Public Speaking, Stage Fright, and Beyond


Posted on January 1, 1970 by Blake Leath

I have a friend.  Let’s call him “Smith,” because he represents up to 13% of the U.S. population.    

Smith and I are visiting this past Monday, and he begins to open up about his fear of public speaking.  I initially suspect he is a “sensitizer” (one who becomes increasingly self-aware and nervous, particularly after ‘his speaking’ begins) and not a “habituator” (one who becomes calmer and more absorbed ‘in the conversation itself’ rather than his/her own delivery of it), though it is also possible he may even suffer, as he describes it, from Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), which has its own constellation of symptoms, chief among them: blushing, confusion, profuse sweating, muscle tension, trembling/shaking, lightheadedness/dizziness, rapid heart rate, dry/cotton mouth, upset stomach, and even nausea.  In Smith’s case, not only as a result of the act of public speaking itself, but in anticipation of the act. 

An estimated 41 million Americans suffer from SAD or abbreviated symptoms and, along with depression and alcohol dependence, it rounds out the triumvirate of most common mental disorders in this country.  Though more common in women than men, and arising during early adolescence, it can affect anyone, sometimes arising due to biological sources (extreme fight, flight, or freeze reactions), psychological sources (having experienced an embarrassment or public humiliation, like bullying or neglect by peers), environmental sources (seeing others laughed at, made fun of, or having been sheltered by overprotective parents or pressured by parents whose example or expectations appear dauntingly high) or, in some cases, arising from a combination of all three.

As you might imagine, this hyper-nervousness and self-consciousness, often swelling alongside the anticipatory fear of being singled out, closely watched, or potentially judged or criticized by others may bloom into a full-blown panic attack.  And Smith, to hear him tell it, becomes distressed about his presentation weeks before he presents, not just days.  Particularly if it is one that requires memorization versus spontaneity.  He recounted several examples, dating back to his childhood, of wanting to drop courses, switch teachers, or even change schools or majors…all in an effort to minimize or avoid public speaking situations.

But those with diagnosed “generalized SAD” (as opposed to “specific SAD”) fear more than one social or performance-oriented situation, not just something like public speaking (which is, itself, the #1 self-professed fear in America).  These social situations may include virtually any manner of activity that puts the individual “front and center,” be it eating, drinking, writing, talking on the phone, even working in front of others or, of course, presenting or reciting a poem by memory or giving a book report using 3x5 cards.  And perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: where there be public urinals or toilets, there be dragons! 

Though the individual is typically aware that his/her fear is irrational, it can often swallow one whole or influence a person’s entire life or routine, from educational choices to relationships to jobs.  And the estimated 13% are all around us, and always have been, from yesterday’s Abraham Lincoln and Emily Dickinson to today’s Barbra Streisand, Brian Wilson, Donny Osmond, Kim Basinger, Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, Emma Stone and approximately 40,999,993 others, many of whom have found methods or medications for coping, and many of whom have not, yet.

Perhaps disappointingly, though, my aim today is not to regurgitate the myriad existing and prospective solutions for managing SAD, as that would be—at a minimum, redundant, and at the maximum—derelict, particularly given the limitations of time and space in a blog such as this.  I would, instead, encourage you to seek, that ye might find.  There are lots of great techniques and resources available today; just google and bing and yahoo away, or twist your antennae upward, that you may learn of a great counselor, therapist or doctor in your community.  So very many are increasingly conversant in SAD; I am confident you will find what you need and genuinely hopeful that you will.



Fear of speaking in public, however traumatic as it may seem, is a garden variety phobia.  That doesn’t mean I’m dismissing its effects, merely pointing out its pervasiveness.  Most everyone has or catches this lil’ bug at one point or another, including the likes of Garth Brooks—who has performed, what, maybe 1,000 times or more in the course of his career?  He admits to getting “all kinds of sick” beforehand, and I am of the mind that if you care, fear be there.  It seems to me that just as we perceive “fear of public speaking” as a phobia, we must accept that “an absence of fear” is a pathology.  Of course it is.  Pathological thrill-seekers throw caution to the wind, risking life and limb, seemingly willing to leave children parentless as a result, and psychopaths and sociopaths wantonly do as they please without regard for others.  Is it not logical, then, that ‘not caring how one is perceived by others’ would be a pathology we discuss more often—it being an absence of humanity itself? 

