Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Public Speaking is Big Fear For Many Lawyers

If your heart pounds and your mind goes blank whenever you speak in public, you’re not a failure as a lawyer.

In fact, you’re in good company.

The fear of public speaking is one of the deepest and most common sources of anxiety. That’s true for laypeople and lawyers alike, including some courtroom veterans that you might think are as comfortable onstage as a Broadway star.

“I was a litigator for 20 years, and I was chronically terrified of public speaking,” writes New York law professor Heidi Brown in this ABA Journal article. “I felt ill before every combative negotiation, deposition and courtroom experience. There wasn’t anyone to talk to about my fear.”

Few terrors in life – not spiders, not snakes, not nightmares where you’re being chased – are as universally feared as standing in front of people and talking. In fact, psychologists rank it as the second-most common dread, right behind the fear of flying and just ahead of the fear of heights.

“For years, I had heard mantras such as, ‘Just practice! Preparation eliminates public speaking anxiety!’ Or, ‘Just do it! Everyone is nervous,’” writes Brown. “I tried faking it, mirroring others’ behavior, forcing extroversion, overpreparing, over-practicing, for years. None of that worked. What did work was stopping to look at who I am as an individual, digging into the reality of what drives my fear of public speaking and adopting new mental and physical strategies for stepping into performance events authentically.”

Imposter Syndrome Thrives on Fear

Brown’s anxiety at having to perform in public manifested in a torrent of toxic self-talk.

“I bought into the notion that I was a fraud, an impostor,” she writes. “How could I be a litigator or even any type of decent lawyer if the performance aspects of my job pressed me into such depths of anxiety?”

The solution for Brown was to confront her fear head-on. She looked inside herself to see where her anxiety stemmed from. She paid attention to how her self-limiting thoughts only made things worse. She began practicing mental and physical techniques to empower herself in public scenarios, such as visualizing herself with “swagger” and changing her internal script to saying things like, I worked hard on this. I’m prepared. I have a substantive and procedural plan.  

12 Tips for Powerful Public Speaking

If you want to improve your public speaking skills, you can get a copy of I Can See You Naked, the popular guidebook for making effective presentations.

And you can try these 12 pointers, courtesy of Forbes Online and business educator Conor Neill:

  1. Speak with an intent to move people to action. “Know what you want your audience to do immediately after hearing your speech. If nobody does anything different than they would have done before you spoke – the value of your speech is zero.”
  2. Start strong with a grabber. Hook the audience with something fun or fascinating.
  3. Structure your material in three sections. Grabber, middle, close.
  4. Rehearse out loud, in front of a mirror and with a timer.
  5. Know the audience. Greet some people in the audience before you begin speaking. You will start as friends.
  6. Know the setup. Try out the speaking area. Test the microphone. Make sure your audio-visuals are working.
  7. What’s the worst that can happen if things go wrong?
  8. Visualize yourself successful. Picture your own “swagger” moments.
  9. A well-placed moment of silence will add emphasis and punch.
  10. And sip water if needed.
  11. Don’t apologize. The audience probably never noticed it.
  12. Get experience. “Take every opportunity you can get to speak (and listen to other speakers). Experience builds confidence, which is the key to effective speaking.”


Top 10 Fears

Do you have any of these?

  1. Fear of flying
  2. Fear of public speaking
  3. Fear of heights
  4. Fear of the dark
  5. Fear of intimacy
  6. Fear of death
  7. Fear of failure
  8. Fear of rejection
  9. Fear of spiders
  10. Fear of commitment

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

Read More by Jay >

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