How I overcame the fear of public speaking and learned to love it.

Good title, right?

Now a confession. I was never afraid to stand in front of a group and speak. Not ever. In fact, quite the opposite.

As a fourth grader in our little West Virginia schoolhouse, teacher Margaret Meadows would periodically invite class members who had read an interesting story to stand and share it. I recall Violet Garten (love that name!) was so good at it. But when she called on me (I’m the guy frantically waving my hand) and I walked to the front of the class, I broke the rules.

I did not relate a story I had read somewhere.

I made one up on the spot.

That is serious something or other, I don’t know what. Was it a love for being the center of attention? Self-confidence on steroids? Not given to introspection, I’ve never tried to answer that, but I am confident that little snapshot reveals a world of insight on the man I became. Positive and negative.

In high school, one of the requirements for presidents of local chapters of the FFA (Future Farmers of America) was that we be able to address an audience of our members for a full 30 minutes.  I don’t recall actually doing that, but addressing audiences 30 minutes at a clip would end up describing my life. I’m a Southern Baptist preacher, you understand. As of this December 2, I will have logged a full half-century of preaching.

When friends tell me they hate public speaking with a dread, that they would rather take a whipping than stand in front of a group and speak about anything, I’m speechless and cannot begin to identify.  So, yesterday I did something.

I asked my Facebook friends who dislike public speaking to tell us why.

Most of the responses boiled down to several variations on one theme: fear.   They feared forgetting their speech in the middle of their presentation, being rejected by the audience, boring them, and outright failure.

Several dreaded the attention being on themselves.  One or two said they are intimidated by crowds. More than one feared tripping while ascending the steps to the podium.

Here then is my response to these. Keep in mind that “overcoming fear of public speaking” is a full industry involving expensive conferences and personal counselors. But quick answers to deep problems? Hey, it’s what I do best!

1) The best way to overcome fear is to look it in the face and do the hard thing that is frightening you. If that is a fear of flying, then book a flight today. If you fear heights, then climb the next forestry tower you meet (with the permission of the ranger), and sit outside on the steps for 15 minutes. If you fear door to door witnessing, ask your pastor for some flyers on your church and distribute them throughout your neighborhood.

When I was a new student in seminary many years ago, we were given a choice of “field mission” assignments. Some people signed up for hospital visitation, homeless ministry, or children’s work in one of our mission centers. I chose street preaching in the French Quarter. Why? Because the very thought of standing on a street corner preaching with a microphone frightened the daylights out of me. Therefore, it was what I should be doing. And I did.

Cartoonist Charles Schulz had a lifelong fear of flying. Yet, once a year he made it a point to take a flight somewhere. He explained to a biographer, “I know enough about fear to know if you give in to it, it grows. Pretty soon, I would be afraid to leave my house. Eventually, I couldn’t leave my room. We have to work against fear.”

2) That said, here are a few standard operating procedures to overcome the paralyzing fear of public speaking:

a) Know your subject. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Know what you are talking about inside and out, even if you are going to share only a sliver of what you have learned.

Remember those dreams where you walk out on stage without any clothes? We’ve all had them. We’re told this is the fear of doing something for which we are unprepared.  I have no trouble believing that.  To be called on to speak on a subject about which you know little or nothing is awful.

The proper response when asked to speak on a subject outside your comfort zone is to say, “Thank you, but no.” It’s amazing how liberating that can be, to turn down an invitation you did not want to accept in the first place. In the same way, speaking on a subject dear to your heart is energizing and empowering.

One way you can tell an unprepared speaker is by the number of “you know’s” he utters. His brain is feverishly trying to wend its way through the jungle of words and ideas and possible answers assaulting him and a “you know” is one of the ways it stalls for time while it chooses what comes next.  (Listen to any athlete or coach being interviewed about an upcoming opponent and be mortified at the “you know’s.” Had he been given the questions in advance, he could have a prepared answer for each. But live interviews are impromptu by their very nature and thus flawed throughout.)

b) Practice your delivery. In the car while you’re alone, in the park while you’re walking your dog, in bed while you’re lying awake unable to sleep, at all times.

A generation or two ago, preaching books encouraged pastors to write out their sermons and left them with the impression that that was all the preparation they required for the big moment.  Then came along Clyde Fant with “Preaching For Today,” in which he said preaching is an oral event, not written, and that the preacher should practice his sermon aloud, again and again, until he had it straight in his mind. That book changed forever how I prepared sermons.

I encourage pastors (and anyone else with a speech to give) to take daily walks during which they go over the messages they will be delivering.  Doing this helps them avoid detours the active mind is always finding. Preachers call that rabbit-chasing. No speaker chases down a rabbit trail when he is well prepared.

Practicing a sermon out loud identifies areas where the speaker is unclear and needs to do further study. It could also show him where he’s spending too much time and where not enough.

One more thing. Speaking the message aloud (even if very quiet) prepares the tongue and lips for forming those sounds. One reason people stumble over certain words is they find them unfamiliar, a situation for which oral practice is the antidote.

We’re not talking about memorizing anything. Only that the speaker go over it sufficiently that you know what you’re going to say. When the time comes, you will do it effortlessly and naturally because you are comfortable with the subject and the opportunity.

c) Plan your takeoff and your landing. This will give you a great deal of confidence.

