How to Permanently Remove Your Fear of Public Speaking
The single mindset change that converted me from dreading to loving being on stage
After a number of requests, here’s the follow-up to my recent post about lowering your heart rate before giving a talk.
In that piece, I said there were two main types of anxiety or excitement when giving a talk.
The first one is where you are extremely nervous about giving a talk in the first place, and the entire thought of public speaking fills you with terror. Let’s call that the Major version.
And the second one is more like excitement than anxiety. It’s where you want to give the talk, and enjoy it, but your heart beats too fast and you tend to rush as a result. Let’s call this the Minor version.
I mentioned in the first piece that I haven’t had the Major kind for like 15 years, and many asked how I solved it. So that’s what you’re reading now.
As with many things in life, the key to being more comfortable in front of audiences is all about framing.
Framing is how you look at a situation. Two people could be looking at the identical thing, and if one has a positive frame, or a useful frame, and the other one has a negative one, that distinction is everything.
If you’re thinking about the audience or yourself, you’ve disconnected from the source.
It’s the difference between excitement and anxiety, stress and arousal, and looking forward to something versus dreading it.
For public speaking, I use a framework that I got—strangely enough—from a book called, The Dichotomy of Leadership, by Jocko Willink. That book is about leadership, but what it had in it was a series of variable sliders that represented a spectrum of ways to think or act in various situations.
These are some of them that I extracted in my review of the book.
My visualization of the lessons in Dichotomy of Leadership
Basically, the entire book was about the fact that different situations—with different people—require the leader to respond differently. Sometimes a subordinate needs to be empowered. Sometimes they need prescriptive guidance. Sometimes it’s time to mentor. Other times it’s time to fire. Etc.
My public speaking sliders
I imagine a similar set of sliders when thinking about public speaking.
A healthy frame
The right side of this scale is what people normally imagine when they hear “public speaking”. They include self-talk like:
I’m not practicing; this is the real thing
I need to worry about the audience
It must go perfectly
Future talks don’t matter; it’s all on this one
Well of course you’re scared! That’s terrifying, and a winning recipe for anxiety.
We are all taught to fear public speaking growing up, and this is why. It’s the wrong framing.
The positive frame
The right frame is to move those sliders to the other side of the spectrum.
I’m going to do this talk a dozen or a hundred times. This is just practice.
My only job is to convey my love for this topic, so be enthusiastic! High energy is the key.
I don’t need to be perfect; I just need to be prepared. The difference is knowing that you are ready, but it will never be perfect. And that’s ok.
Know that this is one of many. You’re someone who shares your ideas. You’ll do it often. This is one of many. Yawn. Go out there and enjoy it. There’s no such thing as THE BIG ONE because you’ll be getting ready for the next one after this.
Ultimately, I’m not a “public speaker”—whatever that means—I’m someone who shares my enthusiasm for things.
The trick is to switch the focus from yourself and the audience to the ideas in the talk.
Here’s another way to think about it.
The moment you imagine so-called “public speaking”, you’ve lost the plot. Once you do that, you’re not thinking about what you’re talking about. You’re now focused 100% on the audience, your slides, and how to make sounds with your mouth.
This is similar to trying to build content based on what the audience will like, and doing your absolute best to make them happy. This sounds good, right? It’s not. Because once again, you’ve taken your eye off the ball, which is the idea, and moved into the world of pandering.
Don’t get caught pandering
To focus on the audience and its reaction is to confuse funny things with laughter. Body movements with dancing. Vibrating things with playing music.
The most personal is the most creative.
If you want to make someone laugh, you can’t think about laughter. You have to focus on what’s funny. If you want to dance, you have to think of the music, not how to move your foot and elbow. Same in the bedroom. That’s what the framework above does—it brings your focus back to what’s important.
You can’t jump to the outcome. You have to enjoy the process that creates that outcome. And that’s your content.
So now let’s go into more detail on the various components of the healthier mindset.
First, don’t think of things as a big moment. A talk is not a big moment. The idea is the big moment. The idea in the talk is the thing that’s on stage, and the star of the show. You’re just broadcasting your fascination with it!
It’s not a matter of “will this talk be perfect?”, because you’re going to talk about this topic another 20 times or 50 times or 100 times in the future. And every time you learn something new, you’ll tweak the talk and deliver it slightly differently. This fluid nature of the talk should remind you of how unimportant “perfect” is.
Next, you are not “doing public speaking”, which is utterly meaningless.
Find surprising and interesting things to talk about, and be excited when you talk about them.
You’re sharing your enthusiasm for an idea or set of ideas. Or something surprising you learned. Something you find super interesting that you can’t wait to share.
When you approach talks this way, it won’t matter if you make a couple of mistakes. Nobody will care or remember because they’ll be too busy absorbing the idea itself.
When you get into this frame while you’re up there, you are not on the stage, and the audience isn’t even really there. And whether it’s two people who you’ve known since high school or 40,000 people in a giant stadium, it doesn’t matter.
Genuine enthusiasm is both contageous and forgiving.
The reason it doesn’t matter is because the audience is not the point. And you aren’t the point either. It’s the content. It’s the idea. It’s the thing that you are here to talk about. That is all that matters.
You will know that you have reached this frame when what matters to you after the talk is not whether or not someone says,
That just means you didn’t piss yourself, didn’t sweat too much, didn’t fall off the stage, and didn’t fall over dead. That’s what most people are looking for when they get off stage because they were so scared to get up there. And maybe someone took a note or something.
But as you switch your frame, you’re looking for something completely different. You’re instead looking for someone to come up and say,
That’s the standard. And if you focus on the idea and your enthusiasm, you can still nail that while making lots of mistakes during delivery.
We’ve been taught a mindset of fear around public speaking as kids.
We were told that the audience was looking for perfection.
What they actually want is to be surprised by new information, or a new way of thinking, and to have someone passionately share that with them.
The slider framework lets you focus on what matters, which is the idea vs. yourself and/or the audience, being enthusiastic vs. being scared, and practicing vs. perfecting.
To get started, don’t think about what an audience might want. Think instead about what you are passionate about, and that you wish others saw the awesomeness of. Then get out there and start sharing that with others.
Ultimately, it’s all about putting the idea first, and letting your love for the topic shine through as the prime attraction.
And here’s my promise: Once you start seeing public speaking in this frame, you will—like I did—start massively looking forward to presenting.
Now, get out there and practice sharing what excites you.