How I deal with my fear of public speaking
So many of us have a fear of public speaking and, as I am finding myself doing it more and more, I thought I would share how I deal with my nerves and fear of what everyone else will think of me. Because those concerns are not going away any time soon.
Before I do I think it would help if I explain how I've come to speaking in public and how the fear shows up for me.
Have you ever had a weird out of body experience where you're speaking and at the same time there's an internal monologue running through your head? As an overthinker I'm guessing you can identify. It happened to me on one particular occasion many years ago when I was giving a reading at a close friend's wedding.
As I stood there, in front of a packed church, reading a passage from the Old Testament, I could feel my heart pounding so quickly in my chest I wondered if it was going to beat so fast I'd end up flat-lining. I was sure that despite sticking the passage onto a piece of card the congregation could see my hands shaking and they must think I was a gibbering wreck. I wondered if I should look up more but what if I lost the line I was reading? And while all this chatter was going on inside my head I was reading aloud to the church.
When I finally finished and wobbled my way back to my place a woman in the pew behind me whispered, "Well done, that was a really tricky passage and you read it so well, I'd have been a bag of nerves. You'll have to tell me how you keep so calm when you're up there."
Somehow (really, I don't know how) she and the rest of the people in the church that day, hadn't seen my heart pounding in my chest, my hands shaking or heard the running commentary in my head. But I was well aware and I have been every time I've spoken in public.
I was quite proud that until I was in my 40s I had avoided public speaking related to work. During my career in publishing I had dodged and made excuses and sometimes just refused to do radio or TV interviews, even speaking in front of a meeting room full of people terrified me. All those people looking at me, thinking who knows what about me, expecting me to be perfect, to have all the answers, to be witty and charming and clever and brilliant… plus dealing with the shaky hands, red face and possibly fumbling words… no. No way was I putting myself in such a vulnerable, frightening position where I could make a total fool of myself. So I didn't.
And I was fine with that. I had zero desire to present to a group of people, to host a workshop or give a talk so at no point did I feel regret or wish I could do it.
Time passed and I left publishing to start my own stationery business. My interest in positive psychology and how it was helping me to deal with my worry and overthinking grew to the point where I wanted to share my newfound knowledge and experience with others.
I wanted to connect with people to share what I knew would be of help to them but the idea of public speaking of any kind was still too terrifying. So I started making myself a little bit more visible in a way that felt out of my comfort zone but manageable. I recorded a video, with many, many, many retakes, to post on my website. I made a video for Instagram Stories, again redoing over and over until I felt just about able to share it.
Over time I added private Facebook groups to my courses and occasionally did a live video in the group. I created my free Facebook group and challenged myself to go live not only in the group but on Instagram at the same time.
While I was pushing myself to speak up and show my face online I was still doing it from the safety of my home to an audience whose faces I couldn't see while I was talking.
But this desire to help, to share what I knew from the research and my own experience that would make a real and significant (even life-changing as it did for me) difference to overthinkers was what drove me to speak face to face to a group of people at an event for the first time.
It was a Makelight Retreat held by Emily Quinton and I spoke about living mindfully. I was so nervous but I was driven on by the desire to share information that I was convinced would be of benefit to the women at the retreat. I had my notes, I focused on getting across what I felt passionately about and… I did it! The feedback was so encouraging it proved to me that it was worth pushing myself way out of my comfort zone because what I had spoken about was of real value to the women listening.
The crucial difference between how I felt when asked to speak in my previous career and this was that it was my choice. My desire to share ideas for how you can live with more joy and peace was greater than my fear of public speaking. The fear was most definitely still there but my motivation to not let it stop me was more powerful.
It was only one event, it was in a cosy setting with a small group of women, but it felt like a huge achievement to me. And Emily invited me back to speak at the retreat the following year!
Another year went by and my passion for what I was sharing through my online courses had grown so much that I sold my stationery business so I could concentrate fully on helping overthinkers to worry less and enjoy life more.
I had visited the first Mindful Living Show and had loved the inspiring talks and workshops. I found myself imagining what it would be like to speak at such an event, to share some ideas on how you can reduce the worry and increase the joy in your life. I couldn't shake this thought so I contacted the organisers and found myself agreeing to run a workshop on gratitude practice at the second Mindful Living Show in 2018! It was booked months in advance so felt more exciting than scary.
Until the date got closer and closer and I found myself, notes in hand, wearing a head mic (that wouldn't stay on my head so I ended up holding it) speaking to a group of around 50 people!
That was twice as many people as was expected and, as I wanted to have an interactive element to the session I had worksheets and pens – but not enough for all of these people that had turned up! However, we made do, I got across everything I wanted to with a lot of eye contact and not too much reading from my notes and several people told me afterwards how much they had enjoyed the session and learned from it.
So once again I had done something I found super scary and not only made it through to the other side but also accomplished my aim of sharing useful tools and ideas in a way that engaged and interested my audience. Phew!
