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Dr. Judith Wright | November 11, 2021

Dealing with Fear of Public Speaking & Learning How to Own the Room

When I speak and give presentations, people often joke about how I “own the room.”

Do you have a fear of public speaking? There are ways that you can learn to overcome your fears, attract positive attention, and own the room.

 


After years of appearances on TV and radio, hosting and teaching events at the Wright Foundation, it’s probably assumed that I’m over any fear of public speaking that I once held.

Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Even still, I occasionally feel stage fright.

I’ve always been outgoing for the most part—I was a cheerleader back in high school. I had to talk my way through many presentations and situations in college and throughout my career. Yet, that fear of public speaking still hits me. I occasionally blush when I’m standing in front of a room. Sometimes, I’ll trip on my words, or worse—trip on the stage—and yes, I get embarrassed.

Here’s the truth, though, the first secret to confidence, on stage or off, is simple: treat yourself with self-compassion. Instead of beating yourself up over a misstep, look at embarrassment or fear as a chance to learn and grow.

The Secret to Getting Over Fear of Public Speak (or Anything)

Whether we’re trying to overcome a fear of public speaking or any other type of fear, one helpful idea is acknowledging and accepting it. We all feel fear. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or beat yourself up over. Sometimes labeling it as “oh, I’m feeling afraid” can even lessen the potency of the emotion.

We often say, “Name it to tame it,” and when we call out our feelings, they become less scary and more manageable. It’s not that we’re trying to stop whatever we’re feeling, but instead, we’re simply not avoiding our feelings or ignoring them. Instead, we’re honoring them, processing them, and allowing ourselves to experience them without aversion.


Fear isn’t a negative emotion. We may feel negatively about our fear of public speaking, but when we feel fear, it’s protective. In fact, for many years, as human beings were evolving, fear kept us alive.


Think of our ancestors living in caves. Fear kept them from getting too close to mountain lions. Fear kept them from foraging near the edge of the cliff. Fear protects them, and it continues to protect us.

Fortunately, nowadays, many of us don’t need to avoid mountain lions or forage for food. We live relatively safe lives compared to our ancestors, but we still experience fear. Whenever we feel those familiar feelings of dread coming on, it’s important to acknowledge them and extract the message. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for feeling a “bad emotion” (remember, there are no wrong or “bad” emotions). Instead, acknowledge and examine it. Then, we can tell ourselves, “I’m feeling afraid, and that’s okay.”

We may find it comforting to put a hand on our heart or chest. Feel our body rise and fall with each breath. We may tell ourselves, “It’s okay to feel this way.” Think kind thoughts toward our feelings and speak to ourselves as we would a dear friend.

As we start to acknowledge the emotion, we may also ask, “Why am I feeling this fear? What is stirring up these feelings?” If it’s a fear of public speaking, we may find comfort in reminding ourselves that we’re prepared for the moment. We’re ready to give the presentation. We can encourage ourselves that we know we can do it.

When we’re afraid and even panicked, it isn’t easy to feel engaged. Instead, we want to retreat, hide, or avoid. But if we’re going to own the room, we need to bring ourselves back to the moment. We can ground ourselves by recognizing where we are and how we’re feeling. Ultimately, engaging with ourselves will help us engage with our audience.

Avoiding Engagement Blockers

When we’re faced with a scary situation—whether it’s stirring up our fear of public speaking, interacting with new people, or speaking up in a meeting at work, we may experience engagement blockers. These engagement blockers seem protective, but they actually build a wall that puts us at a distance and can make us even less comfortable in the situation.

Some engagement blockers include poor affective forecasting, loss aversion, dread, pseudo-engaging (a.k.a. escaping with soft addictions), fear of being hurt or rejected, and having a lack of self-efficacy (a belief that we can handle the situation). A common thread in these engagement blockers is feelings of fear.

Poor affective forecasting is when we play the “worst-case scenario” game. We’ve all done this when we face a challenge—we start to scroll through all sorts of terrible outcomes in our heads. We don’t imagine the event in real-time; we only imagine the worst moment. We envision falling off the stage, having a coughing fit, or losing our train of thought. We may think we’ll throw up or something even worse. When we play out these imagined outcomes, we often assume that the risk associated with the situation far outweighs the reward. Fortunately, this is rarely, if ever, the case.


Loss aversion is when we would rather avoid loss than risk attaining a potential award (even if what we have isn’t satisfying). Many of us are highly risk-averse, even though a bit of risk could move us to a much better place.


