We're Defining "Public Speaking" All Wrong

I can’t tell you how many times a week I hear some version of the following statement: 

“I don’t really do a lot of speaking. I mean–I have one-on-one conversations all the time, but the idea of speaking to a crowd TERRIFIES me.”

This statement always puzzles me. 

(Not the part about public speaking being scary–that I totally get. Performance anxiety is a completely normal fight or flight response that I will get into later in this very email!)  

No, the thing that puzzles me is the first half of that statement: 

How can someone say that they “don’t do a lot of speaking” and immediately follow it up with  “I have one-on-one conversations all the time”?

This is one of my biggest gripes about the field of Public Speaking.

Most of us are putting far too much emphasis on the word “Public.”

Public Speaking does NOT have to mean “speaking to a crowd.” 

If you speak up in a team meeting of five people, you are a public speaker. 

If you lead grace at the dinner table, you are a public speaker. 

If you read a bedtime story to your kids, you are a public speaker. 

If you speak in a public setting, I hate to break it to you… you are a public speaker

Now maybe your instinct is to roll your eyes and say:

“Fine, I guess those are technically instances of public speaking. But, come on Sara, you can’t really think those count.”

Here’s why I ABSOLUTELY count those as public speaking events. 

Broadening your definition of “Public Speaking” is one of the best strategies I know for deflating performance anxiety.

Take, for instance, my client Gina. 

When Gina first came to me, she had horrible public speaking anxiety. 

Our first coaching she said to me, 

“My anxiety around speaking is so bad, I actually get nervous about the possibility of getting nervous. If I have a presentation in the afternoon, it doesn’t matter how many hours I spent preparing–All I’ll be able to think of that morning is ‘What if I freak out like last time and forget everything I prepared?’” 

The anxiety would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In her head, Gina would replay every instance of public speaking where she froze or fumbled, and sure enough, by the time the afternoon rolled around she’d be in full out fight or flight mode. 

Her fear of freezing up would cause her to freeze up. 

And understandably so! Our brains love patterns and seek them out wherever they can. 

Whether consciously or not, Gina had formed a long-standing belief that “Speaking is scary.” So, whenever a speaking opportunity came up, her brain was very quick to collect evidence to support that belief. 

To keep Gina out of her anxiety spiral, we needed to break that thought pattern.

So I asked her, “Can you give me some examples of when ‘Speaking was fun’

At first, Gina drew a blank. “No,” she said, “my whole career, speaking has felt like an absolute nightmare.”

Now we were getting somewhere. I pushed a little further. 

“What about outside your career? What about in your personal life? Can you think of any times where speaking was fun?”

Then, Gina said those magic words that I almost always hear before a breakthrough, 

“Well, I don’t know if this counts but…”

You might be able to guess where this story goes. 

Gina was able to come up with a whole list of times, outside of the context of work, where she was calm, cool, and collected while speaking.

She wrote down this list and promised to read through it the morning of her next presentation. I also challenged her to continue adding to the list throughout the week.

“Write down every piece of evidence you encounter that ‘public speaking is fun’ or that ‘you are good at public speaking.’ I don’t care how insignificant the moment seems to be. Write it down!” 

And to Gina’s credit, she did. 

It was difficult at first, but the more she trained herself to look for evidence of how “speaking was fun” the more frequently evidence seems to appear.

And over time, a funny thing began to happen to Gina’s list…

Sprinkled among the non-work examples, I would see items like this:

  • Had a fun answer to the icebreaker question at the team meeting
  • Client had a positive response to our one-on-one meeting 
  • I stayed grounded when I got thrown the curveball at the Q&A  

That confidence has started creeping its way into work contexts as well.

And this, my friends, is why I am a huge advocate for broadening the definition of Public Speaking.  

If you are a human who speaks in public, you are a public speaker. 

How we talk to ourselves matters. 

So be kind to yourself this week! It’s a non-negotiable if you want to become a more confident public speaker. 

Photograph of Sara Glancy on stairs
Headshot by Jessica Osber.

Sara Glancy is an NYC-based actor and public speaking coach and the founder of Speak Masterfully, a service that helps professionals take the stage with less fear and more fun! 

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