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.

When I was a fourth grader in our little West Virginia schoolhouse, teacher Margaret Meadows would periodically invite anyone who had read an interesting story to stand and share it. 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 all 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 one given to introspection, I’ve never tried to answer that, but I am confident that little snapshot reveals a world of insight on the adult I became. Both positive and negative.

In high school, one of the stated requirements for presidents of local chapters of the FFA (Future Farmers of America) was to be able to address an audience for a full 30 minutes.  I don’t recall actually doing that, but in time addressing audiences for 30 minutes at a clip would end up describing my life. I’m a Southern Baptist preacher, you understand. Sixty years ago last April, God called me into the ministry.  It has been my life.

When friends tell me they dread public speaking, that they would rather take a whipping than stand in front of a group to speak about anything, I cannot identify. I do not know their feeling.  So, I did something.

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

The responses boiled down to 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. 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 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. The very thought of standing on a street corner preaching with a microphone frightened the daylights out of me. Thus, it was what I should be doing.

Cartoonist Charles Schulz admitted to 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.

You may share only a sliver of what you have learned, but never ever rise to speak on a subject of which you are poorly informed.

Remember those dreams where you appear in public without clothes? We’re told this is the fear of being unprepared.

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 can be 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.  Athletes and coaches being interviewed for television about an upcoming game are exhibit A for this.  Had they had time to prepare, they might have even been eloquent.

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.

Decades ago, books encouraged preachers to write out their sermons and left the impression that that was all the preparation they required for the big moment.  Then came along Dr. Clyde Fant with Preaching For Today, teaching that 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 changed forever how I prepared sermons.

I encourage people 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 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. Giving advance thought to the introduction and conclusion will give you a great deal of confidence.

As a retired pastor and now an itinerant preacher, I’m in different churches throughout the year.  There is no way to prepare for all 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.  Preachers have a natural advantage here. Sermons should conclude by calling people to act on what they have heard. (In Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, the audience interrupted to ask him, “What shall we do?” Acts 2)  Yours will not do that, but you should assume they’re wondering.

You will need to decide in what way you want them to respond. 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, perhaps 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?

Unless you know where you want to go with your message, you will end up somewhere else.

d) Don’t overdo the preparation and planning.

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 in case your mind goes blank. (Make all the jokes about senior moments you wish, but everyone has this happen from time to time.)

Don’t overload 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 fully prepared, 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 rise to speak, you will lose all thoughts of your audience and stress yourself out trying to recall everything.

Accept that you may leave out a good point or two. Doing so won’t be the end of the world. Even the best speakers and preachers do that occasionally. 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) Determine 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.

Once, I was guest-preaching in a church hundreds of miles from home.  As I began, I spotted some old friends in the congregation.  On the spur of the moment, I walked right off the platform and down the aisle, gave my friends hugs, and introduced them to the congregation. The people applauded to welcome them, then I returned and went on with the sermon. Now, that is relaxed! it was clear to the congregation that I was glad to be there and was 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. 

A quick story from my wife Bertha—

As a new student in the seventh grade, Bertha was mortified to learn each class member would be required to read aloud the essay they had turned in.  At home, she told her big sister Laura about this.

Two years older, Laura recalled being in the same class.  She gave little sis Bertha some great advice.

Mrs. Thrailkill will call on volunteers.  She always does.  So, you be the first to raise your hand.  Everyone in the room will be nervous about standing in front of the class.  You will get it done first. You will get it over with. 

Bertha: “I was the only one to raise their hand.  And when I finished, everyone applauded. I felt wonderful.  And I never forgot the lesson.”

Bertha became a school teacher, teaching American literature for over fifty years in high school and college.   By conquering the fear of public speaking early, she blessed generations of young people.

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

  1. Joe . . I grew up in the 50s on Southern Baptist Church Training Union. Each week we gave parts . . short speeches . . that taught the doctrines of the faith. Great memories and perfect training for young teenagers.

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