Seems to me, when we think and talk about it, we have things backwards.  I suggest that a Fear of Public Speaking = “Normal” (loaded, though, that word may be) and should not be considered some atypical fear, and an Absence of Fear of Public Speaking = “Abnormal” (and should be considered a pathology, measurable from mild to moderate). 

I’m only barely joshin’, but am sure you catch my drift.  To have so thoroughly stigmatized the fear of public speaking, literally classifying it as a diagnosable phobia (“glossophobia,” to be precise)—when it is such a natural state of man—seems to emphasize the wrong sy-llable.  The conversation should go, “Oh, wow, so you’re not afraid to speak publicly?  That’s so weird!  What’s it like, being a unicorn?” 



Years ago, I spoke at a conference for Northwest Airlines, right after the inimitable David McNally.  A dear friend to this day, he is a phenomenal public speaker.  Really, truly, a “professional speaker,” having been inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame, and possessing the CPAE designation, which stands for “Council of Peers Award for Excellence” (a fancy way of saying, “Even my professional speaker friends attest I’m awesome, and they know the magic tricks”).  A svelte and gentrified Aussie, David always has keen insights and a silky-smooth delivery like some well-aged bourbon.  Gliding off the stage in his tailored suit and shiny mint tie, he had kept the audience enraptured for the better part of an hour, and then up I go, succeeding him and taking the fuzzy black stairs two at a time and landing on the enormous stage (easily 30’ deep and 60’ wide), panting heavily in front of 500 of my closest new friends, a proverbial sea of crossed arms and inky, blinking eyes.  I hadn’t even thought to bring a sport coat, and God only knows what I blathered on about for ninety minutes.  The entire delivery was a yellow blur.  When it was over, I found myself back in the audience, seated at an 8-top with a representative sample of all who endured me, and while we dined on rubber chicken, potatoes and cheese-besotted asparagus, the woman to my left turns to me and asks, blank-faced, “So, what is it that you do, young man?”

In a moment of awkward silence, several at the table chuckle, one responding—on my behalf—“Miriam, this is Blake.  He just spoke.”

“Oh, you’re a speaker then?” she asks.

“I guess not,” I offer.  And with this, everyone chortles and snorts as hungry mouths find new, surprising, apparently delectable bits and bites of remaining rubber chicken pieces strewn hither and yon and warranting all sorts of attention with stabby, clangy forks.

I deprecate and exaggerate, only a little, having found myself in this scenario—or one kinda like it—on perhaps a dozen occasions.  I’ll never forget the time I spoke in Kauai, where an organization had flown my wife, daughter and me for what would only be my 90-minute talk on “Leading Change in Turbulent Times.”  Again, I have only fuzzy memories of what I actually said, but I do remember completing “my set” (certain I’d killed it), then winding my way to the back of the room to sign 2-3 books, and being told by an audience member as he departed, “Nice shirt, dude.”  Apparently, the biggest impression I had made on him was the getup they encouraged me to wear, which went something along the lines of, “Hawaiian shirt, if you please, like Don Ho.”  (I still have that shirt, and it makes me flinch every time I come across it in the back of my closet.)

Or how about the time our team, months in advance (as requested) uploaded my slides to the convention host’s website, proceeded to go back and forth with their A/V designee about detail after detail for several weeks thereafter, and when I finally take the stage—literally, the walk-on music blasting from the speakers—I’m asked by some shadowy stagehand dressed head-to-toe in black, “Do you have any slides on a thumbdrive so we can load something onto the screen for you?”  Yeah, that was a fun last-minute song and dance with puppet show and accompanying crickets, as I tried my best to channel ninety minutes of content by memory.

