where you’re concerned, it’s bad. In fact, believing that the audience even cares about you or is thinking about you at all is usually an erroneous mindset. Remember: it’s the listeners’ understanding and response concerning your message that matters. And anyway, they’re thinking about themselves, not you.

Preparing So Much that ‘Nothing Can Go Wrong’

Come on, be honest . . . have you gone down this road? It usually involves amassing about three or four times the amount of material that you could possibly get through in your presentation. “I’d better have LOTS of things to talk about, in case I get through all of my content too fast,” you find yourself thinking.

Never mind that if you’re all-around knowledgeable about your topic, that’s simply not going to happen.

 Taking Courses to Become an Expert

Yes, some anxious speakers even go this far. “But I’m not good at [body language] [storytelling] [PowerPoint design]” they say, “so I’m going to learn how to do it before my presentation.” Let’s unpack this response in two stages:

First, that skill you’re obsessing over probably isn’t very important. It may be true that the ability is a trendy “must show” in the business world these days. (And truly, if that’s the case, do you really care?) But what matters to listeners is that you know how to connect with an audience through who you are, not your sleight-of-hand ability with this or that trick.

Mimicking Other Speakers

For this lack of self-confidence, I lay the blame at the feet of our schools, which don’t teach us how to be self-assured speakers. Taught and drilled incessantly in reading and writing (and yes, ‘rithmatic), we are given no instruction or practice in getting on our feet and sharing what we know with audiences. Is it any wonder we don’t feel secure at it?

Thinking About Yourself Instead of the Audience

The best place to start this process is from a high enough altitude where you can see things clearly—in other words, the 30,000-foot view. In this case, that means getting your head in the right place.

It’s natural to think about yourself and want to do well when you speak in public. The problem, of course, is that the speaking situation isn’t about you. The more you think about yourself, in fact, the harder it will be to get on the wavelength of serving the people you’re there to talk to. I call it “living in the audience’s world,” from your initial notes to your finished dynamic performance. Thinking about your own response means you’re not concerned about theirs.

 Imagining Worst-Case Scenarios

You may not have the type of personality that indulges in worst-case thinking, though this too can disguise itself. Because of your own emotional involvement in your response (of course), the possible outcomes that pop into your head may seem perfectly natural. A few moments of rational thinking, however, may evaporate those thoughts.

The point is, if your mind tends to find this groove, it means you’re in negative rather than positive territory.

Believing You Have to Be an Excellent Speaker

Here we have a very subtle and insidious example of hidden speaking fear. Again, many speakers become overly concerned with performance over process, and worse, miss the point of the speaking situation entirely. Perhaps too much exposure to motivational speakers, many of whom are all about the sizzle, is part of the problem.

Your job when you speak to a group is to communicate successfully about this topicThat’s it. Unless you’re a paid speaker, you don’t have to be the King Kong of the convention. As I say to my executive speech coaching clients: “Your job is to be a good CEO [radiologist] [VP of Human Resources] [Sales Director] [board member]. In that role, you’re expected to be a good communicator.” Trying to be ‘excellent’ doesn’t work (see actor’s paradox, above). It also shows that deep down; you may feel you’re not good enough. But ‘good enough’ is the right goal!

Memorizing Your Material 

Eligible for a two-for-one pass with The I Will Over-Prepare School of Survival cited immediately above. When clients say to me, “I tend to memorize my speech word-for-word so that nothing will go wrong,” I invariably reply, “Then everything is going to go wrong.”

Audiences want a speaker who’s knowledgeable about her topic, and can talk to them with ease (and perhaps a note or two). They don’t want someone reading from a manuscript. Nor is a robotic recital of material laboriously learned very exciting to behold. Being present and responding to the speaking situation in real time is organic and engaging.

Obsessing Over Technology

This sign of hidden speaking fear includes anxious thoughts about how technology can leave you with digitized egg on your face. But it also involves becoming so infatuated with PowerPoint that it crowds out other, legitimate concerns about accomplishing what you’re there to achieve as a speaker.

A few years ago, a national association of healthcare practitioners asked me to speak at their annual convention on how to deliver a dynamic PowerPoint talk. You see, their members had fallen hard for Bill Gates’s ubiquitous presentation tool, and now spent all of their energy on bells, whistles, and electronic glitz to blast attendees out of their seats. They had forgotten their primary directive as presenters at an association conference, which was to educate the membership.

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