How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking—And Love It

(Unsplash/Marcos Luiz Photograph)

Good title, right?

Now a confession. I was never afraid to stand in front of a group and speak. In fact, quite the opposite.

In our little West Virginia schoolhouse, teacher Margaret Meadows would invite her fourth graders to share a story they had read recently. I recall Violet Garten (love that name!) was so good at it. But when she called on me—I'm the kid frantically waving my hand—and I walked to the front of the class, I broke the rules.

I did not tell a story I had read somewhere.

I made one up on the spot.

That is serious something or other. Self-confidence, maybe? (Yeah, self-confidence on steroids, I can hear someone say.)

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When friends tell me they dread public speaking, 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. That's why I did something.

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

Most of the responses boiled down to variations on one theme: fear. They feared forgetting their speech in the middle of their presentation, dreaded being rejected by the audience, were afraid of boring them or felt they would be an outright failure.

Several dislike the attention being on themselves. One or two are intimidated by crowds. One feared tripping while ascending the steps to the podium.

What follows 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 my spiritual gift!

1. The best way to overcome fear is to look it in the face and do the very thing that is frightening you. If it's 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.

As a new student in seminary a long time ago, I was given a choice of assignments including 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 frightened the daylights out of me. Therefore, it was what I should be doing. And I did. (I never learned to love it, but I did become comfortable doing it.)

Cartoonist Charles Schulz had a lifelong fear of flying. Yet once a year, he scheduled a flight somewhere. He explained, "If you give in to fear, it grows. Soon, I would be afraid to leave my house. Eventually, I couldn't leave my room. We have to work against fear."

2. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions to overcome the paralyzing fear of public speaking:

—Know your subject thoroughly.

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're told this is the fear of doing something for which we are 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. In the same way, speaking on a subject dear to your heart can be energizing and empowering.

One way to spot an unprepared speaker is by the number of "you know's" he utters. His brain is feverishly trying to wind its way through the jungle of words and ideas and possible answers assaulting him and a "you know" is one of several ways it stalls for time while choosing what comes next.

—Practice your delivery.

In the car while you're alone, in the park while you're walking your dog or even in bed while you're lying awake unable to sleep.

In former days, preaching books encouraged pastors to write out their sermons, leaving 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 forever changed how I prepared to preach.

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 quietly) 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. (That's a big reason for rehearsing Scripture aloud a number of times before reading it in a worship service.)

—Plan your takeoff and your landing.This will increase your confidence.

As a retired, traveling preacher, there is no way to prepare for the situations I will encounter in the various churches: to know how many will be present, their frame of mind, where they will be sitting, the configuration of the auditorium, the acoustics, all that has gone before me on the program. There is no point worrying about what 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.

Joe McKeever is retired from the pastorate but still active in preaching, writing and cartooning for Christian publications. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.

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