3 Ways to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking With Mindfulness
By Alex Tzelnic, guest contributor
According to the most recent Chapman University Survey on American Fears, 29.3% of those polled were very afraid or afraid of death while 29% said the same about public speaking. The fact that ceasing to exist ranks just a hair above standing in front of people and making legible noises is hardly surprising: dying is a tough concept to grasp, but anyone who has ever felt their pulse thump, their throat go dry, or their knees knock during a presentation can relate to the visceral fear that public speaking instills. Yet it is an essential skill we need to have to be an effective communicator.
In Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, communications expert Gregory Kramer explained, “In the hunger to escape [a situation that causes anxiety,] there is a fear of being exposed, which results in tension and pain. The very common fear of public speaking works in this way. One may experience tension, constriction, almost a paralysis in a way that is personally dramatic and out of proportion to the situation or its risks.” This is an all too familiar description. After spending my early adulthood ducking any potential speaking engagements, my best friend asked me to speak at his wedding and suddenly I felt a tension and constriction unlike any I had ever known. Meanwhile, I was a mindfulness practitioner who routinely engaged in exercises to release tension and constriction. I had a hard time reconciling these two realities.
In The Art of Communicating, the late spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh defined right speech as, “the speech of compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness.” “Right speech,” wrote Hanh, “is what nourishes us and nourishes those around us.” But how, I wondered, can one practice right speech if one doesn’t have the courage to speak up? I needed to first learn how to practice right public speaking, not in terms of rhetoric, but in terms of reducing my paralysis and putting this act back in proper proportion to its risk. Little did I know it would take a whole lot of practice, both during my meditation practice, and in performing actual, gulp, speeches. Doing so allowed me to identify three ways mindfulness practice can aid us in confronting such a deep-seated fear.
Face the Fear
With the best man’s speech a couple of months away, I signed up for a public speaking course at my local adult education center. For the first time, I was addressing the issue head-on. This alone had a powerful effect. Without engaging with this fear, it would have always remained a haunting specter, lurking behind every celebration, meeting, or promotion. In The Engaged Spiritual Life, the activist and teacher Dr. Donald Rothberg explains how this process works:
When I was willing to face the fear, the fear left. According to Jung, when we do not face our inner difficulties with consciousness, they are projected outward and manifest themselves as demons or ‘fate’; but when we face our inner demons, we take back, as it were, our projections. We diminish the stock of objects and situations in the world that would cause us to feel fear, discovering that many of them are quite imaginary.
Though I was anxious prior to my first public speaking class, the act of meeting the issue and deciding to work with it allowed me to take back my projections, rather than attempt to keep them at bay. The fear still felt very real, but it was now more discomfiting than demonic. For years at work, there was a framed fortune in the bathroom that read, “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” In mindfulness practice we meet our neuroses head-on, not ducking them or pushing them away, but accepting and observing them. When I met this particular neurosis head-on, the death of (crippling) fear was certain.
Embrace the Discomfort Zone
Unfortunately, facing a fear doesn’t mean eradicating it completely. It’s more like exposure therapy, a gradual process. As Rothberg explained, when we enter the discomfort zone, “What was once an area of panic or of being overwhelmed may later become an area of workable discomfort…We become in a sense more comfortable with being uncomfortable. And we learn better how to open up and remain present to a cold, a disappointment at work, a painful shoulder, the fear of public speaking at an event….”
When my date with the guillotine arrived, the speech went much better than I’d anticipated. Real-life is always far richer than our two-dimensional hopes and fears suggest, and the moments of the speech were full of adrenaline, humor, and joy. In the years since, I have given toasts at other weddings, spoken at my dad’s retirement party, and officiated a wedding. When my wife and I shared our wedding vows together in front of 100 guests, I felt more present than perhaps at any other moment in my life–which is in no way to suggest that public speaking doesn’t still terrify me. I just now understand it as something that is eminently doable. What had once been untenable had become merely unbearable, then simply uncomfortable, until finally, it became workable discomfort.
The practice of mindfulness was crucial in this process. Speech is an embodied activity. Just as one can read about meditation and mistakenly feel that they’ve grasped it, one must experience public speaking with both body and mind to truly grasp what it entails. “We come to recognize meditative speaking as something that has less to do with words than with the source from which the words emerge,” wrote Gregory Kramer.
In that sense, an important part of the process wasn’t finding the right things to say but to better understand who it was that was trying to say them. Years of observing my mind during my mindfulness practice, and noticing the continual arising of the same old patterns of thought that I habitually identified with, helped me to recognize them as just that: patterns. Having observed this particular pattern arise so many times, I began to take it less personally–which made it easier to loosen my hold on the fears I so dearly clung to. As Thich Naht Hanh pointed out, “Once you can communicate with yourself, you’ll be able to communicate outwardly with more clarity. The way in is the way out.”
In order to practice right speech, one cannot be afraid to commit wrong speech. Just as every moment of closure in mindfulness practice is an opportunity to open, every nervous utterance is an opportunity to take a deep breath and recognize that one has not been pulverized by anxiety or exposed as a fraud. The way in is the way out, and the ground upon which one stands, shaky as it may at times seem, is the only place upon which one can actually feel grounded.
Right public speaking isn’t about getting the speech right, in the same way that mindfulness practice isn’t about maintaining perfect attention at all times. It is the intention that counts, the striving in the midst of uncertainty that can lead to a proficiency that was there all along. In fact, we may even find a new plane in which to practice. “The practice of wise speech is crucial for us because most of us speak so much in our everyday lives,” explained Rothberg. “If we can render our speech an alive and powerful part of our spiritual practice, all of a sudden we can be dedicated to our spiritual practice not just for a brief period of sitting meditation or prayer every day but for a large part of the day.” Even, believe it or not, in the midst of presenting.
Alex Tzelnic is a freelance writer and teacher living in Cambridge, MA. He has an MA in Mindfulness Studies from Lesley University. His writing on mindfulness has appeared in Tricycle, Slate, The Daily Beast, and Yoga Journal, among other media outlets. He is currently writing a book on how mindfulness can impact the next generation.
Kramer, G. (2007). Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Hanh, T. N. (2013). The Art of Communicating. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Rothberg, D. (2006). The Engaged Spiritual Life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.