The concept commonly comes up in marketing scenarios. Marketers learn that customers would rather “not lose” money than “save” money (even if the dollar amount and result are the same). Simply by reframing the statement to imply loss, customers will change their feelings. Many of us experience loss aversion that blocks our growth. We may resist taking a more rewarding job because we’re worried we might not fit in at a new office. We may avoid the risk of giving up a familiar activity even though it doesn’t bring us happiness and may even make us miserable.

Other engagement blocks like pseudo-engaging can also lead to soft addictions. For example, we may lose ourselves in activities like scrolling through social media, shopping, or eating under the guise that we’re connecting with people, doing things that make us happy, or bringing ourselves temporary satisfaction. In reality, we’re using these timewasters to avoid actual deeper engagement that could bring us greater happiness and a sense of purpose.

Dread and fear of being hurt and rejected are also blocks to engagement, driven by our fears. We may worry about moving outside our comfort zone. We may fear that people will reject us or laugh at us (which also goes back to poor affective forecasting). We imagine that things will go poorly rather than realizing that most of the time they will go well, or at least pass unremarkably.

Another engagement blocker is what we call a lack of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that we can do something. We can think of it like the children’s story, The Little Engine that Could. The engine could climb up the mountain by repeating “I think I can” over and over. The engine displayed self-efficacy. It’s not about having an inflated ego, where we think we’ll do something better than others, but rather believing in our ability to take effective action. We believe that if we keep pushing forward, we will do what we need to do.

Engage with Those Around You for More Confidence

If we have a fear of public speaking, it can help to examine our interactions with friends and family. When we talk to people we’re comfortable with, do we feel the same fear? The answer is likely no. It’s only when we’re facing a room of strangers that our confidence wanes.

If we want to have more confidence when we speak, present, or even network at an event, the key is to engage with our audience. Build a rapport with others in the room so they start to feel familiar—like speaking to our friends and family. Then, even if fears and engagement blockers crop up, we can still project confidence and “own the room,” so to speak.


One of the ways we can shift into a rapport-building and engagement mindset is to start thinking like “the host.”


If you want to have more confidence when you speak, present, or network at an event, the key is to engage with your audience. Even if you find those fears and engagement blockers cropping up, you can still own the room. One of the ways to shift into a more engaging mindset is to act as the host of any event or situation.

What does a host (or hostess) do at a get-together? First, they greet each person warmly. They make eye contact. They ensure everyone is comfortable, has a chair and a drink. A great host connects with each person—sees and acknowledges them. When they’re hosting a meeting, they know what they want to talk about. They steer the conversation and help others navigate (quite different from dominating the conversation or lecturing).

A great host engages in dialogue. They smile. They light up with aliveness and energy. A host owns the room.

It may feel funny to shift into the host mindset if we’re not actually the event’s host. However, it doesn’t mean we take over. We may not have coordinated the meeting or the presentation, but we can still shift our mindset into the host mentality. We can share our opinions, engage with everyone in the room, and remember that we’re worthwhile and essential. Each of us is a gift to the world and those around us.


We all have something to offer. Rather than letting events unfold around us while we sit back and observe, we can instead become active and valued participants.


When we’re presenting, it can help us ease our fear of public speaking by thinking like a host. Imagine that we’re in our own living room rather than on a stage. How do we feel in our home, visiting with friends and family? If we know the material, we can speak from our heart. We can connect with an entire auditorium just as intimately as we would around a dinner table. Give ourselves permission to “own the space” rather than acting as a stoic presenter, teacher, or lecturer.

When we’re a host, there’s no room for fear or a lack of self-efficacy to creep into our minds. We’re too busy thinking of meeting the needs of our guests. So instead, we’re telling them what they need to hear—we’re offering them an important message. We’re listing to them and helping them feel engaged and valued.

If you want to speak confidently, try to “own the room” at your next event. This simple method of becoming the host shifts your focus away from your nerves and toward your audience (it’s much more effective than the old tips of imagining everyone in their underwear or making eye contact with only one person during your talk). When we’re the host, our mindset changes—we’re more confident and comfortable.

Don’t miss our courses available a Wright Now for more ways you can get what you want out of life. We have webinars and classes to help you get more from your relationships, career, and personal growth. So start going for the things you want today! Live a life of MORE!

 


The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.

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