Or the time I spoke to a group located about an hour west of Beijing, assured beforehand that, “Yes, everyone here speaks English” only to learn that, no, in fact, they really don’t.

Or the time I loudly clapped my hands to emphasize a point I’d just made, only to see a hitherto sleeping man’s head bob upward so violently that drool flew across his chest, splattering his polo shirt like Robert De Niro in some slow-mo Raging Bull boxing scene. 

Or the time I left my bottle of water under the seat from whence they introduced me, and immediately became so cotton-mouthed after weaving through 800 people to take the stage that I began to wonder, seriously, whether eating my Carmex might help, or whether they’d notice if I ate it in front of them under this array of spotlights and broadcast screens.  Or, worst case, whether someone at the front table would mind terribly if I quickly hopped down and swigged from his water bottle before I began in earnest.

Or the time a fella sitting off to my right, near the front, stood up for a personal restroom break, tripped over the  v-e-r-y  obvious, long, bright orange industrial extension cord that wound its way to the A/V cart upon which my computer sat, and brought the entire set-up crashing to the floor, giving me a fun 7-8 minutes of awkward silence and extemporaneous joke telling while I brought everything vertical again, placed it, aligned it, re-plugged it in, re-booted it, re-focused it, and re-calibrated its keystone.  Yeah, that was the longest 7-8 minutes of my month.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t see the sweat dripping from the tip of my nose.  Not that time, at least.

Or the time in Missoula, delivering a workshop for smoke jumpers in a large “atrium” of sorts, with no lights.  You’d think that would work just fine for my slide deck, but I mean: we could not turn OFF the lights, because the entire atrium was illuminated by 270-degrees of sunlit glass.  Glass walls, glass ceiling, glass everything.  The only thing not glass was the floor.  Let’s just agree to call it a greenhouse, okay?  A hot, steamy, stagnant greenhouse—and we were the fauna.  The result?  No handouts had arrived, no slides were visible, no nothing.  I just winged it, because it was like standing on a soccer field at noon in mid-July, and looking at paper was the equivalent of staring at tin foil.  It was unbearably, blindingly bright, and the posse of squinty eyes were beaming at me as if to say, “Can you move things along, man, ‘cause we are dyin’ in here!  It's too hot, and we're smoke jumpers, for cryin' out loud!”

Which reminds me of the THREE DAY workshop I provided in Portugal, the one predicated on slick three-ring binder material I had agonized over for months and months prior.  We shipped it two weeks in advance, I was told it was there, so I hopped on a plane and flew all that way, only to be told—for three days in a row each morning before class—“Yes, yes, your material is here, but it is stuck in Customs.”  “Can we go get it?”  “No, no, it must remain there for several days.”  Such fun, with forty leaders from more than a dozen European countries, delivered in a tiny theater in the round/pit-like academic room, with yours truly the fish in the center of the bowl, working from slides as people took scrawly notes on stapled sheets of paper placed on their wobbly knees. 

And you know what?  I survived each and every one of these occasions and was—SHOCK—periodically invited back to do it again.

Mind you, I don’t mean to create panic or shout “Fire!” in a movie theater by giving you the impression that things go wrong all the time.  They don’t.  They won’t.  But I do mean to give you the impression that—when they do—you’ll be okay.

“This too shall pass,” as they say, and frankly, few will remember.  In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

I am a living testament that, Yes, Dorothy, bad things do happen to good people.  But you know what else?  It ain’t really all that bad; it’s actually sorta comical and, in the end, no one gets hurt.  Sure, a bruised ego here and there.  Sure, some Herculean effort now and again to get things back on track, to re-capture the mood, to make light of the obvious—that Murphy’s Law is alive and well and, apparently, here with us today.

