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Speech Anxiety: Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking
By John Robert Colombo

This article addresses these questions about speech anxiety and the fear of public speaking.
Why do we fear public speaking?
Is speech anxiety normal?
What can we do to face our public speaking fear and speech anxiety?
Fear of Public Speaking
Speech anxiety is a general term for the sense of fear or panic that overtakes a person when he or she is called upon to speak or otherwise perform in public. There are other ways to refer to it: anxiousness, nervousness, "the jitters," stage fright, fear of public speaking, performance anxiety, etc. It usually strikes when someone has to deliver a presentation before a group of people. It makes little difference whether the audience is large or small, composed of familiar or unfamiliar faces. Psychologists consider speech anxiety to be a special case of what is commonly known as shyness.

What do psychologists: Philip G. Zimbardo, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler say about speech anxiety - the fear of public speaking?

The Shyness factor

Zimbardo: The Root of Speech Anxiety is Shyness
Philip G. Zimbardo, the well-known cognitive psychologist, has devoted decades to the study of the "shyness factor" as it affects people of different ages, backgrounds, businesses, and cultures. He found that shyness figures in everyone's life. Most people admitted to him that when under pressure they experience symptoms of anxiety: the jitters, sweaty palms, knocking knees, facial flushes, watery eyes, leathery tongue, dry mouth, wild heartbeats, shortness of breath, memory lapses, mental confusions, high anxiety limit the list to one dozen symptoms of chronic shyness.

Zimbardo found that there are differences in the ways that shyness is handled by peoples of different countries and cultures. Such differences may account for variations in reporting levels of shyness and presumably in experiencing high or low levels. For instance, people he interviewed in Japan admitted to experiencing a greater degree of shyness when meeting with strangers than did people he interviewed in Israel. But across the board he found that everyone owned up to some degree of shyness, some people to an alarmingly high degree, even when being interviewed by Dr. Zimbardo! Shyness is thus a characteristic of human nature brought about by our physiology, neurology, psychology, and social conditioning.

No one should feel that nature has singled him or her out for a special affliction. No one should feel freakish because he or she panics when faced with the need to present in public. It is human to feel some anxiety. Some people experience more of it, some less. Successful speakers are men and women who have found ways to find relief from these sensations and emotions. They have found ways to make them "work" for them.

Managing the Fear of Public Speaking
One way to make them "work" is to "overwork" them. They do this by accepting every invitation to speak in public and by seeking out additional opportunities to appear before the public. They speak as often as possible, on as many occasions as possible, and in as many different venues as possible. Sheer repetition generally helps to distance one from the tension generated by the anticipated ordeal. But with some people it may ingrain the fear and concern.

Understanding Speech Anxiety
Some direct approaches that are cognitive and behavioural in nature have been found to be of use. Zimbardo's insight into the dynamic of shyness is that shyness is a learned behaviour. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the distressing expressions of anxiety may be examined and modified. The bad news is that the mechanism that generates these expressions will always be present because they are essential parts of our bodies and minds. The faculties that permit us to experience fear and panic are normal parts of the physiological, neurological, and cerebral systems--of the body, the emotions, and the brain. But they respond to "keying" or "cueing" and their expression, having been patterened, may be repatterned. The message to take home is that because these bad habits are learned, they may be unlearned.

Three leading psychiatrists of the 20th century have shed light on performance anxiety. In their writings they offer characteristic approaches to speech anxiety, offering insights that apply to each and every person to varying degrees.

Freud: We are born naked and helpless

Sigmund Freud on anxiety
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, placed great emphasis on the fact that we are born naked and helpless. From birth we experience panic and we express it in cries and in tears. As adults we may not express the panic directly by crying out loud or weeping in public, but we still feel this initial sense of dread when we have to "expose ourselves" before the eyes of others. Freud saw the level of anxiety to be a reversion to infantile behaviour.

Jung: We assume our enemies--our listeners--are aware of our secret weakness

Carl Jung on human frailty and public speaking fears
Carl Jung, the analytical psychologist, noted that human beings display the characteristics of archetypal figures, especially heroes of Ancient Greece. The warrior hero Achilles is one such figure. Achilles was be invulnerable to his enemies except for one part of his anatomy: his "Achilles heel." Except for this tendon, he was invulnerable and impervious to the attacks of his enemies. Achilles resembles the 20th-century comic-book character Superman, the caped superhero who is all-powerful except in the presence of Kryptonite, rocks from his home planet Krypton. Each of us has an Achilles heel or fears Kryptonite. It is our zone of vulnerability. According to Jung, we assume our enemies--our listeners--are aware of our secret weakness. They know we are vulnerable and hence we feel fear.

