The So-Called Phobia of Public Speaking - Milo Shapiro

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The So-Called Phobia of Public Speaking (subtitle: Fear of Public Speaking Is Rational!)

Contributed by Milo Shapiro 


In discussions among public speaking coaches, about 75% of the people who call us mention fear. It’s okay to acknowledge that something is scary and it’s even better that these folks have picked up the phone, taking a step to deal with it. It’s that word “phobia” that is problematic.

Dictionary.com defines a phobia as “a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation…” Yet there’s nothing irrational about being afraid to do something that you haven’t been trained to do well!

Supposing tomorrow, for reasons unknown, you are awakened to find out that you have to do immediate open-heart surgery on someone. Only you can save the person on the table and you’re rushed into the O.R. where Nurse Jenkins hands you a scalpel and everyone is poised for you to begin.

Scared? Certainly! So then: does that mean you have a phobia of performing open-heart surgery? Or is it a completely rational reaction to being expected to do something that you haven’t been prepared for…let alone had time to develop a comfort zone with?

It’s the same with speaking. Our society has a ridiculous notion that if you have a voice and you know English, you should be able to get up and give a presentation — and should even be comfortable doing so! Yet few of us have ever had any real preparation for this. Few of us get it in high school and relatively few do in college. You might have been asked to give some sort of oral reports, but likely you just got a grade on it, not coaching.

So if this is an area that could cause your stress and, like 99% of Americans, your education didn’t really prepare you to:

  • speak to your staff or colleagues
  • do a sales presentation
  • address a business/social group
  • make a speech to 100 friends and family at your daughter’s wedding

…be kind to yourself. You have no more reason to feel ready and comfortable than you would taking that scalpel from Nurse Jenkins. So take a breath and give yourself credit for that.

The good news is two-fold:

1) No one will ever ask you to do open-heart surgery, unless you’re in the 0.01% of my readers who HAVE been expertly trained in this…and they chose that.

2) Public speaking skills are quite learnable, just like driving a car, roasting a turkey, and programming your DVR are. You just need a sense of commitment and a willingness to make mistakes in practice without kicking yourself too hard before you start to see the improvement.

A good book like my Public Speaking: Get A’s, Not Zzzzzz’s!“ or its age-specific sequel
“Public Speaking for TEENS: Get A’s, Not Zzzzzz’s!“ can help; both are designed to be fun reading so it won’t hurt so bad.

Even better, or in concert with reading, is joining a Toastmasters club — an international organization dedicated to meeting weekly to work on these skills. You’re expected to speak every 4-6 weeks while learning from watching others give their presentations and getting feedback. It’s not a fast way to grow, but over the course of a year or two of membership, you’ll see growth.

There are classes in public speaking (if you’re reading this in non-COVID times) and these can be a good place to practice and get input, but there’s a challenge with these that also applies to Toastmasters: You’re learning under exactly the situation that made you nervous in the first place − being in front of a group. You wouldn’t learn to cook, use a computer, or fix a leak with a large group of people watching how well you learn and hearing every question you have. Why do we think this would feel like a safe setting to learn to speak better? Why not learn the skills of speaking first and then try them out in front of a group?

This is the advantage coaching, where 100% of the energy is devoted to taking your talents, needs, and goals into consideration as you delve into what works well and how capable you are actually are doing it. Coaching, live or virtual, gives you the privacy of a book with the feedback of a class − except that you’re the only student.

Whichever method you choose, you’re going to find is that as you know and the more gentle feedback you get, the more the fear shrinks until it’s barely there. And that, my friends, doesn’t sound like any kind of phobia at all!
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Milo Shapiro of www.PublicDynamics.com has been coaching and running corporate classes in public speaking skills since 2004. He meets San Diego clients both in person and remotely (ie: Zoom). The above-mentioned books are available by clicking their titles or by searching Amazon.

Milo also keynotes at conferences on the topic of public speaking skills as well as having fun, interactive motivational keynotes using improvisation. More on that at www.MiloShapiro.com.