Everyone screws up, most everyone fears—at one time or another to some degree or another—speaking publically or looking like an idiot.  It’s part of the human condition.  If you want to be a member of this species, get used to it: we are afraid, and it’s natural.  Adrenaline is pumping, palms are sweating, hands are shaking, tummy is turning…that’s good; you’re alive; dukes up; all systems go!

My advice?  Prepare, focus on a few key points, consider a mnemonic or acrostic (that will serve you while you speak), memorize your beginning and ending, know your stuff backwards and forwards, and then put it all down and walk away a good day before you speak.  On the day you do speak, read through your ideas once more before you hop in the shower, then let the memory of them foment and foam and wash over you while you shower, starting from the shampoo in your hair and concluding as suds that slip down the drain along with all your grime and worry.  Breathe.  Visualize the moment when you’ll be introduced, the moment you’ll rise, the moment you’ll walk to the front of the room and flip-on your microphone, the moment you’ll first make eye contact with your introducer and your audience, the moment you’ll break the ice—showing them “I got this, so you guys can just relax”—and then let ‘r rip and have fun!  Be sure to arrive early and double-check your A/V, regardless whether you’re using your own laptop or following someone else and having to piggyback on his/her laptop.  Always bring your own VGA/HDMI connectors and “clicker.”  If you are piggybacking on someone else’s machine, copy your file to their desktop prior and open it to see if your fonts appear the way you intended.  (Use fancy fonts at your own risk, because your beautiful PowerPoint deck—opened on a troglodyte’s machine—will convert “fancy” to Arial, small pica to large, and presto-blammo, all is crap.)  And always bring a hardcopy of your notes, should copies need to be made at the hotel or conference center.  Also, introduce yourself to the A/V guy and memorize his freakin’ name.  For the next few moments, he is your greatest ally in the whole wide world.  When you finally do begin, relax your shoulders, mind your breathing, slow it down, don’t pace like a cornered tiger, remember to ask questions, tell those stories, and share anecdotes and facts and your perception of the truth as you see it, then leave ‘em hungry.  Keep it practical, but intelligent.  Real, but illuminating.  Offer new ways of seeing or deconstructing everyday problems, and you’ll have added value to their day or way, and that’s the point of it all.  To make a difference, to begin a conversation, to start a ripple.

Every now and again, it’ll work, and totally click.  You’ll be praised and hugged and carried out on shoulders, your arms extended high and fists pumping the air.  Women will squeeze your hand and look intently into your eyes, weeping, telling you what a difference you’ve just made.  Old men will wish you were their grandchild.  The host will offer to put you in rotation for future events.  She’ll order a pallet of your books and smile proudly at her peers on the Speaker Selection Committee as if to say, “I chose this guy, and you can’t have him.”

More often than not, whether you’re Tony Robbins and enthralling thousands or some Rotarian who had just 10 brief minutes (“And no more!”), chances are good that soon thereafter, few people will remember much of what you said anyway.  Most every study shows that within weeks, approximately 85-90% of what you worked so hard to communicate will be a fluid and fleeting memory.  That’s a sobering reality, one that brings me back time and time again to something so true that Maya Angelou wrote years ago.  “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

I know that public speaking is scary.  For some, it is even debilitating or paralyzing, but take comfort in the truth: it matters least what you say, and most that you say it from the heart.  If (after your 10 minutes, 2 hours, or 3 days are complete) people feel good about having heard you, having spent time with you, or would consider themselves fortunate to be counted among a member of your tribe, or better educated, or acknowledged or encouraged or inspired in some small way, or can more clearly see themselves and what they need to do next in their own lives, well then, consider yourself wildly, gluttonously, outrageously, obscenely successful.  Most folks won’t remember your many points, but they’ll likely remember how you made them feel when you expressed them.  So make your focus them, not you, and you’ll do just fine.

Heck, you’ll do better than fine.  You’ll leave them wanting more.



Additional Sources & Resources: WebMD, Mayo Clinic,