Adler: We are powerless before powerful people

Alfred Adler on why we fear public speaking
Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychiatrist, made many contributions to individualistic and humanistic psychology. After examining the nature of neurosis, he popularized the concept of the "inferiority complex." It was Adler's view that, when we "present" ourselves before others, we stand "." We project our talents and abilities, our information and knowledge, onto other people. We empower them, but at the same time we disempower ourselves. We elevate them as we lower our sense of self. This projection leaves us feeling uneasy, uncanny, and vulnerable.

Imagine Sir Lawrence Olivier nervous before his performance

Speech Anxiety experienced by Sir Lawrence Olivier
There are many other approaches to the feeling of unease we experience when required to perform in public. For instance, Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher of communications, had a distinct "take" on this condition. It is well known that Sir Laurence Olivier, despite his standing as a great stage and screen actor, experienced profound stage fright throughout his entire performing career. He writes about the forms his panic took in his theatrical memoirs, and he puzzled as to why he continued to feel this way despite his vast experience appearing before audiences around the world. In later years he came to regard the excess sweat his body produced, the jittery nervousness, etc., as simply symptoms that his body was warning him that he would shortly have to appear before audiences and perform in public. He was able to ignore these sensations and feelings while on stage, but not before or after.

He was drenched in sweat

Why did Sir Lawrence experience Speech Anxiety?
McLuhan's view of the matter is that of a social psychologist. Sir Laurence felt little or no anxiety prior to the performance. Anxiety levels spiked when he entered the dressing room and removed his regular clothes and stood there semi-dressed before donning his costume (the robe of King Lear perhaps). During this period of semi-dress, he had no role to play. He was no longer the man known as Sir Lawrence; he was not yet the character known as King Lear. Having no role to play, he had no way to deal with his fears and apprehensions. Once on stage, there was no problem. Techniques honed over years of training and decades of performing simply took over. After all, he was a consummate actor. The situation was reversed when he stepped off stage and entered the dressing room where he removed the robe of King Lear. Once again he was nervous and he found he was drenched in sweat. He was no longer the actor, but not yet Sir Laurence. He would never receive visitors in his dressing room before or after a performance. Once he had showered and changed into his regular clothes, he was himself again. It was as if he had been living a nightmare.

McLuhan's view is that human beings are role-playing creatures who are uncomfortable without adopting well-defined roles to play. Panic hits when someone questions our right to play a part or when unexpectedly we find ourselves without a role to play. We are comfortable playing a part, assuming a role. The moral seems to be that we should create a role as a performer.

In their individual ways, Freud, Jung, Adler, and McLuhan seek to explain the dynamics of speech anxiety. It is possible to recommend remedies to deal with the symptoms of anxiousness. The negative sensations and feelings will always be there, but these may be sidetracked and their expressions reprogrammed.

There are ways to do that. The ways are remedies, neither panaceas nor placebos. No remedy will work all the time or even every time. But each prescription will work its remedial effect to some degree. With practice, specific forms of nervousness may be kept at bay and kept from interfering with the speaker's ease of deliver.

It is necessary for the speaker to identify the individual forms taken by the expression of the anxious state. These differ from person to person, although there is often an overlap of symptoms. The list of twelve symptoms given earlier may suggest a dozen characteristic responses that distract the speaker past nervous fear to the point of panic.

Observe yourself carefully

Before trying any of these techniques, you will have to observe yourself carefully. Recall the last time you had to speak in public. What were your thoughts, your emotions, and your repetitive movements? Ask: What part or parts of my body are most affected? Focus on the single most affected part, whether it is an organ of the body (like knots or butterflies in the stomach) or an outward behaviour (fluttery hands, sweating forehead) or the thought process (forgetfulness, dizziness). The sensations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours are interrelated, but whenever you alter one of them, all of them will be affected.

Some of these techniques may seem to the rational mind to be silly or counter-productive. But bear in mind that the symptoms that produce unnecessarily high anxiety levels are not themselves rational. Defeat the irrational with the irrational. These techniques have been found to work, not all of them all the time, but some of them much of the time.

Our nervous system is powerful but stupid

The principle is that our nervous system is powerful but stupid. It is certainly able to upset the stomach or confuse thought processes, but it is usually too dumb to do both things at the same time. It cannot tie the stomach in knots and produce disorderly thoughts as well as undertake a task that you insist that it perform. So when you order it to occupy itself with a given and harmless behaviour, you will be able to render it innocuous.

Here are three powerful techniques to handle speech anxiety

1. Name the symptom of your anxiety
This might seem childish, but the technique is quite effective. Let us say that the need to give a speech causes anxiety that takes a common enough form: a growling stomach. Give the growling part of the stomach a name. Call it an onomatopoeic name, one that imitates the sound the stomach is making.

