I had a question from a reader recently about what to do when all my usual prescriptions (see here, here, and here) for dealing with stage fright – physical work on breathing and muscle group relaxation, coupled with mental work on imaging and replacing the feared outcome with a positive one – don’t work.  Perhaps the level of the specific fear is too high, due to some trauma associated with speaking, or the general level of anxiety is too high to make much headway – or even begin – with the physical and mental work.

There are a few options left after the physical and mental work have failed for you.  I’m going to discuss three here; if you think of others and would share them in the comments, then we can help the anxious and super-anxious people everywhere.

First, consider not doing the presentation.  In the business world, the received opinion is that public speaking is high on the list of abilities you have to master for career success.  There are tons of lore, evidence, and stories to support this widely held contention.

But what if you could get by without presenting – how would you do it?  Could you partner with someone who is comfortable on stage and create a dynamic duo that together got the job done?  Could you minimize the actual speaking you have to do by preparing videos, group talks, panels, interviews, or other formats that you might be comfortable with?  Soon we’ll be able to send our holograms instead of our bodies – perhaps that could be a way around the issue?

Second, consider virtual reality desensitization. Dr. Kristopher Blom has been working in virtual reality since 1998. At the time, movies and books had made a lot of promises about what VR would be like, but the technology was still far from ready for the mainstream.

Blom now works on a product called the Virtual Orator, which aims to help people conquer their fear of public speaking by allowing them to practice on a virtual audience. “It’s kind of the tool I wish I’d had, so that I didn’t have to learn public speaking the hard way,” Blom says.

You can start with a projection of an empty space, and practice giving your speech to no one.  Then, you could add one virtual person – still not very scary for most people.  As you get comfortable with the setting and sensations, you could add more and more people.  The idea is to get to the point where you’re comfortable in front of hundreds of virtual people – so that you’re ready for the real thing.

Finally, consider taking anxiety-reducing medication.  The options from the pharmacy used to be unappealing, unless the alternative was very bad indeed, but today there are many new options with beta blockers (widely taken by musicians to reduce performance anxiety) and other similar, even newer options.  I’m not a doctor, but if you are considering this option, then talk to someone who is and get the latest and greatest option.  Make sure you try out the drug before the big day, so you have some sense of how it alters your perception.  That way you won’t find the experience of being sedated alarming in itself.

I recommend – and have had great success with clients using – the physical and mental work mentioned at the beginning of this post.  But if you’ve tried and failed all other options, then consider one of the three possibilities here.  And good luck.

6 Comments

  1. I am going to have to calm down to comment on your blog. I love your work and I have great respect for your writings. (can you hear it coming….) But of course there is more we can do about public speaking fear. Lots more

    A simple one. You can go on a course where the whole point is deal with public speaking fear. I’ve been running them for 18 years and I’ve worked with 6,500 people to turn their lives around. I spend two days breaking down public speaking into very, very small steps so even the most fearful person can learn new ways of being the centre of attention. I won’t bang on about my courses as it feels rude to do it on your blog. Even if you don’t come on a course you can find places on meetup where you can practise in safer places where the outcome doesn’t matter.

    So I will just mention a few things people can do around public speaking fear. People who are anxious massively overthink public speaking and the idea is to make it simpler. And to make it more normal.

    The adrenaline rush
    Most of the fear comes from inside us rather than from outside. We put huge amount of pressures on ourselves to be dynamic, sound intelligent, be more than we are. We also are worried about people seeing me fail, or going red. We also talk to ourselves really harshly (we wouldn’t have any friends if we talked to them like we talk to ourselves).
    So learning to put far less pressure on ourselves and being kinder to ourselves is really important. Mindfulness/Meditation/Self-Compassion practice can be very useful if there aren’t any fear of public speaking courses around.

    Public speaking is a chat
    The idea of seeing public speaking more like a conversation is important, rather than a performance, because it brings into the everyday world. It simplifies the idea of public speaking. The audience wants you to be authentic because they want to trust you. So public speaking can be done in a conversational style.

