Six Myths about Speaking Anxiety

Essay contributed by: Laura Greenfield, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director of Women’s Voices Worldwide, Inc.

Laura headshot

Myth 1: My speaking nerves are worse than everybody else’s. Not true! Did you know that public speaking is reported to be the number one fear experienced by people in the United States? In a recent survey people ranked their fear of public speaking even higher than death! Most of us feel nervous when it comes to speaking, and those nerves manifest in many unpleasant ways—from simple jitters, to downright nausea and tears. So take heart: You are not alone in this experience!


Myth 2: My speaking nerves mean that I am inadequate. Not true! Many are quick to assume that the anxiety they experience around speaking is a result of their personal deficiencies—I’m not an expert enough, I’m not prepared enough, I’m not good enough to speak here. The reality is that the nerves mean that you are human and that you care about what you are doing. The topic, the people, the situation matters to you. If you didn’t care about the outcome, you wouldn’t feel nervous. So take pride in knowing that you are doing something meaningful!


Myth 3: Confident speakers are naturally extroverts. Not true! Extroverts derive creative energy from social interaction; introverts derive creative energy from independent reflection. Both are equally capable of speaking well in front of groups when it’s time to perform. In fact, because introverts are by nature more often quiet observers, they may in fact have an advantage when it comes to getting behind the podium. People who are inclined to observe their surroundings, analyze their audience, and assess the needs of a situation before diving right in are often able to create a charismatic and engaging speech. So don’t worry: you can still be an amazing speaker even if you identify, as Val Nelson puts it, as a wall flower.


Myth 4: Confident speakers were born lucky. Not true! It is a rare soul that comes into the world without any speaking anxiety. For most of us, the development of courage and confidence is a life-long process. Many successful speakers (myself included!) report experiencing terrible speaking anxiety earlier in their lives. Through determination, practice, and truthful affirming reflection, we can all grow. So don’t be discouraged: even if you hate public speaking, there is great hope that your experience can improve.


Myth 5: The most successful speakers no longer feel nervous. Not true! In fact, professional public speakers pretty much unanimously agree that a little bit of nervousness is actually a good thing. Why? Because nerves signal that you care about what you are doing. Without nerves, you are less likely to spend time preparing, less likely to bring energy to the stage, and less likely to strive to connect with your audience. Rather than eliminating nerves, courageous speakers strive to channel their nerves into productive energy. In this way, you may have more in common than you think with the speakers you idolize!


Myth 6: I am not and could never be a powerful speaker. Not true! Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage means feeling fear but speaking anyway. When you feel nervous but take the risk to speak anyway, you are a powerful speaker. When you are uncertain of how you will be received but you follow your conviction and speak anyway, you are a powerful speaker. When others criticize you but you stand up for what you believe in anyway, you are a powerful speaker. When the work is hard but you refuse to give up and choose to speak anyway, you are a powerful speaker. So give yourself permission to revise your definitions: the act of speaking is itself the success.


So the next time you feel the butterflies fluttering as you are preparing to speak, I invite you to change the narrative that might be running through your head. Don’t give in to this kind of defeating thought: “Oh no! Here come the nerves! This must mean I shouldn’t be speaking! I’m not smart enough, talented enough, or prepared enough to do this!” Instead, celebrate what your nerves in fact signal: “Hey! Here come the nerves! This must mean I am doing something important! I feel fearful but I am making the choice to speak anyway! I am proud of me!”

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