Let’s talk about the real issues at the heart of public speaking fear: embarrassment and self-esteem.

I teach communication classes at a university in Nashville, TN. We started the Spring semester this past week. After one of my classes, a young woman came up to talk to me. The interaction went something like this:

Student: Do you teach this course online?

Me: I’m sorry, I don’t. Why is it that you are wanting to take the class online?

Student: Because I’m terrified of public speaking. I just don’t think I can do this.

I had heard this story before. In my 16 years of teaching in the college classroom, I’ve had countless students who deal with some form of presentation anxiety. I usually reassure them by saying that in all my years of teaching, I’ve never failed someone due to nerves, and I’ve never had anyone die for fear of public speaking. So my track record is pretty solid.

Me: I know you are scared, but can I ask you for two favors?

Student: (hesitantly) Sure.

Me: First, will you trust me to get you through this?

Student: I guess I can do that.

Me: Second, will you give me permission to say “I told you so” when you are presenting with confidence by the end of the semester?

She chuckled and rolled her eyes as she said, “okay.”

Why are humans so consistently and so persistently afraid of public speaking? I believe it’s because presenting in front of an audience is tied to self-esteem and the risk of embarrassment.

Self-Esteem

In their article, “The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem,” Jennifer Crocker and Lora E. Park of the University of Michigan say, “The pursuit of self-esteem has become a central preoccupation in American culture . . . The pursuit of self-esteem is so pervasive that many psychologists have assumed it is a universal and fundamental human need.” If that’s true, if our need to save face and maintain a healthy self-esteem is a fundamental need, it’s no wonder we fear public speaking. Crocker and Park’s research found that higher levels of anxiety are present whenever we are trying to protect our self-esteem. So when we get up to give a presentation, we feel nervous because we are trying to protect both how we feel about ourselves as well as how others perceive us. The second of those has a lot to do with embarrassment.

Embarrassment

Public speaking continues to be one of the top fears of human beings not because we fear talking in front of other people but because we fear appearing inadequate or stupid in front of other people. So when we make a mistake during a presentation, we believe it’s a public display of inadequacy (rather than a public display of our humanity). And we feel embarrassed. Or at least most of us do. Author and clinical psychologist, Mary Lamia says, “Embarrassment likely evolved to maintain social order, since in being embarrassed people communicate to others that they recognize and regret their misbehavior and will try to do better.”

But this sits on the inaccurate assumption that as speakers, we have to be perfect. And this is tied to our self-esteem. We assume that when our performance stumbles or our pretense crumbles, we’ve somehow violated a societal rule. But we haven’t.

Disrupting the Link Between Self-Esteem and Embarrassment

Use the following tips to increase your self-esteem and put embarrassment in its place:

  • Stop trying to be perfect. No speaker is. Instead of aiming to say and do everything perfectly, aim to be clear in what you are communicating and to relate with warmth to your audience. You can accomplish those goals even if you slip up from time to time.
  • Detach what you do from who you are. Just because you feel nervous when you get up to speak, or because you say “um” a few times, doesn’t mean you are a bad speaker. Don’t let mistakes or fears define you. Show yourself the same grace you would show others.
  • Remember your audience is made up of humans who make mistakes, too. Audiences are generally more understanding and supportive than speakers, especially nervous ones, give them credit for.

Before you triumph as a speaker, you have to try-umph! You have to practice and keep at it, knowing that you will have mistakes and setbacks along the way. But with each presentation, you’ll find your embarrassment lessens and your self-esteem grows.

I can’t wait to watch this happen for my students this semester. Particularly the ones who are really afraid. I’ll be cheering and waiting to whisper, “I told you so.”

We’d love to give you both the education and experience to master the art of public speaking. Ready to get started? (We’ll be standing by to say, “I told you so.”)

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