Miscellaneous

How author and TED talk superstar Susan Cain overcame her fear of public speaking

Author Susan Cain, a self-described introvert, accepted an invitation to do what she feared — give a TED talk. Although she was anxious on the big day, she got through it and wowed the audience.

Despite living with a debilitating fear of public speaking, Cain is glad she gave the talk. Cain’s book on the subject became an international sensation, and her presentation on “The Power of Introverts” is one of the top TED talks of all time.

I spoke to Cain recently to understand how she overcame her fear of public speaking. Her successful strategy is based on psychological principles that anyone can adopt to build public-speaking confidence.

Take small steps to reach big goals.

Susan Cain look didn’t launch a public-speaking career at TED. Instead, she started small and signed up for a Toastmasters meeting where she was only asked to say her name in a safe, supportive environment.

“The way to overcome any fear, particularly speaking, is to expose yourself to the thing you fear in very small doses,” Cain told me. “You can’t start out by giving TED talks. You have to start out exactly the opposite.”

Cain prepared for the big stage by facing her fear in small steps, or what psychologists call “exposure therapy,” a proven and popular way to help people overcome or manage any number of fears, like avoiding creepy-crawly insects, social settings, or heights.

Exposure therapy is a way of retraining your brain, overriding the ancient part that labels things as a threat — yes, even speaking in public which triggers the “fight-or-flight” response causing your palms to sweat and your heart to beat faster.

The key is taking small steps to build your courage.

In addition to joining a Toastmasters group, here are three other ways to take small steps to reduce your anxiety and improve your public-speaking skills.

1. Volunteer to co-present.

Most people I’ve met who are deathly afraid of giving a presentation have spent their careers avoiding presentations. They’re afraid because they simply don’t do it very often — if at all.

One solution is to co-present with a peer. Volunteer to take a section of a presentation so the task — and the anxiety that goes with it — doesn’t entirely fall on you.

2. Teach a class.

Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran once told me she, too, had a fear of public speaking. She said her mind went completely blank before she stood up to give a short speech at a real estate meeting. That’s when Corcoran realized she needed to take steps — small ones.

Corcoran convinced a community college to let her teach a real-estate class. The simple act of preparing for lessons and lecturing in front of a few people built her confidence to accept bigger and bigger speaking opportunities.

3. Practice in front of someone.

The old advice of practicing in front of a mirror is OK, but I suggest stepping it up a notch. When you’re practicing a presentation or a speech you’ll have to deliver in front of the class, ask someone to watch. Better yet, ask two people.

The simple act of practicing in front of supportive friends and peers will give you a little more confidence for the real thing.

If you follow these tactics and still get nervous, you’re perfectly healthy. Although we all want to “conquer” public-speaking fears, the better approach is to “manage” them. Managing your fear means it’s there, but you’re in control. And when you’re in control of your emotions, you can make them work for you instead of holding you back.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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