How I Overcame My Fear of Public Speaking

The earliest presentation I can recall giving was during my junior year of high school. I was in front of my U.S. History class, accompanied by two of my classmates. The three of us had prepared for our talk, and it was my turn to present. I recall the stagnant classroom with two doors in the back, begging me to run through them and escape the horror that was in front of me. I started talking and was immediately broadsided by an anxiety panic attack. I froze and didn’t know what to say, so I turned around to one of my classmates and quietly asked them to fill in for me. I was utterly embarrassed and confident that I would never give another presentation again.

At the end of my freshman year at the University of Washington, having just finished the second introductory programming class, CSE 143, Stuart Reges contacted me and asked me if I would like to be a teaching assistant (TA) starting fall of my sophomore year. The thought of presenting to 20-25 students twice a week for an entire quarter was horrifying, but I knew I had to take the opportunity — I knew that having a presentation phobia would limit me in my career. You might be thinking that my logic doesn’t make sense; why would I want to put myself in an uncomfortable situation? I did this because the only way to become comfortable with something is to challenge yourself, to put yourself in the uncomfortable situation over and over again until you’re finally comfortable with it.

If you fear public speaking, then the only way to overcome your fear is to practice public speaking. The way I overcame my fear was by becoming a TA and presenting to 20-25 students twice a week for two years. The first few sections I taught were horrifying; I lost my train of thought often and probably did a poor job of explaining the course material. With time my sections became better and my confidence stronger. But how did I cope with the first few sections? I learned about cognitive therapy from a wonderful book my mom recommended.

Cognitive therapy will help you pinpoint your discomfort and teach you how to cope with it. The trick to coping with discomfort is to learn exactly what makes you uncomfortable.  Are you scared of making a mistake?  Are you worried that you don’t look good?  Are you scared that you’ll lock up and look like an idiot?  You should ask yourself questions like these and try to pinpoint exactly what bothers you most about public speaking.  It’s not enough to say, “I just don’t like it.”  No.  You have to pinpoint your discomfort.  My discomfort was the fear of vomiting in front of people.  For whatever reason I had a primal fear that my audience would see me vomit or would be weirded out if I had to suddenly leave the room never to return.  I know it sounds stupid, but this is what genuinely worried me.  “What if I have to throw up?  I’ll just politely say that I’m not feeling well and that I have to end class.  What if I don’t have enough time to pack my stuff up and end up puking all over the classroom?  I can’t do this presentation.”  This is the thought process I used to go through, and once I realized what my fear was, it was just a matter of learning how to calm myself down and combat my fears.

Combating your fears takes preparation and practice. I would take notes of my thoughts immediately after a worry streak and reflect on them later.  It’s natural to forget your thought process during a worry streak, so writing your thoughts down is very important.  The next step is to examine your thought process and realize ways to combat your worries.  In my vomiting example, I would think about the amount of times I have thrown up in my life, which made me realize that throwing up is not a common thing.  After drinking slightly too much one night, I also realized that the urge to vomit doesn’t come out of nowhere.  If I really had to throw up, then I would feel nauseous, dizzy, etc, and these feelings would come gradually and with warning.  These two facts allowed me to fight my worries in a very rational way, but often my worries would exceed all attempts of being rational.  In cases like these, I would try my hardest to think rationally and explain to myself that my worries were unwarranted given the facts.  Eventually I was able to not let my emotional worries take control of me by immediately considering the logical implications of my worries.  It took time and practice, but eventually logic outweighed emotion.  It’s also important to realize that you can’t try to say to yourself that your worries are just worries and are therefor irrelevant.  This will dig you into a deeper hole, because you’ll realize that if your worries are irrelevant, then something must be wrong with you.  Nothing is wrong with you; lots of people worry.  Think of combating your worries as a personal challenge, one that once overcome will be gratifying to say the least.  Before a presentation, try to mentally put yourself into an uncomfortable situation and practice the ways that you will combat it.  You’ll start being able to combat your worries, and then, after lots of practice, you won’t get many worries at all.

I used to be horrified of public speaking, and now I love it.  Since my public speaking phobea discovery in high school, I’ve given lots of lectures to 20-25 students, 5 lectures to 50+ students, 3 lectures to 100+ students, and 1 lecture to 200+ students.  I was nervous for many of those lectures, but I knew how to combat my nervousness and give the talk regardless.  I put myself in a position where I had to practice my public speaking, and I armed myself with skills to combat worry and overwhelm my emotions with rationale (cognitive therapy isn’t the only solution!).  Becoming a TA might not be in the cards for everyone, but there are plenty of other ways to practice your public speaking.  You can sign up for a public speaking class at a community college, or you can join a local public speaking club.  Try to practice public speaking with subjects that you enjoy; it’s much easier to present something that you’re passionate about.  Plus, chances are good that you’ll be presenting something that you’re very familiar with whenever you’re required to speak publicly.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’ll take some determination and hard work to get there.  You can do it!

  • Hi Alex,
    May I say well done. It’s nice to read an article that shows that ‘one has to help one self’ in this world and that there are no magic wands.
    Dawn Pugh

  • Thanks, Dawn :). You know, your comment reminded me that I was looking for a magic wand when I first started thinking about my public speaking fears. I haven’t found one yet ;).

  • Alex, this is crap. From now on, all remedial advice must include voodoo and mysterious powders that you sprinkle on yourself. That said, CBT is the real deal. I used to be afraid of being a badass, but now I am ok with it.

  • Being a bad ass takes some getting used to I suppose ;).

  • Great stuff as always, Lod. I just make up random things when I’m giving a speech. That usually works.

  • You’re pretty good at making up random stuff. Haha!

  • Your blog is no joke, not such a bad writer for a vomitous public speaker. Keep it rolling, and I will read your book when it’s published in a few years.

  • Haha. Thanks, Pete!

  • Frank

    Wow, you have pretty much described my exact fear of vomiting. reading this has been inspirational/helpful. thanks a lot

  • You’re welcome, Frank! I’m glad my story was useful :). I thought I was the only one with such a problem; it comforts me to know that you share the same fear. Anyway, best of luck and let me know if you have any questions!

  • I don’t think I ever had a pure fear of public speaking, but definitely some anxiety. All of that ended sophomore year of high school. At some point, I realized that no matter how stupid I act or sound, no matter what I do and how I screw up, no one is really going to spend more than 5 minutes of their day thinking or talking about it. Then I asked myself, “why should I care what someone thinks for 5 minutes a day?” And that was that.

  • Totally agreed, Vitaly. But for me, and I’m sure others, I’m not able to easily look beyond the current moment. Anxiety by definition can’t just go away because I know it’s irrational.

  • koos42

    I’ve always been okay at public speaking. My trick is that I pretend to be someone else, sometimes incorporating a costume (the last one was a cardigan with an un-tucked button-up I called Casuademic). Know your topic well, fly by the seat of your pants, and put all of the blame on your new assumed identity. That guy was strangely more confident than usual.

  • Haha! I dig!

  • Very true. There is a huge leap from understanding to internalizing. But it can be made.