    Change your mindset about audiences
    a. Lots of anxious people think that the audience is full of negative judgements about them. They see the blank faces in an audience as bored, or a sign that they are failing. But when they sit in an audience themselves, they are never strongly negative about the speaker. In fact, they often let every other speaker take their place without much thought. So we seem to have one harsh rule for ourselves as speakers and generous to other speakers. So understanding that actually the audience isn’t full of judgement can be a major step forward for fearful people. And the next point relates to that and is really important
    b. Audiences have blank faces. It’s normal. They are just listening passively. Learn to see blank faces as a listening faces rather than critical faces. You can notice this when you are in the audience

    You think your fear is visible
    Anxiety makes us self-conscious. We think everyone is noticing us shake or going red. We think that we are transparent and everyone can see the hell inside but it’s an illusion
    But most of the time it’s only you that is noticing it. You probably won’t believe this but actually its very hard to see the fear most of the time and I’ve worked with incredibly anxious people over the years.

    Understand your brain better
    We have wonky brains. Our brains are not perfectly designed. A lot of our brains were designed millions of years ago when our ancestors had to deal with serious threat every day. “Am I going to have lunch or be lunch for some animal?”
    Our brains are biased towards threat to protect our ancestors. We remember negative things in .6 seconds and positive things in six seconds. So we over-read situations to our disadvantage. Learning to understand the tendency of our brain to see too much threat can help to rationally understand what is going on around the fear. Our threat brain thinks “everyone is thinking about me and its all negative” without any proof whatsoever (blank faces in the audience are not proof, they are just listening faces).
    It’s hard just to switch off that thinking but if you can find a way of exposing yourself gently to a safe group where you can learn to look at individual faces can be really helpful.

    Shift your focus
    Public speaking is too much about me, me, me. Learn to shift your focus away from yourself. Get more interested in the subject, the audience or serving some cause.

    Learn to make soft eye gaze
    When we change from seeing threat to being relational to the audience, it helps us calm down. There are ways of calming your looking down to a simpler, softer way. Look at people’s eyes but not staring, see them as part of the landscape of the room. This defocusing and noticing the peripheral helps to calm the brain down. It needs some practice but within 20 minutes of practice time, big changes can be made.

    It’s very possible for most anxious people to change how they feel about public speaking. It’s work that I’ve dedicated my life to and I know that there other people around the world who do similar work.

    More information https://www.speaking-infront.co.uk/

    1. John, one of the frustrations of the blogging genre is that one writes brief excerpts in what are longer conversations. I’ve been talking about stage fright remedies since 2007 on my blog, and I’ve covered at various times each of the items you discuss — as well as in my books. I tried to indicate that this brief post was part of a larger conversation by linking to 3 previous pieces. So let’s agree to be helpful to the community of stage fright sufferers by offering as many ideas as we can, and, in that spirit, thanks for your comment.

      1. Nick, can I apologise. I should have been calmer when I wrote it. You do great work and I should have gone for a walk before I wrote it. I am just too passionate about my work!
        We both do important work, and we are both working to liberate people from fear so that they can get on with fully leading their lives.
        My apologies
        John

  2. Hey Nick, Another possibly might be to change up the on-stage format to a “Fireside Chat” Q&A format with a professional moderator / interviewer. I’ve seen this format work well (for example Michelle Obama was interviewed at HubSpot 2017 in this way. But I’ve also seen it flop and that almost always happens when a celebrity is interviewed and hasn’t done simple preparation to understand the audience.

    But for someone with acute fear, this format might work to ease into some stage time.

    1. Thanks, David — great idea. I’ve seen Richard Branson (who is not a comfortable speaker) do the same thing, and it can really help to have someone else up on stage with you. As you note, however, some speakers imagine that Q&A means “I don’t have to prepare,” and that is not the case!

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