You may not have heard of glossophobia, but you’ve probably experienced it. Also known as the fear of public speaking, glossophobia affects up to 75% of the population, and some say it is feared more than death. Symptoms can range from feeling mildly nervous or uncomfortable when sharing thoughts in front of others to full-on panic attacks or “freezing.”
There are a number of reasons the thought of public speaking is terrifying for so many. According to Psychology Today, our bodies have a physical response to perceived threats and making ourselves the center of attention in a group of strangers can trigger a stress response. This type of response can affect anyone, but is more likely to be experienced in people who are sensitive to stress or who experience anxiety in other situations.
The fear of public speaking is closely related to performance anxiety, so another reason it can be so intimidating to talk in front of a large group is because the thought of being evaluated and judged is scary—especially if our reputation is on the line. If we are unsure of or critical about our speaking skills, it may be even more nerve-wracking to put our insecurities on display through public speaking.
On a biological, evolutionary level, the fear of public speaking makes complete sense. For most of human history, people lived in tribes instead of the nuclear family structure we have today. In the tribe structure, it was important to have the approval and acceptance of the group. A misstep could make you a target of the group’s wrath, which could carry serious consequences ranging from ostracization to death. It’s no wonder that our lizard brains sometimes feel petrified when opening ourselves to criticism or evaluation from a large group of people. To illustrate this point, think about making a presentation in front of a group of children (who pose less of a psychological or physical threat). Not so scary is it? This thought experiment indicates that it isn’t really public speaking we are afraid of—it’s public disapproval.
If you are one of the millions of individuals who experience glossophobia and want to overcome your fear of public speaking, here are five tips that will help you out.
- Accept your fear. By judging yourself or telling yourself you “shouldn’t” be feeling a certain way, you can make your fear worse. To address your anxiety, you need to come from a place of self-compassion instead of self-criticism. You might even let your audience know that you are feeling nervous, which can take the pressure off trying to appear otherwise.
- Practice and prepare. One common worry when facing a public speaking situation is the potential of “messing up,” failing, or freezing. You may be able to alleviate some of this stress and worry by making sure you are well prepared for your presentation. Learn your topic thoroughly and practice as much as possible so that you can feel more confident and organized.
- Turn your anxiety into excitement. Physiologically, anxiety and excitement look very similar. Both can manifest as a fast pulse, shallow breathing, sweaty hands and elevated levels of adrenaline. By reframing your anxiety as excitement and concentrating on the benefits of your public speaking opportunity or the importance of your content, you can relieve some of the discomfort and you may even find yourself having fun.
- Visualize your success. If you go into a public speaking situation thinking about everything that could go wrong, you may create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, visualize yourself succeeding and doing well. You can even imagine feeling confident and relaxed, which may trick your body into following suit and calming down, creating a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Picture your audience naked. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book to help alleviate public speaking fears. It is easy to build up an audience in our mind, worry that they will judge us or reject us, and psychologically put them on a pedestal or place of “higher status.” If you imagine your audience in a “lower status,” vulnerable position, such as being naked or in their underwear, you may realize they are human just like you and you have nothing to worry about.
It is extremely common to feel nervous when speaking in front of a large group. Your fear of public speaking may never entirely go away, but there are steps you can take to help reduce those panicky feelings and get your point across confidently and effectively.
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