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On Steering Airplanes aka Getting Over Your Fear of Public Speaking

A red propellor plane in the snow at the base of a rocky mountain,
Photo by Jonathan Moore

I taught a workshop in Denver earlier this month and at the end of the demonstration someone asked "how do I address my fear of public of speaking?" Another one of the audience members excitedly exclaimed "ooh, I know the answer!" So I passed him the microphone so he could share his wisdom.

He'd been a school teacher for six years, and his answer was "the key to overcoming fear of public speaking is to simply do it over and over and over again. Repetition and exposure. I was nearly having panic attacks for years, but now I'm comfortable public speaking."

My response:

"Yes, that does work. And. It's the hard way. I'd much rather teach you the easy way."

You see, conquering your fear of public speaking through repetition is like trying to steer an airplane by having everyone on board cram to the left side. It will work (sort of), but it won't be fun.

I much prefer my approach, which I call "giving the pilot new coordinates."

In the work I do, I help people move from being passengers on the airplane of their life, to being the pilot, to eventually realizing that they are actually the air traffic controller, calling the shots at a much more profound level than they ever realized.

Why do so many people fear public speaking? Well, it comes down to what their brains are predicting will happen. Prediction, expectation, and belief are synonyms in this case. When your brain unconsciously expects something bad to happen when people put their attention on you, it's going to trigger a fear response when you get on stage. That fear response is designed to get you off the stage and out of danger!!

But, well, that's kind of not what you want right at that moment.

So you're stuck in a pickle.

How to resolve this dilemma? Rewire the part of your brain that believes "it's dangerous for people to put their attention on me."

And how to do this?

Typically, your brain forms this belief in response terrifying attention received when you were very small. Now, the definition of terror is very different for a 4 year old than it is for an adult. Even if you never had any truly life threatening experiences as a small child (which most people didn't), you very likely experienced terror in a moment when people were paying attention to you.

Why? Because at some point, no matter how much your parents loved you, they probably got angry about something you did and yelled at you. In that moment they had their attention on you, and they were behaving in a way that was very scary to you, and seemed dangerous and threatening. After all, if they never calmed down, they'd abandon you and you'd die. So that justifies a terror response.

So your little 4 year old brain concluded "it's dangerous to have people put their attention on me." And now as an adult, every time you get ready to speak in front of people, the 4 year part of your brain goes "red alert! red alert! high danger predicted! we will be abandoned and left for dead!!"

When we go back in time and re-interpret those same events through a different lens, the brain can reconsolidate those memories and sever the tie between attention and perceived danger.

And then we can speak in front of crowds with no fear!

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