Fear of the first few minutes in public speaking

(c)Copyright: Carla Kimball, 2009I swim for exercise. I swim in pools that are kept relatively cool so that lap swimmers don’t overheat when they work up a “sweat”.

This means that it’s always hard to get into the pool at the beginning of my swim. Once I’ve been in the water for even one lap, the chill wears off and the temperature feels fine, but the anticipation of diving into cold water always makes it hard.

I’ve found that I’m much better off just not thinking about the water temperature ahead of time. This is especially true as I’m getting ready to leave home on a cold and snowy winter morning because I’ll never get to the pool if I think at all about the cold water awaiting me.

Transitions are always hard. Getting into the cold water is one example. Moving from one project to the next is another. Arriving at a party is another. And, starting a presentation is classic!

Probably the most common statement I get from my public speaking clients is “If I can just get over the first few minutes I’m fine.” Most often, it’s the accumulated anxiety in anticipation of a presentation and the surge of nervous adrenalin when we first get up to speak that make those first few moments so miserable. In fact, many highly capable and talented people opt out of important speaking engagements simply because they dread those first few moments.

It helps to look at these moments from the perspective of transitions. In fact, our brains are designed to automatically become more alert when we move from the status quo, what is known and comfortable, into a new situation.

This is because it’s in those moments that the most primitive structures in the brain must determine if our survival is at stake. If danger is detected, signals get sent that trigger the fight, flight, freeze or appease response and we experience the sweaty palms, rapid heart, and racing thoughts that so often characterize the fear of public speaking. But if it seems that we are safe, there’s no threat, then essentially that primitive brain goes back to sleep and we can go on with our business without interference.

This entire sequence of events is engaged whenever we encounter a moment of transition. And, if we can simply take the process in stride, recognizing that it’s a natural part of our reaction to change, we then simply ride the waves of the anxiety without getting too attached to the feelings, knowing that it will eventually pass.

The problem for many speakers is that they mistake this heightened state of alertness for fear. And, fear begets more fear, feeding off itself, until it becomes intolerable.

To a certain extent, getting over the fear of public speaking is really about getting out of our own way and staying in the present moment.

When I get ready to go swimming I don’t focus on the temperature of the water. I do focus on how much I enjoy swimming and how good the water feels by about the third lap. Then I stay in the present moment. I just take one step at a time. I take the shower to wash off before going to the pool’s edge. I put on my bathing cap. I put on my goggles. And, then just as I put my legs in the water I jump in. I don’t linger, giving the fear its head. Instead, I just go. The first length is cold, but then I start to feel my stride (or stroke) and I’m in the flow and loving the water.

The same is true with public speaking. Instead of putting our attention on our fear and all that can go wrong, we focus on the key message we want to make and why it’s important. We then stay present with what’s happening in the moment. We say hello to people as we enter the room. We focus on the person announcing us. We feel our feet on the ground. Whenever we feel anxious, we simply take whatever next step is upon us. We don’t let the anxiety take control of us. We simply say to ourselves…. “Ah… there you are, just as I expected.” And we don’t attach to it. We don’t give it power. And, as we begin to speak, and settle into the rhythm of our interaction with the audience, the anxiety begins to diminish, eventually melting away, leaving us to fully enjoy our time in front of the group.

4 thoughts on “Fear of the first few minutes in public speaking

  1. I love your comparison of how it feels to jump in the water and to start speaking in public. Your insights and advice are so reaffirming and provide a pathway to getting to a place of rhythm and comfort. Thanks!

  2. You create such a vivid picture of what your arrival into the cold water is like. It’s interesting how, no matter how many times you enter the water, it’s still just as cold! We know how, for people who are frightened of public speaking, repeated practice and exposure plus lots of support, has made it so much easier. I am interested in working more in an alpha state with visualization so I can drop into a state of full presence when the actual moment “on stage” comes.

  3. My most difficult moment during a speech comes not at the very beginning, but maybe 3 or 4 minutes into the talk, when it seems as if it’s going well. I’m almost like a little kid who looks around and realizes with surprise that he’s standing, and then has to fall down. That’s when my anxiety comes up. Doesn’t happen all the time, but mostly in front of a crowd I’m not comfortable with. If I can just be with it and breathe into it, usually dissipates after a time, but it’s unnerving all the same.

  4. I know I’m a little late in responding, to comments. Thanks to both Claire and Jeremy for their thoughtful posts.

    I especially wanted to respond to David’s comments about the fear arising not at the very beginning, but 3 or 4 minutes into a presentation.

    Sometimes, when we’re speaking, we just have to get out of our own way. That self-consciousness that arises can trip us up and trigger fear.

    I recently was invited into a ping pong game that was already in progress. I haven’t played in years but when I entered this recent game, it was going at such a fast pace that I found myself at first hitting the ball well without thinking about it.

    Then about the third stroke into the game, I became very aware of myself,not wanting to let the other players down, and immediately missed the ball. Pretty soon I was missing every ball that came my way (much like your toddler, David, who falls when he becomes aware that he’s standing)!

    I think when we become self-conscious we lose focus on what’s important and suddenly we trip ourselves up. I write about this in the first article of a 26 week email series that I’ve written. Rather than re-writing the article here in this comment section. I’ll create a new post and share the article there.

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