The Key to Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking

Sian Beilock, PhD, is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind “choking under pressure.” In April 2012 she published an article called “The Fear of Public Speaking” that asserts that it’s the threat of social evaluation that makes public speaking so nerve-wracking. Even if you come prepared to give a speech, why do some people lose their composure when put on the spot and others thrive? What is the right strategy to minimize nervous tension and maximize impact?

She states that for over twenty years, researchers have invited people into their laboratories to stress them out by asking them to prepare a speech and deliver it to others. The goal is to determine what makes these situations so stressful and how to overcome the associated challenges.

Getting Stressed Out: Social Scrutiny

The research described is based on the “Trier Social Stress Test.” Each study contributor enters a room, faces a three-member panel, and is asked to create a five-minute presentation. The goal is to convince the panel that he or she is the right candidate for a position in their laboratory. They have ten minutes to prepare and are told that their evaluation is based on content and presentation style.

With the video cameras rolling, each person stands and delivers. To add more stress, when the speech is over, they are then asked to count backward from 1,022 by 13 out loud as quickly and accurately as possible.

Beilock cites this research to underscore that public speaking is a “clear and reliable way” to elicit a stressful response. Yet, it’s not only the act of giving a speech that causes the tension. The Trier Social Stress Test triggers anxiety because it includes elements of social evaluation. In other words, when people are judging you and your performance, speakers are afraid of being evaluated on the chance they may look foolish.

Make a Fool of Yourself More Often

Her suggestion is to condition yourself to lessen the pressure that comes with public speaking. But how? She concludes that if you spend a little time each week making a fool of yourself, that experience will help diminish the fear when you are ready to deliver. She recommends everyone take an acting or improvisation class…

I couldn’t agree more. With most of my clients and students I teach principles from a book called YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. Based on lessons from The Second City, this idea is not just about developing comedic skills. You become conditioned to think and respond quickly on your feet. It helps you learn how to overcome the fear of public speaking in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way.

Beilock’s research emphasizes that when you have already experienced the worst thing that can happen when you give a speech, you’re less likely to stress out about it with each successive attempt. Eventually, you’ll be so accustomed to scripted and spontaneous communication that reducing anxiety will translate into a more confident public speaker. Learn more effective strategies to help you overcome your fear and become an effective speaker by visiting