Since then I have spoken at two creativity and wellbeing festivals, given a workshop at a retreat and been interviewed on a panel at a coaching event. Every single time I have been incredibly nervous – pounding heart, wobbly legs, shaky hands – and every time I've survived. And most importantly I've connected with people, they've shared a little of their story with me and what they're taking from my talk or workshop. This is so rewarding and impactful for me and it plays a significant part in my pushing myself to speak in public the next time.
This brings us to the point of this post, how do I deal with my fear of public speaking? Here's what I find helps me:
- I care deeply about the topics on which I speak publicly. Helping people who feel stressed out by their spiralling minds and worrisome thoughts to feel calmer, more able to deal with their overthinking, and to feel more joy means EVERYTHING to me. This is my motivation and without it I wouldn't want to or be able to face my fear and speak in front of an audience.
- I allow myself to feel nervous, I don't try to push it away or beat myself up for not feeling confident. I acknowledge how I feel and I reassure myself that even if it goes wrong I won't die, the world won't crumble around me and life will still go on pretty much exactly as it did before.
- I remind myself that the body can't tell the difference between nerves and excitement, it just knows that adrenaline is coursing through me. So rather than fight my pounding heart or shaking hands I reframe my physical symptoms as excitement. I change my self-talk from 'I'm so nervous, this is terrifying, why am I doing this' to 'I'm excited, this is thrilling, I'll feel amazing once I've done it'.
- I don't hide how I'm feeling – if someone asks me I tell them honestly that I'm nervous but also that I'm excited or else I wouldn't be doing it, because that's true too.
- To combat the worry of what everyone listening will think of me I remind myself that I have zero control over them and their opinions. What I do have power over is what I say and do so that's where I focus my energy.
- Since that first talk I gave at the Makelight retreat I've had evidence that I can do this, I have proof that I can talk to a group of people and not disintegrate into a heap on the floor because I've done it. Every time I give a workshop or speak at an event I'm proving to myself that I can do hard things.
- I prepare. I know I am absolutely not a make-it-up-as-you-go-along type of person so I prepare. I write out my talk or the workshop in longhand – bullet points increase my anxiety because I forget all the things I wanted to say in relation to that one point. I find that I'm more relaxed and need to look at my notes less if I have what I want to say written out in full in front of me. I haven't given a talk or workshop without notes yet (and unless I'm asked to maybe I never will) but I practice with my notes a lot so that I don't simply read and I'm able to look up from them to connect with the people in front of me. The only time I haven't had my notes with me was when I was interviewed about overcoming perfectionism on a panel.
- Which leads me on to recognising my perfectionist tendencies, the self-talk that says "I have to get this talk right, I have to make the workshop the best ever, I mustn't get anything wrong or make any mistakes". What matters is that I give value to the audience, that I connect with them and speak honestly with the care and passion I feel for the subject matter. If I stumble or go red or need to check my notes it's not the end of the world. It doesn't mean I've failed, it just means I'm human and I can learn from the experience to help me next time.
- Most importantly of all, after I've dealt with all of the above, I focus on the people in front of me who are giving their valuable time and attention to listen to me. I focus on how best I can serve them, how I can be of most help to them, how I can give them the information, the tools, the ideas and inspire them to take what they need and apply it to their own lives for their own benefit. Because that's why I'm there, speaking in public, in the first place – to connect and share how you can worry less and enjoy life more. It's the only reason and it's the best reason and by focusing on serving the audience I take the focus off me and my nerves and shine it on them.
- And finally, once my moment of public speaking is over I celebrate it! Depending on the situation that may be having a silent squeal to myself, phoning my husband or doing a little happy dance with a friend! When we do challenging things, when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, it's important that we acknowledge the achievement (however it went) and celebrate having a go.
I haven't lost my fear of public speaking and perhaps I never will (although I think it may be lessening just a little the more I do it) but it does help me to say yes to speaking opportunities rather than letting my fear stop me.
I hope sharing how I deal with my fear of public speaking is useful. Now I want to hear from you – what do you do to support yourself when you're out of your comfort zone? What will you take from what I've shared and put into practice yourself?
I'm talking more about this fear and of the topic of worrying what other people think in The Calm Mind Club this month. It's a monthly membership where you will discover how to reduce your overthinking and feel more calm, confident and in control. You get tools, techniques, live sessions with myself and guest experts, a resource library, bonuses including 50% off my courses, plus a warm, supportive community of like-minded folk who know just how you feel.
"I joined The Calm Mind Club having followed Gabrielle's excellent podcasts. The first month has been amazing, she has provided a safe secure space in which to admit our overthinking habits knowing they are shared by others. Gabrielle is so generous with her time and resources – so many useful tools to try it's like a gorgeous box of chocolates that calm and soothe! I love it." – Paula Dear
Find out more about The Calm Mind Club, and join, by clicking thecalmmindclub.com.
Photo by Issie Freeman taken at the Beautiful You Coaching Academy Inspiration Day July 2019 with Julie Parker on the left and Pippa Parfait centre.