The Fear of Speaking in Public

“It is so easy for people to praise or condemn. I am a fine swordsman. Therefore I am a hero. I become a brave man. Yet where is the bravery without fear? I have never feared a battle. Varaconn did. He trembled with fright. Yet he was there. Beside me. He overcame his fear. That, to me, is the greatest courage.”
“Sword in the Storm” by David Gemmell

One of the most common fears is the fear of public speaking: Standing in front of an audience and giving a speech, or a presentation, or saying anything.

Which is ‘unfortunate’, to say the least, as being able to convey your ideas or your contributions is the key skill. It is likely that some recognitions — in the form of ‘who invented what’ or ‘who got which prize’ — go to the people who present the works, not necessarily the people who came up with the ideas or did the actual work.

This is a common problem for the more introverted “I can’t speak in front of others” creative people. A serious problem considering that they are cheated out of their rightful recognition, even if they assert that they “never wanted attention anyway”.

Personally, I have never understood the fear of public speaking. I would consider myself fairly introverted, with a tendency to social isolation at times (not always voluntary). But when it comes to standing in front of a crowd and giving a speech … I don’t know, I just find it … energizing somehow. It’s just slipping into a role, another persona, being grateful for the attention and doing the best to convey the issues that matter to me. I love to give presentations, at conference or in class. It’s just … having the opportunity to occupy myself with topics I find interesting and relevant and doing my best to convey them in a short time frame.

And yup, I spend a lot of time preparing for them, creating slides that aim to educate and entertain. A bit like Faraday’s quote:

The lecturer should give the audience full reason to believe that all his powers have been exerted for their pleasure and instruction.
Michael Faraday

Presentation skills did not come “naturally” — I acquired them the hard way … by learning about giving presentations, how to deal with problems — technical and human ones, and by giving presentations again and again until I became proficient in this skill. This also did include participating in courses and workshops — at an adult education center and at the university — and reading a lot of material about presenting.

And yes, I’ve made my share of experiences, positive ones as well as negative ones. I’ve learned that even a disastrous presentation does not kill you, and that no matter how well you prepare something, shit not only can happen, with enough presentations it will happen. And in most cases, you can deal with it and the audience understands and respects when things happen outside of your control. I’ve never had the situation where a heckler tried to undermine my presentation (deliberately), or where a comment undermined everything I said, but I can probably deal with it as well. If only by saying: “That’s an interesting point. I’ll have to think about it in depth, but if you leave me your eMail address I’ll get back to you.”

But all this does not mean that I am not nervous immediately prior to the presentation — I am, no matter the audience or the topic. But once I start the presentation … something just clicks. All the occupation with the preparation falls away and somehow I channel all that anxious energy into the energy I need to present. Sure, I crash afterwards — an hour or two after giving a conference presentation, but it’s the good kind of crash. The one where you smile as you go down.

And sure, it’s possible that I still show signs of nervousness, or rather, intense activation, during the presentation. For example, I’m not sure whether my cheeks turn red — I asked a couple of people sitting in the audience, but who knows whether they tell the truth.

But even if my face looks like a baboon’s backside during mating, I really don’t care that much. Sure, it would look more professional if it were the usual color. And it would likely contribute to a more convincing presentation, as red cheeks might be attributed to nervousness, and the nervousness might in turn be attributed to problems in the message the presenter tries to convey.

But seriously?

It is also a sign that no matter that you are nervous because you are speaking in front of a crowd — you are still there. Like Shakespeare’s:

And here I stand; judge, my masters.

or like the quotation in the beginning of this posting. You show courage. You show that you believe that what you are going to present is more important than the fear you feel, the fear almost anyone feels when standing in front of a crowd.

If that’s not a powerful message I don’t know what is.

Happy presenting.

1 Comment

  1. Daniel:

    Excellent post. The best recent surveys for developed countries show that public speaking was the most common social fear, affecting 13% of adults. See:

    Public speaking also was the most common social fear for U.S. adolescents:

    For German adolescents and young adults taking tests or exams was the most common social fear:


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