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Fear Is the Greatest Asset of a Successful Public Speaker

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

Here Is Why

Pure, white, cold terror

“Is this what it feels like to die?”

“Boom, boom, boom.” My heart feels like a runaway train thumping in my ears, pushing faster with the adrenaline surges that taste metallic in my mouth.

I look up at the clock. “tick, tick, tick.”

My mouth is dry and I can’t swallow. It feels like my throat is closing.

“I could run,” I think glancing at the still-open door, my muscles taut and ready.

Operation “flip the fear”

The morning that I was sitting in my high school English class experiencing a full-on panic attack at the prospect of presenting to the class I knew something had to change.

If all went well, I would become a student at the nursing school at the University of Calgary the following fall, and I knew that the ability to speak in front of people would be a criterion of success.

At this moment my strategy of “avoidance at all costs,” switched to “operation flip the fear.”

Little did I know that just over 10 years later I would publish a book, Flip the Fear of Public Speaking, and become a public speaking coach/expert at a large, global consulting firm, working with hundreds of consultants to manage fear and hone their skills.

What’s the secret?

The secret is that it takes a large amount of energy to create fear. And it is precisely this energy which, if aligned with the purpose of the speaker, enables mastery and the ability to persuade.

Think of the last time you felt true fear.

When the situation was resolved, how did you feel?

What comes to mind is likely exhaustion or at least the need to sit quietly and recover, or “regroup,” from a large expense of energy.

Fight or flight

As research has long demonstrated, when the human brain perceives danger, the body triggers a “fight or flight response,” dictating a number of reactions within the body including sympathetic nervous system arousal, neuroendocrine activation, and behavioural patterns.

Escape from the real or perceived threat is the main objective and all body systems are on the alert to facilitate flight at all costs.

Imagine for a moment the body in this state.

  • The mind is alert and focused

  • The body is fully activated and ready to move at an instant's notice

This is how I felt as I sat in my English Class waiting to present.

My body felt tense and ready to run for miles from that classroom of people.

My mind was so alert to sensations and external stimuli — the second hand in the clock seemed to move in slow motion — as if I could almost see things before they actually happened.

Now, I ask you — what is the physical and mental state of a public speaker, or performer, who is able to captivate and persuade an audience?

Exactly the same as the person with an activated fear response:

  • Ability to read discrete signals from the audience through perceiving and processing a large amount of high-level, ever-changing sensory input and adapting on the fly

  • Mental agility to maintain the direction of the speech, while making minor adaptations to suit the situation (e.g., bringing in a specific example to suit the mood, or drawing the audience into relevant participation)

  • Physical — both body and vocal mastery and control to congruently match subtle, purposeful movement to punctuate and accentuate speaking points

It is exactly because of the fear response that the body is:

  • perfectly primed to read an audience,

  • tailor delivery on the fly for maximum impact,

  • and physically embody the speech such that movement becomes a vehicle in which the message is reinforced if not entirely delivered,

that the speaker is successful.

The trick is, as they say, is

Training the butterflies to fly in formation — LeFebvre 2018

The key to mastery

It is at the point of sympathetic activated fear response where, if the speaker can harness the energy and state of mental and physical alertness and responsiveness, they will be able to provide a masterful performance in speech delivery tailored to their specific audience.

And here is where the skill comes in. Training butterflies is not easy. It takes hard work, dedication to the cause, and courage to face and tame what keeps us up at night — fear.

It is my objective here to let you know that it is possible.

And when accomplished, it is a wonderful thing to experience the unison and impact on an audience watching butterflies fly in formation.


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