Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking and Performance Anxiety

By Laurel Weber Snyder

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In Scott Stossel’s recent book, “My Age of Anxiety”, he describes what the Wall Street Journal calls a “world class anxiety disorder”.  Stossel is in good company.  Gifted performers, world class athletes, brilliant lawyers, and politicians all can suffer from debilitating anxiety when faced with public speaking and performance. Like Stossel, historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi and even Demosthenes suffered from an intense fear of public speaking.”  Carly Simon's stage fright was so bad Mr. Stossel reports, "she would sometimes drive needles into her skin or ask her band to spank her before going on stage to distract her from her anxiety."

Performance anxiety does not only affect the famous.  It is an equal opportunity fear that wreaks havoc in the lives of many otherwise competent professionals making it difficult for them to progress to the next level or even fulfill the requirements of their jobs. The fact these fears can emerge unpredictably causes greater anxiety. Some live in dread that their fear response will crop up unexpectedly in the most important performance situation. 

I’ve been thinking about how I could boil down to its essence the work I do with clients that is most effective in diminishing their fears so I could share it with my readers.  First, you should know that the majority of fear reactions are predictable and most people can learn techniques to cope with and diminish their fear response and behaviors. 

Public speaking fears are often based on mistaken beliefs

Public speaking fears are often a result of one of these mistaken beliefs: 

  • your audience has a negative attitude; they are either hostile, bored or infinitely more knowledgeable than you and will judge you harshly  
  • your mistakes or poor performance will follow you all your professional life; you won’t be able to overcome or move beyond it
  • you are unprepared; you feel that no amount of preparation is sufficient for this public speaking challenge

Of the many clients I’ve helped overcome their public speaking fears, here are a couple of colorful examples: 

  • A CIO (Corporate Information Officer) whose job required her to speak in a variety of situations on her company's behalf experienced shortness of breath and an almost paralyzing fear when called upon to give her opinion extemporaneously in public Q & A panel-type settings. 
  • A top executive at a major pharmaceutical became tongue-tied in the presence of his boss and was unable to express his well-thought out ideas.  He stifled himself, pre-judging his every word and phrase before it even left his lips. 

Both of these top-level, highly competent professionals dreaded their own specific “hot button” situations that brought on a kind of “temporary dementia”.  During these episodes they felt their minds go blank and they felt unable to form cogent thoughts or to speak well.


In each case, our work involved learning breathing techniques for relaxation and better voice production.  Next, each of them prepared for a specific meeting/speaking situation, creating index cards with bulleted “talking points” and then practicing by role playing.  I would play the role of the boss or the people asking questions, at first allowing them to use their prepared points; once they were comfortable delivering their prepared points, I began challenging them by “throwing them a curve”.  Practice and discussion afterwards with suggestions for improvement helped immensely.  Also important to both clients’ success was learning to slow down their speech and use pauses to enable them to capture and communicate their thoughts.  They learned that expressing something in the most perfect manner is not always possible, nor even always desirable, and in any case, is highly subjective. 


The pharmaceutical executive has been promoted to the next level in the corporation and maintains a much greater level of comfort and confidence when speaking in any situation.

The CIO is able to prepare and practice a set of “talking points” for each extemporaneous situation by anticipating topics, and is able to deliver several of them during each panel she is on.  This has increased her level of confidence so she is also able to respond with much greater comfort to questions asked and discussion points brought up “in the moment”.

Laurel Weber Snyder is a job interview skills and public speaking coach.  Follow Laurel on Twitter @wellspokencoach or visit her website:  www.wellspokencoaching.com.

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