A member of our public-speaking group complained that she felt her stomach growl. I asked her to give a name to the malfunctioning of the stomach.
"Why?" she asked.
"It will help. Try it," I urged.
"But what should I name it?"
"That is for you to decide. It should be a name that has some relationship with your sense of your stomach and its problem."
"I can't think of a name. You give me one."
"That's not as helpful as if you name it yourself. But okay. Call it Ralph."
Naturally the woman replied, "Why Ralph?"
I said, "Ralph sounds to me like...`Rough, rough.' It's a dog's name. Your dog is barking and distracting you from delivering your speech."
The woman looked doubtful but agreed to try the procedure. The next day, before making a presentation to the group, she said, "Down, Ralph!" She went on to speak quite well. Afterwards she admitted, "It helped. I visualized Ralph as an unruly, barking dog. I ordered him to stop barking, to stop whining, for the duration of the speech, and he obeyed!"

So give your symptom--whether a growling stomach, fluttering hands, sweaty forehead--a name, address it, issue an order to it or negotiate a truce with it.

2. Assign imaginary roles to curb your speech anxiety
Distracting behaviours that are not so easily named may be assigned roles. The principle here is that the body indulges in distracting behaviour because the body is restless and undisciplined; its parts have yet to be assigned specific behaviours. For instance, if your fingers flutter, assign them a simple task. Keep your arms down at your sides and order the fingers of your left hand to grasp the handle of a pail of water. Then do the same for the fingers of your right hand. Imagine yourself standing there grasping the imaginary handles of the imaginary pails. You may stand there somewhat stiffly, and it may appear like this to the more observant members of the audience, but the fluttering will cease. After a while, the fingers will seek relief. Grant them a reprieve from the task of holding the handles. The fingers and the body will relax. It is unlikely they will immediately revert to their former negative behaviour. What lies behind this observation is the observation that "the devil finds work for idle hands." The technique may be applied to all parts of the body.

3. Rehearse your symptoms of speech anxiety.
This technique might seem to be negative, one that reinforces bad behaviour. Certainly it is counter-intuitive. Yet it is an extremely powerful way of dealing with symptoms of anxiousness. It calls for you to conjure up the symptoms that you regularly experience when you are about to deliver your next presentation.

The best way to do this is to stand alone in a room in front of a full-length mirror. The trick is to stand there with your eyes closed. Naturally, with your eyes shut, you cannot see yourself, but you know that you are in a sense being seen by the members of an imaginary audience beyond the mirror. Imagine you are going to speak in five minutes. Conjure up the negative feelings, the leading symptoms, that have affected your equilibrium in the past. Feel the sweat forming on your brow, imagine your knees knocking or the fingers fluttering, or whatever. The trick is to sense the appearance of the symptom and feel it, and to some extent the feeling will produce the dreaded feeling and behaviour. The principle here is that it is not the emotion that produces the distracting behaviour, but the distracting behaviour that produces the emotion. Having imagined the negative feelings, unimagine them. Tell yourself you are calming down. By emotionally counteracting the feelings, you may to a surprising degree dissipate the panic.

Your resolve is able to break the cycle. You may do so by practising the two techniques described above: by naming the symptom and by imagining other, non-harmful forms for its expression to take. You do this in the safety of your own room in front of a full-length mirror. You may feel jittery after rehearsing your symptoms because your emotions are not used to be tricked like this into more acceptable forms of behaviour. But if you practice with various of the symptoms that affect your delivery, you will be able to handle them in advance and correct them should they occur shortly before, during, or following your presentation.

Summary of Managing your Speech Anxiety
These techniques are designed to be employed by men and women who are called upon to speak or otherwise speak in public but who have already been instructed in some of the principles of effective public speaking. It is assumed they are doing what all good speakers do. They are thoroughly prepared, they are rehearsed, they have strong openings and closings, they are expecting (even anticipating) accidental interruptions or hostile reactions, they are familiar with the venue in advance, they expect to make eye contact with members of the audience, they know why to smile, pause, speak slowly and loudly, etc. Once the speaker has dealt with these matters, it is time to pay attention to techniques like the ones described above the inner preparation: auto-suggestion, self-hypnosis, mind control, "cueing," "keying," "distancing," "conditioning," "positive reinforcing," etc.

© John Robert Colombo is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his many compilations of Canadian lore and writing. For his many contributions he was awarded an honourary doctorate by York University. For the last dozen years he has delivered the "Effective Executive Speaking" course at the Canadian Management Centre in Toronto.

John Robert Colombo
Colombo & Company

416-782-6853 / Fax 416-782-0285 /

JR Colombo has produced over 150 books. Here are few of the recent ones that you might enjoy.

Read: "The Penguin Book of MORE Canadian Jokes"
Appreciate: "One Hundred Poems"
Check: "O Rare Denis Saurat"
Enjoy: "True Canadian Ghost Stories"

Speech Anxiety: Overcoming the Fear of Public Speaking
By John Robert Colombo

Fear of public speaking
Performance Anxiety
Speech Anxiety


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Famous Lasting Words; Great Canadian Quotations complied by John Robert Colombo

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