Fear of Public Speaking

I was terrified about getting called on to
do that Monday morning sales report.
My shaking was so obvious. It's so
embarrassing to get so upset about some-
thing minor like that.

Fear of public speaking is probably the most commonly experienced social phobia. It affects a wide range of individuals, from those who must speak publicly daily, e.g., lawyers, to those who do so only on unusual occasions, such as at church or a PTA meeting. The same fear is often experienced not only in front of large groups, but in situations where one must introduce oneself, or somehow perform in front of others. This fear rarely goes away of its own accord. More typically, it tends to spread to a wider range of social situations in which people fear looking anxious.

What is my personal interest in this phobia?

Of the various anxiety disorders that I treat, public speaking fear is the one with which I most personally identify. For years, public speaking was so substantial a fear for me that I avoided it whenever possible. I learned the meaning of the term "panic attack" when I had to do any speaking that felt like a performance, sometimes in front of groups as small as three or four. My fear was at its worst shortly after I left graduate school, before the days of anxiety disorders specialists. So I had to review the relevant research and develop my own treatment. In the process of overcoming the fear, I actually started to like public speaking. Media appearances became stimulating and interesting to me.

As a consequence of my struggles with giving speeches, I felt that I understood anxiety better than the other problems I had studied as a psychology student. At that point I decided to devote my career to working with others with similar problems.

How do I treat fear of public speaking?

I typically treat this fear with a short term (approximately six-session) Cognitive Behavior Therapy program. It is a structured, skill-building approach to overcoming fear and includes the following:

  • Why we fear public speaking
  • Body reactions during fear
  • The performance fear-prone personality
  • Principles of relaxation and proper breathing
  • The role of expectations in creating fear
  • Setting goals for improvement
  • How to desensitize anxious feelings
  • Coping with different levels of stage fright
  • Basic skills for giving prepared speeches
  • Basic skills for impromptu speeches
  • Staying motivated to become a comfortable speaker
When do I begin actual public speaking?

Near the conclusion of the individual sessions, I will help you select public speaking situations for practice that are challenging but do not seem overwhelming. Many people are ready to join one of the more than 70 Toastmasters public speaking clubs in the metro Atlanta area. Often I am told, "I tried that and it didn't work."
In my experience, it is important to pick the right-sized club, and one that is consistent with your level of confidence and public speaking ability. Sometimes just finding the club with the right personality is important so that you remain motivated to attend long enough for it to be helpful. As someone who went from dreading Toastmasters meetings to looking forward to them, I can help you find an appropriate group.

In my experience, if you stay with the program, it is highly predictable that you will become a great deal more comfortable speaking.

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