The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the fear of public speaking is the number one phobia in the country—greater even than the fear of death. He famously quipped that “if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
While this made us laugh back in the nineties–and made us acutely aware of how irrational human behavior can be–this statistic still holds true today.
According to the 2014 Chapman University Survey on American Fears, the fear of public speaking continues to top the list of the most common phobias in the country–slightly above the fear of heights in second place; and bugs and snakes in third place.
One explanation comes from Darwin’s theory of evolution. One day while at the London Zoo, Darwin decided to conduct an experiment. He pressed his face as close as possible to the thick glass separating him from a poisonous puff adder. He found that every time the snake would lunge at him, he would instinctively jump back several feet.
Darwin concluded that despite our reasoning powers, human beings continue to react in accordance with their primitive instincts. This is known as the fight-or-flight response–a physiological reaction to perceived threats which is designed to prepare an animal to either flee from danger or fight it.
While we are usually not faced with the threat of ravenous beasts waiting to eat us alive, we are faced with other modern-day perils–such as losing our reputations and not being accepted–which can lead to missing out on important opportunities.
These possibilities are scary enough to trigger a fight-or-flight response in our bodies, causing all the outward symptoms we dislike so much: knots in our stomach, sweaty palms, a racing heart beat, dry mouth, shaky legs, slouched shoulders, a tightening throat…
Would it surprise you to know that Thomas Jefferson had a terrible fear of speaking in public? He did, and he was not alone. Plenty of other notable speakers, leaders and performers have feared speaking or performing in front of large crowds–and have overcome it.
Although there is no five-step plan to completely eliminate stage fright, there are ways to deal with it and even fool your body into thinking it is safe from danger.
To inspire you in your quest to become an influential public speaker, here is a list of famous people who have made a successful living out of performing or speaking in front of thousands of people despite their deep-seated anxiety.
If there’s a success story that can convince you of the untapped potential of fearful speakers, it’s the story of Warren Buffett’s unbelievably prosperous career.
Once a college student who was “terrified of getting up and saying [his] name,” Buffett was able to overcome his aversion to speaking in front of others by facing his fears head on.
It was not easy, though.
He spent much of his college years avoiding courses that would require him to speak in front of the class. At one point, he mustered the courage to sign up for a public speaking course but then dropped out the last minute.
At the age of 21, he started his career as a stock broker and realized that he had two choices: either force himself to face his fears or avoid them and never reach his full potential. Buffett finally decided to take the first path and enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking. He was relieved to find that there were 30 other people in the class who were experiencing the same anxieties and was able to complete the course.
“You have to do it. And the sooner you do it, the better. It’s so much easier to learn the right habits when you’re young. If you have a fear of associating with people, you have to go out there and do it, and it’s painful…,” he said in an interview with Levo League.
Currently, Buffett is the third richest person on the planet, with a net worth of $65.7 billion.
This world-renowned minister knows a thing or two about putting aside your fears to reach as many people as possible with a message.
At the age of 36, he gave his first sermon and recalls being “scared to death.” Up until that moment, he had felt perfectly comfortable remaining behind the scenes as his father preached week after week.
Little did he know that he would have to speak a lot more often in front of thousands of people. When his father passed away, he was encouraged to take over the ministry. But his fear of speaking in public was compounded by the fact that he was compared to his father time and again. It wasn’t unusual for him to overhear others saying that he wasn’t “as good as his father.”
Osteen decided to put his own teachings into practice and began to relabel himself in his own mind. By ignoring the criticisms and replacing them with positive and encouraging words, he was able to overcome his insecurities and doubts.
His positive affirmation techniques seemed to have worked.
Today, Osteen heads the largest Protestant church in the country, with a weekly assistance of over 40,000 people. His speaking events at places such as the Yankee Stadium sell out every time, and he currently has a TV viewership of over 20 million people across 100 countries.
Can someone who is barely able to utter two sentences together in public lead an independence movement? The answer is yes, and the case in point is Mahatma Gandhi.
During his student life, he suffered from frequent panic attacks. He had a particularly agonizing experience during a speech he was asked to give to a vegetarian community in London. After reading one line from the message he had prepared, he could no longer speak and asked someone else to read the rest of the speech for him.
“My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap,” he recalled.
For years, the “the awful strain of public speaking” became a burden so great for Gandhi that he even avoided speaking at friendly get-togethers and dinner parties.
Later in life, as a lawyer, the fear of crowds continued to haunt him. During his first case before a judge, he panicked and left the courtroom, feeling humiliated after not being able to think of any question to ask. He painfully recalled, “My head was reeling and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise.”
What happened, then, to turn a fainthearted speaker into the fearless leader of a revolution?
Gandhi found a cause that inflamed a passion so great in him that it overrode his anxieties and fears. His desire to see a free India moved him to stand up for what he believed in. He noted that even his “hesitancy in speech” later became an advantage as it taught him to pack meaning into short but pithy statements.
“Be stubborn…because you have considered the maximum number of people who will benefit and wish to serve them by solidly banging the drum for what you know to be true,” he wrote.
The nation’s third president was afraid of speaking in public? Yes, and he still became a Founding Father of the country, an impassioned defender of democracy and the main author of the Declaration of Independence.
The accounts of Jefferson’s acute fear–registered in biographies and other historical documents–are so severe that psychiatrists at Duke University have even diagnosed him with social phobia.
John Adams, for example, noted that he had never heard Jefferson utter more than three sentences together during the whole time that he served with him in Congress.
Remarkably, he only gave two public speeches during his eight years as President–both of them inaugural addresses. According to those present, they were delivered in such a low tone that they could hardly be heard. One of his biographers also observed that whenever Jefferson attempted to shout, his voice would “sink in his throat.”
Although it is not known if Jefferson ever really overcame his fears of speaking in public, we do know that he was able to successfully work his way around his weaknesses by relying mostly on his exceptional writing abilities. Like Gandhi, he also learned to power of being concise but forceful.
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” -Thomas Jefferson
Another of the nation’s most revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln was also once afraid of facing a large crowd.
An unpublished letter from 1860 reveals that at the precise moment Lincoln was being vaulted from a local politician to a national figure, panic started to get the best of him.
After giving a rousing, high-profile speech on the need to control the spread of slavery at Cooper Union in New York, Lincoln–then an Illinois statesman–was viewed by many as a potential candidate for the presidency. The “electrifying” effect of his talk led a Republican political committee to invite him to speak in New Jersey a month later.
Lincoln, however, declined the invitation. “I cannot speak in New Jersey this time. I have over staid my time — have heard something about sickness in my family — and really am nervous and unfit to fill my engagement already made here in Connecticut. Will you please excuse me?”
The note reveals that Lincoln was not comfortable with his increasing notoriety and was anxious to the point of missing out on an important opportunity. He would go on, however, to campaign for the presidency and become one of the most influential leaders of all time.
All this goes to show that stage fright can beset even the best of public speakers. The experiences of Gandhi, Buffet and Lincoln can teach us to:
1. Never avoid fears but face them head on.
2. Speak positively about ourselves and our abilities.
3. Choose a topic that excites a passion greater than the fear of speaking.
4. Focus on delivering a concise but forceful message–and less on rousing a crowd.
5. Forget about your own success or failure and keep your eye on what’s important: the mission, the people, the message…
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