Getting To The “Heart” Of Public Speaking Anxiety | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Getting To The “Heart” Of Public Speaking Anxiety

I’ve been doing a bunch of speaking engagements recently, and feeling inspired and excited by them.  I’ve always loved appearing in front of audiences—whether it was playing drums in rock bands as a teenager, debating in college, or any of the other performance-style things I’ve done.  When I realized public speaking would be a great way to promote my business, I jumped at the chance.

I seem to be wired a bit differently from a lot of people in this area.  It’s often said that, for many of us, having to speak to an audience would be worse than death.  I’ve given this issue a lot of thought, and I’ve come to believe people’s hangups around speaking often have to do with fear of showing their hearts to others—in other words, sharing with a group something they deeply care about.

Our “Fear Of Feeling”

I’ll use my own example to illustrate what I mean.  When I’m speaking to a group about using meditation and yoga to transcend procrastination, I’m talking about practices that, I believe, can really make a positive difference in people’s lives.  And when I’m discussing something I have such deep-seated conviction about, I physically feel that conviction, and how much I care about bringing peace of mind to the world, in my heart.  My chest area feels like a spacious chamber filled with warm liquid.

I used to be afraid of this sensation.  After all, it was such a departure from my usual experience of living.  Up until a few years ago, I didn’t feel much in my chest area at all—I was fairly emotionally numb.  So when that warm, spacious feeling came up, I’d assume it was because I was embarrassing myself, or perhaps even in danger.  Over time, I came to understand that this feeling wasn’t dangerous to me—I could experience it and survive—and that, in fact, it was pleasurable.

I think many of us fear this open-hearted sensation because it has us feel vulnerable to getting hurt.  This sensation may bring up memories of moments when we felt attacked or scorned for being emotionally vulnerable.  Maybe, for example, we told someone we loved them, and they acted like they didn’t care.  Or maybe we confessed something deeply personal to a friend, and they laughed or mocked us.  So, we came to associate that open-hearted feeling with “getting our hearts stomped on.”

Or perhaps feeling our hearts simply reminds us of being children, and being openly affectionate, curious, joyful, and so on.  And perhaps we decided, somewhere along the way, that adults keep those kinds of emotions to themselves, and being mature means being perpetually serious and composed.  In other words, we started seeing that open-hearted sensation as “childish.”  Today, we try to avoid any situation that might bring up that feeling—and public speaking seems to have that effect for many of us.

Getting Comfortable With Compassion

So my sense is that the best way to transcend anxiety about speaking to a group is to learn to accept, rather than pushing away, that sensation of feeling your heart.  To do this, the next time you notice you’re feeling a lot of sensation in your chest area, just hold your attention there, keep breathing, and notice that feeling this sensation hasn’t killed or hurt you.  And consider the possibility that what you’re feeling isn’t really “anxiety” at all—it’s actually your deep-seated concern for others’ wellbeing.

You don’t need to be standing in front of an audience to get more comfortable with feeling your heart.  You can do this while you’re sitting alone in silence.  Just bring to mind an experience you had when you felt all “mushy,” “cuddly,” “snuggly,” or whatever word you associate with what I call feeling your heart.  Relax your body, keep breathing, and allow that rich, warm sensation to wash over you.  Notice that, even though you’re giving yourself total permission to feel how deeply you care, you’re still fully alive and intact.

One advantage I’ve noticed of learning to accept, and fully experience, this open-hearted sensation when I’m speaking to groups is that it makes the talks I give more engaging for the audience.  When I’m fully feeling my heart, it seems that people listening are more able to feel theirs as well.  I get a deeper emotional response from the audience—people laugh more often, ask more questions, and generally get more uplifted by the experience.

Moving Beyond “Fake It ‘Til You Make It”

Coming from this heart-centered place also renders unnecessary many of the techniques we read about in books and articles on public speaking.  Much of that advice, I think, is intended to help us imitate someone experiencing genuine love and compassion for their audience and what they’re talking about.

“Keep your body language open,” these authors often advise.  “Hold eye contact with each audience member for three seconds to look sincere.”  “Remember to smile.”  This may be sound advice, but there’s no need to consciously follow these strategies when we’re feeling our hearts, because they come naturally.  In other words, you don’t have to simulate a person who cares about their subject matter and audience when you already are one.

In the end, I think effective speaking is about transcending our fear of feeling, and showing, our hearts.  When we get comfortable feeling open-hearted as we’re speaking, we not only become able to tolerate talking to groups—we actually begin to enjoy it.

What comes up for you when you’re doing (or thinking about doing) public speaking?  What kinds of thoughts and sensations?  I’m curious to hear.

8 thoughts on
Getting To The “Heart” Of Public Speaking Anxiety

  1. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Evan. I think that’s a good way to put it — that we’ll be most able to move beyond public speaking anxiety by seeing ourselves as simply meeting the audience, as opposed to impressing or trying to create a certain image for them.

  2. Albert | UrbanMonk.Net

    Great post Chris. I think public speaking can be sometimes a matter of just jumping in the deep end. The first time I spoke publicly I nearly fell over from fear. (I took a part time job as a teacher in a small community college). After two weeks I was just talking to them as if I was talking to a bunch of friends. I can’t think of any reason why – I think it was simply ‘go do it until you aren’t scared anymore’. :D

  3. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Albert — thanks for the inspiring story. I like the idea of “just doing it” particularly in the context of public speaking, because that to me implies jumping in without spending a lot of time strategizing about how you’re going to look confident and avoid criticism, and just saying what comes to you. For people who feel too paralyzed to jump in like that, my sense is that they can actually benefit from unlearning all those ways they obsess about how to make sure they’re received “the right way.”

  4. LifeMadeGreat | Juliet

    Hi Chris

    Interesting. You’ve approached the fear of public speaking from the side where I have the least problems! I never thought that this may be why people struggle with it. It is where I find it most comfortable (to note that is “most comfortable” as in not feeling completely off the rails).
    Talking about something I love can make me forget the audience in a way and yet hold them with me because it is something I want to share.

    Whatever the case, I still don’t like public speaking – or speaking in even small groups for that matter. Avoid.

    I think a number of people’s fear comes from a fear of appearing foolish.

    I work in a company where everyone wants to show that they are more clever than the next, so to pipe up anywhere is inviting criticism.


  5. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks for your comment Juliet. It’s true, everyone seems to have their own edge when it comes to public speaking or anything else. It sounds like for you, even if you’re passionate about what you’re talking about, the prospect of someone saying something that you take as critical still shuts you down. What I wondered when I read your comment was: what would happen to you if you were criticized? For example, I know that, for some people that I work with, being criticized automatically means that they’re “to blame” for something.

  6. LifeMadeGreat | Juliet

    Chris – nail on the head ;)
    Main fear: criticsm
    Interesting the idea of “being to blame for something”. I had always thought it was around perfectionism.
    Something for me to ponder – great!

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