If you're frightened of speaking in public, there's a simple and extremely powerful way to get past that fear. Treat it like you would any other phobia and desensitize yourself to it in very tiny baby steps.
That's what Susan Cain did, she explained in a keynote at this week's Adobe Summit. Cain is literally famous for being an introvert--she's the bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. When she wrote the book, she understood the irony. Publishing it would require her to do something many introverts find horribly frightening--getting up and speaking in front of people.
Introverts aren't the only ones who feel that way. Although claims that people fear public speaking more than death are overblown, fear of public speaking is very common and even has a name: glossophobia. Seasoned speakers have all sorts of recommendations for how to deal with this fear. There's focusing on the purpose of your speech; running in place for a few seconds before you start; Amy Cuddy's advice about spreading your arms wide; and the often-repeated suggestion to picture the audience naked. (Has anyone ever managed to do this? If so, can you explain it to me?)
Cain's approach was much simpler and more scientific. She kept in mind that fear of public speaking is an irrational fear. And when it comes to overcoming any irrational fear, "There's a kind of magic solution that psychology has come up with," she said. "This is actually one of the most robust findings in psychology, it really works. The way to overcome any fear is simple. You have to expose yourself to the thing you're afraid of, but you have to do it in very small, simple steps."
Say your name and sit down.
She wasn't kidding about the very small steps. "I started with a class for people who had this particular anxiety," she said. "On the very first day all you had to do was stand up, say your name, sit back down, and you're finished. You declare victory, you are done." From there, participants progressed to answering a few questions about where they grew up and then sitting back down. "Little by little by little you do it this way until you get to the miraculous day where the fear is largely overcome, and anybody can do this."
I love this approach. I'm currently reading BJ Fogg's Tiny Habits, which is a fantastic blueprint for how to create a habit you want or eliminate one you don't want. Fogg's insight is that the best place to begin is with something so tiny that it's almost impossible to fail. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, don't start by going out and running for five minutes, or even one minute. Start by putting on your running shoes and tying the laces. Then, like Cain in her class, you declare victory and celebrate. The magic of this is that by giving yourself the positive reinforcement for doing that little step, you'll naturally want to do more, such as stepping out your front door. Eventually, you'll find yourself running--because you want to.
There's a small audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we wind up in an ongoing conversation. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) During May, I'll be texting micro-challenges inspired by Tiny Habits.
If you want to get over a fear of public speaking using tiny steps and you can't find a course you like, Cain suggests joining Toastmasters. That's another way to slowly desensitize yourself to public speaking in a safe environment. But this tiny step method can go way beyond public speaking. It can help you get rid of other irrational fears, or help you start habits you want to keep. If you try it, what will it do for you?