Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking

One way to overcome fear of public speaking is to be afraid and speak anyway. As stupid as this seems, it’s possibly the most reliable way to gain confidence in speaking. Be afraid, be nervous, be hesitant, but do it anyway.

You won’t be very good at it the first few times, but don’t expect to be. Simply make it a goal to do it and finish. Once you’ve done it a few times, and you realize it hasn’t killed you, you’ll be less afraid to do it the next time. And if you keep doing it, eventually you’ll start to get good at it and may even learn to enjoy it.

I think one of the reasons people fear public speaking is that they expect too much of themselves. It’s like being afraid of flying a plane when you’ve had no instruction. Of course you’re going to fail. If the pilot calls you up to the cockpit and says “land this plane,” it’s a safe bet you’ll crash if you try it.

But at least when you fail at public speaking, it isn’t normally fatal. Failure is actually one of the best ways to learn it. It’s the same way we learn to walk and talk when we’re toddlers. We stumble and stutter until we get it right. Just as you wouldn’t expect a white belt in Karate to be able to break a brick, you also wouldn’t expect a first-time public speaker to be as polished as a pro. But sadly, people demand such a level of performance of themselves, expecting that if they’re going to speak publicly, they’d better be outstanding. And since this isn’t going to happen, it generates fear. But the fear largely goes away if you set realistic expectations and head up to the lectern expecting to stink your first few times.

Remember the scene from the movie The Matrix where Neo tries to do a super jump between two skyscrapers and falls to the ground? “Everyone falls the first time.” The same goes with public speaking. You’re going to stink your first time. Get over it.

Unfortunately, in the real world it can be hard to find opportunities to speak where you aren’t expected to be good. People assume that if you volunteer to speak, you must be good. But it’s reasonable for people to demand that speakers be good, since most people don’t want to listen to a poor speaker. It’s boring.

I think the best solution to this conundrum is to join Toastmasters International. The nice thing about Toastmasters is that the organization is designed to make it as easy as possible to learn public speaking. You can attend a few meetings as a guest for free to see what it’s like without pressure. Just show up and watch. Everyone understands what it’s like to be new to speaking, and they don’t expect you to be good. It’s low pressure with plenty of encouragement. Before I joined Toastmasters last year, I thought the organization was for people who were really good at speaking. The brochures make it look like a bunch of business people doing formal presentations. But that isn’t the reality I discovered. Some clubs are mostly people in their 40s and 50s and treat their meetings fairly formally, but other clubs are people in their 20s and 30s who hold very informal meetings; every club is unique. Most speeches I’ve seen are personal, not business-like — people often give speeches recalling vacation stories or events from childhood.

Everyone has flaws. Some people that have been in Toastmasters for more than a decade still struggle with “ums” and “ahs” during their speeches. Everyone is at a different skill level, but no one is perfect. And most importantly everyone seems to have a healthy recollection of what it was like their first time too.

The best way to get a sense of what Toastmasters is really like is to attend a meeting as a guest. You can even try out more than one club — I’ve been to five different clubs so far. And if you decide to join, membership is cheap. The dues are going up soon (not by much), but I currently pay only $5 per month. Plus you get a monthly magazine. There are over 10,000 individual clubs in 80 different countries with an average of 20 members each, so chances are good that you can find a local club in your area. There are 10 clubs just within a 7-mile radius of my home. Check out the club locator to see what’s near you.

Some of the casinos here in Vegas even have their own Toastmasters clubs. The MGM Grand has the Lions Roar club. The Luxor has the Pyramid Power Talkers club. And the New York, New York has the Manhattan Express club.

Toastmasters actually has two tracks for building skills. One is the communication track, which involves improving your speaking skills. But less well known outside the organization is the leadership track, which helps you build leadership skills. Members are free to focus on one track or the other or both. I recently earned my CTM (Competent Toastmaster), which is the first educational award on the communication track, and I’m working towards my CL (Competent Leader), which is the first award on the leadership track. There’s a lot of flexibility in how you go about fulfilling the requirements for these.

Toastmasters is a lot of fun too, and I look forward to meetings partly for their entertainment value. There’s normally a lot of humor in each meeting, especially in the club I belong to that includes a few comedians. In some clubs a few members will go out to dinner afterwards. One club in my area called Bachelors & Bachelorettes is only for singles; they meet in the back room of a bar & grill and have cocktails and dinner during their meetings, which tends to make them fairly lively. So don’t be intimidated by the seeming formality of Toastmasters — it’s extremely friendly to newcomers.

At the very least, Toastmasters is a great way to get out and do something social, make new local friends (which is especially nice to counterbalance an overabundance of online friends), have some laughs, and get the heck away from the computer for a while. In fact, I have a meeting to go to right now….