At the beginning of this year, I was stuck in bed following a major accident. I had a lot of time to think.

There was one problem that I turned over in my mind. For 20 years I had run public speaking courses in New Zealand and tried my best to help people overcome the fear of public speaking. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I wanted a more reliable method to help people overcome the fear.

The problem of the fear of public speaking

Here was the problem as I saw it. The traditional way of overcoming the fear of public speaking is to simply speak in public many times and hope that you will feel less nervous every time you do it. But there are some issues with this approach:

  1. Speaking in public for the first time is so scary for some people that they never do it. They never take opportunities to present at work, they never go on a public speaking course, they never join Toastmasters. That initial leap is too big.
  2. For people who have been brave enough to take that initial leap, they don’t have regular public speaking opportunities, so they never get enough practice to truly get over the fear. Every time it’s a fresh ordeal.
  3. When people do have an opportunity to present to an audience, there’s often a lot at stake eg: it’s part of a job interview, or making a business case to the senior management of the company. That makes it many times scarier.

So as I lay in bed, I puzzled over this problem.

The theory

I came up with a theory. What if the fear underlying the fear of public speaking was the fear of disapproval?

What I mean by this is, what if what people are really frightened of is that the audience will disapprove of them.

In evolutionary times having the approval of other people was essential to our survival. If the members of our group didn’t approve of us – if we didn’t pull our weight, if we said something that offended the leader – we could be thrown out of the group, and then it was very likely we would die. This is no longer the case, but we still have a fight or flight response when threatened with the disapproval of our group, just as we had in evolutionary times.

This theory gave me a possible new approach to helping people overcome the fear of public speaking. Instead of addressing the fear of public speaking by exposing people to public speaking, what if it could be addressed by exposing people to disapproval.

Would overcoming the fear of disapproval make public speaking less scary?

Testing the theory

I’ve now tested out this theory. Eight courageous women took part in a pilot program. They all struggled with the fear of public speaking. For example, here’s what Marie said:

“The thought of public speaking was absolutely terrifying. Even in meetings at work I was terrified of making a fool of myself or going bright red. The thought of actually giving a speech…I could not imagine ever doing that.”

During the pilot program the women took small actions every day which exposed them to a tiny dose of the fear of disapproval. The steps were so tiny to begin with that they flew under the radar of their fight or flight response. For example, one of the first steps that Marie took was wearing clashing clothes to the supermarket and risking that people might look at her and think she was weird.

Over time, Marie built up her immunity to the fear of disapproval and took actions that previously were way out of her comfort zone. Eventually, looking for opportunities to do something scary became a game to her.

“Just doing a scary action every day made such a huge difference. It’s such a simple concept, but it really works. I can’t believe I’ve gone from where I was to where I am now in just 12 weeks. It’s incredible.”

Stairway to Confidence

Marie is not alone. Every one of the seven other women had similar breakthroughs. I’ve put together a page with their stories and more information about the Stairway to Confidence program (if you received my emails earlier in the year you’ll see that I’ve changed the name from Journey to Confidence).

The next Stairway to Confidence program I’m running starts on 9th July. If you would like to be a part of it, click this link to find out more about it.

You’ll see that the program is for women only. I’ve made this decision after much thought. My experience in the pilot and the feedback I got from the pilot participants were that it functioned best once it was a women-only space (there were some men initially enrolled, and they were unable to continue). Additionally, though all the genders have confidence and visibility issues, there are some issues which are gender-specific. As a woman, I have most insight into the issues specific to women and as a result can help women the most.

You’ll also find details of the sliding scale of payment system that I’m using to make the program affordable to every woman who wants to do it.

What has Stairway to Confidence made possible for Marie?

A few weeks ago Marie was named a finalist in a competition and “had the opportunity” to speak in front of 400 people.

She told me:  “I never would have been able to get onto that stage before Stairway to Confidence.”

“Being able to speak has opened up so much for me. I know new fears will come up for me, but I know now that I can work through them because I’ve done it before. It’s just made me really excited about the future. Anything is possible.”

To see video of Marie talking about her experience of being on the program click through to the Stairway to Confidence page.