Why You Fear Public Speaking, and What to Do About It


arrows in opposite direction2 Why You Fear Public Speaking, and What to Do About It Over the years I’ve come to realize that my relationship to public speaking is one big approach/avoidance conflict. Since this is true of many people, and since approach/avoidance lies at the heart of many an emotional roadblock, let me share with you everything I’ve figured out on this topic:

1. If I didn’t care about speaking, I would just avoid doing it, and that would be that.  But I do care.  The truth is that I want to be great at it. I have ideas I want to share, and while I think that books are the best and most beautiful medium (and I am starting to love blogging too!), I recognize that microphones are really important too. That’s why I’ve done tons of speaking even though writing comes more naturally to me.

2. If deep down you feel the same way, admit it — and be proactive about conquering your fear. Feeling like you’re taking charge may liberate you.  As I’ve explained here, I recently launched my Year of Speaking Dangerously,  in which I will train myself, in the style of a marathon runner, to become the best and bravest speaker I can be. You can have a YSD too! I would love to hear about your progress. We can egg each other on.

3.  But maybe you don’t have an approach-avoidance conflict.  Maybe you have no conflict at all, and really would just prefer to avoid public speaking altogether. In that case, try to structure your life so you don’t have to give speeches.  If this means accepting a lower pay grade or declining a promotion, so be it.  People always talk as if this is a craven capitulation to your fears and demons, but I disagree.  There are more important things in life than advancing at the office.  Einstein was a patent clerk, for Pete’s sake!

4.  If you do want to conquer your conflict, though, you need to know that “approach” and “avoidance” are not abstractions or metaphors. They are physical systems in your body. Researchers have been talking about these systems for decades and are still trying to fully understand them.  They travel under different names in the scientific literature. The approach system is sometimes called the “Behavioral Activation System (BAS), ” or, more popularly, the “Go system.”  The avoidance system is sometimes called the “Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS)” or, colloquially, the “Stop system.” Your Go system revs you up and makes you excited. Your Stop system slows you down and makes you cautious and vigilant.  It is an evolutionarily ancient system; it helped your ancestors notice that what appeared to be a harmless rock was actually a tightly coiled snake.

5.  Everyone has both a Stop System and a Go System. But many introverts seem to have extra-strength Stop systems that tend to act up as they contemplate doing scary things like speech-giving.

6.  The best way to over-ride your Stop System on speech-making day is to stimulate your Go System. To do this, do something – anything – that makes you feel “up” and excited.  Exercising could work, unless you have frizzy hair like mine, in which case the nice endorphins you generated with all your running about will be offset by the horror of having messed up your hair so dreadfully. (A lot of blow-drying went in to getting my hair that smooth for the photo in my profile!)

Other ideas: Try talking on the phone to a friend who makes you laugh just as you enter the room where you’re to give your speech. My hilarious friend Judith has never failed me in this regard.

Once you get inside, smile at people:

monkeygrin 150x150 Why You Fear Public Speaking, and What to Do About It

even if you feel like shrieking:

edvard munch the scream59012 150x150 Why You Fear Public Speaking, and What to Do About It

7. It also helps, almost more than I can say, to speak on topics you care about.  The sheer excitement you feel for your subject  can get your Go system – er – going. If your work compels you to speak  on topics that leave you cold, consider a different line of work.  (See my post on how to find work you love, here.)

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll give you a quick way to tell the relative strength of your Stop and Go systems.  Stay tuned!

8.  This is Public Speaking for Introverts, Tip #2. I’ll be posting these tips periodically, as I chart my Year of Speaking Dangerously. If you want to see Tip #1 (which was a useful piece of insight I picked up from Malcolm Gladwell), please  go here.
How about you?  Do you enjoy public speaking?  What techniques have you used to calm your jitters?  Or are you among the lucky few not to have any?

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Related posts:

  1. Public Speaking for Introverts: Tip #1 (Courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell)


  1. Amy Gutman on 09.02.2011 at 09:44 (Reply)

    So interesting about the stop & go systems! Great food for thought.

  2. Patricia on 09.02.2011 at 12:01 (Reply)

    Yes, I have found that having to speak on topics I feel strongly or (even better) passionately about does make all the difference. As my feelings and thoughts gather steam, they propel me forward, and my self-consciousness diminishes or disappears, and I often even end up having fun!

  3. Stanley Lee on 09.02.2011 at 13:01 (Reply)

    You forgot the usefulness of the Toastmasters community of getting over this roadblock.

  4. Susan on 09.02.2011 at 13:08 (Reply)

    So right, Stanley! In fact I’m a member of Toastmasters, and will post about this another time.

  5. Susan on 09.02.2011 at 18:18 (Reply)

    I’m generally okay speaking in public as long as I’m comfortable that I know my topic. That knowledge gives me a lot of confidence.

    And plenty of practicing! Talk to yourself in the mirror or just wander around the house thinking about what you’ll say. That always helps!

  6. Zach on 10.02.2011 at 01:11 (Reply)

    This website is quickly becoming a top 5 favorite of mine. I hope the great content keeps coming.

  7. [...] Previous Article: Why You Fear Public Speaking, and What to Do About It [...]

  8. Susan on 10.02.2011 at 10:18 (Reply)

    Zach, Thx so much for the feedback. I will definitely keep it coming. One way you can help: please spread the word! Also, I love to receive comments on my posts, so I learn what resonates for people. Thanks again!

  9. Christy on 10.02.2011 at 18:59 (Reply)

    “Everyone has both a Stop System and a Go System. But many introverts seem to have extra-strength Stop systems that tend to act up as they contemplate doing scary things like speech-giving.”
    Fascinating. I wonder if this has to do with the fact that introverts operate primarily on the need for acetylcholine, which is a calming chemical and leads us to avoid the over-stimulation of social activity, as opposed to the energizing dopamine that extraverts need.

    1. 89buddy on 05.03.2012 at 00:39 (Reply)

      “introverts operate primarily on the need for acetylcholine” that is very interesting. Thanks for the info.

  10. [...] terms of my relationship to public speaking (which I’ve written about a lot, for example, in this post about the body’s Stop and Go systems, and my Year of Speaking Dangerously.) I would love to be the kind of person who assumes the spotlight without a second thought. I would [...]

  11. Why Do You Procrastinate? Discover Your Signature Strengths | Pitts Report on 12.06.2011 at 10:20

    [...] daily life. Published on April 11, 2011 by Susan Cain in Quiet: The Power of Introverts Recently I posted about approach-avoidance conflicts, especially in the context of public speaking. If you feel anxious about speaking (or anything [...]

  12. The Quiet Revolution - and You on 06.07.2011 at 21:00

    [...] example: long-time readers of this blog know that this is my Year of Speaking Dangerously — in which I’ll train to become the best and bravest speaker I can be. I’m doing [...]

  13. [...] Many of you said that you were interested in public speaking, so we’re hereby kicking off with your own personal Year of Speaking Dangerously. (You can go here to read about mine.) [...]

  14. Kris on 15.08.2012 at 16:52 (Reply)

    Susan~Love these tips, and your book! As a therapist who focuses on both calming the amygdala as well as helping folks get clear on their message, I couldn’t agree more. I, too have had a huge approach-avoidance issue around speaking, but the more I realize that helping people through speaking and connecting is really energizing for me-I focus more on that-and that seems to really help. I love the Year of Speaking Dangerously-I’m in!

  15. Monique on 25.08.2012 at 07:31 (Reply)

    I’m so shy when i talk in front of peoples, i smile like the monkey you show lol

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