As a retired pastor and now a traveling preacher, I’m in a different church almost every week.  There is no way to prepare for the situations I will encounter: to know how many will be present, their frame of mind, where they will be sitting, the configuration of the auditorium, the acoustics, and so forth. There is no point worrying about the things I cannot control. What I can do, however, is take care of my part. I can be well prepared.

Even though I’ve preached thousands of sermons, I do not wing it. I walk into the pulpit knowing what the first five minutes will be like–how I’ll introduce the subject, call their attention to the text, what I’ll say while they’re finding the scripture, and then the opening of the sermon itself. The one thing I do not try to plan in advance, but wait for the actual service to decide, is the opening sentence or two. Shall I mention the last time I preached here? or comment on the choir special that preceded me? Or greet a few old friends in the congregation?  You can bet that I ask the Lord to guide me on these also. When a speaker walks to the podium, he has the full attention and even the good will of his hearers; he mustn’t squander it on foolishness or silliness.

That’s a great thing to remember: as you begin to speak, you have the full support of your hearers. They want you to do well, since no one wants to feel they have wasted their time in coming today.

Now, give as much attention to the conclusion of your talk/sermon.  This is infinitely harder–unless you are a preacher. The sermon should always conclude by calling people to act on what you have preached. The only question is “in what way?” That is, are you asking them to step forward and walk the aisle to the front, kneel at the altar and pray, or talk to the minister? Or, are you calling them to reorder their finances or go down the street and witness to a neighbor or to seek out the homeless and feed them?

You should know where you are going with your message, or you will end up somewhere else.

d) Don’t overdo it.

A simple outline (the plan or recipe for your speech or sermon) will be more easily kept in your mind than a complicated one. I suggest you have your main points on a card or some kind of note, and keep it handy just in case your mind goes blank. (We can make all the jokes about senior moments we want to, but everyone has this happen from time to time.)

Don’t overstuff your message with too many details, too many quotations, or too many scriptures.  Do not give your audience so many stories they forget the point you were trying to make.  And in particular, do not throw too many points at your hearers.

You should be able to state the gist of your sermon/speech in one fairly simple sentence.  (For instance, the sentence that sums up the thrust of this article is: “You can overcome your fear of public speaking.”)

e) Then, relax. Once you’re ready, do not rehearse anything for several hours before you are to speak.

There is such a thing as being too prepared. You can cram your mind so full of plans and points and reminders that when you get up to speak, you will lose all thoughts of your audience and stress yourself out trying to recall everything.

Accept that you may well leave out a good point or two. It won’t be the end of the world. Even the best speakers and preachers do that. So, cut yourself some slack. You will not do a perfect job, no matter how hard you try.  You are a flawed human, and will not attain perfection in this life.

f) Decide to enjoy the experience.

If the audience sees that you are enjoying yourself, they’re more likely to relax and have a good time too.  So, smile at them. If something is funny, laugh at it. (I got up to preach in a Kentucky church recently. As I began, I spotted some old friends in the congregation, walked right off the platform and down the aisle, and introduced them, gave them hugs–the congregation applauded to welcome them–and then returned and went on with my sermon. Now, that is relaxed! it was clear to the congregation that I was glad to be there and determined to enjoy the experience.)

g) Do not pause in the middle of your presentation to consider “how am I doing?”

This is not a performance. You are sharing something life-giving to people who need to hear what you have to say.  You are blessing them.

This is not about you. If you are speaking in a church service (not all who read this are pastors), remember the focus is always on the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s all about Him.  You are only the messenger, not the message.

Do not pause in your talk or sermon to critique yourself, and try not to do it afterwards either.  When you are exhausted and spent–when you have unloaded all the stuff you brought today and feel like a deflated balloon–is no time to analyze how your stuff went over, where it worked and where it didn’t. Save that for another day.

Early in the ministry of Billy Graham, he began to be the subject of front page newspaper articles and celebrities began attending his crusades. On one occasion when he was preaching in New York City, he had announced his intention to preach on judgment and hell.  “The temptation came very strongly to me that maybe I should switch to another subject. Mr. Luce (the publisher of Time and Life magazines) was a New York sophisticate. It seemed to me to be the least likely way to win his favor. Then, the Lord laid Jeremiah 1:17 on my heart. ‘Speak unto them all that I command thee; be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them.’ It was as if he was saying to me, ‘If you pull your punches, I’ll confound you. I’ll make you look like a fool in front of men!'”  (from Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador, by Russ Busby)

When the Lord tells us to do something and we hold back because of fear, God is not pleased. 


3 thoughts on “How I overcame the fear of public speaking and learned to love it.

  1. Bro. Joe, I unknowingly followed what you just said. I always wanted to do solos and sang around my house as I worked, sang along with music in the car… I even sang in the choir. But I was 1) afraid to get up and sing alone in public and 2) and biggiest reason – if I said I would like a solo part in some music we were doing people would think I was conceited and ungodly. Well, one day I got an a/c tape of a song I loved and asked our music minister to listen to it. He told me to sing it to him. Petrified! but I did. His next comment was, “Sing that this Sunday.” I was 45 then and now I just find a song that touches me and pray – God uses my voice. Oh, everyone in my family was shocked! “I didn’t know you could sing.” LOL Since then God has blessed me for using His gift.

  2. it was really useful.but im not sure whether i am going to follow all the ways written here.nevertheless i gained confident in myself

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