Better public speaking: good and bad anxiety

Do you have good or bad anxiety when you speak? How to tell the difference.

WASHINGTON, September 21, 2012 – Do you almost always feel a little edgy before you have to speak in public? Okay—not almost always. Always. Not a little edgy. A lot

Understanding how much anxiety you grapple with as compared to the experience of others can prove surprisingly useful in dealing with the situation. Here are ways to evaluate your level of anxiety about public speaking. 

Anxiety and energy: The same only different. 

Anxiety is a form of energy that arises from within. Let’s define energy:

1. The capacity for vigorous activity; available power: “I eat chocolate to get quick energy.”

2. An adequate or abundant amount of such power: “I seem to have no energy these days.” (Maybe your pancreas is on overdrive from all that chocolate …) 

It seems that energy’s good if you have it, bad if you don’t. Interestingly, anxiety doesn’t work that way. It’s good if you have some, bad if you have none.

Good and bad anxiety

What’s good anxiety? Good anxiety is a level of alertness that sensitizes you to the available components of success. In other words, it’s motivational, and it’s what prods you to notice the feedback you give yourself. “Am I ready to speak before this audience? Am I fully prepared? Dressed right? Properly rehearsed?” The answer to all these questions needs to be, “yes.”

If one or more of the answers are “no,” you generally ask yourself, “Why not?” And then you fix what’s wrong. If you find you’re starting to over-fix, you get a grip and tell yourself to chill. Because you’re in control of your energy, you’re able to meet the needs of your audience with good grace, and sometimes even with aplomb.

What’s bad anxiety? Bad anxiety is relentless self-pinging. It takes you down, big-time. Your brain goes atavistic, and your amygdala suits up for Armageddon. Bad karma all around.

A frequent cause of bad anxiety is an imagination gone wild. The likelihood of the following imaginary, negative, bad anxiety scenarios actually happening while you are speaking in public is statistically impossible:

  • You will faint. No one will be able to revive you.
  • You will throw up in public. It will be messy, very messy.
  • Your listeners will spontaneously stand up, turn their backs on you, and walk out en masse.
  • They can’t stand you because you will be so boring they’ll all fall asleep simultaneously. You’ll have to tiptoe out to avoid waking them and embarrassing everyone.
  • In short, you will be disgraced forever.
  • Your audience will remember you as a failure and shun you for the rest of your life. Word will spread. You will be persona non grata at every future family event, including events that will be held by people not yet born.

You build scenarios of failure in your head and respond to them as if they were real. This problem can actually be worse for very intelligent people because the scary, imaginary scaffolding goes up at blinding speed—as fast as your neurons can manufacture it. This mental monster may not grow as fast as the speed of light. But it can definitely fire up at the speed of electricity. 

Stage fright: The immediate and most serious consequence of public speaking.

While bad anxiety can be manifested through physical symptoms like headaches, trembling, and nausea, the worst consequence of bad anxiety—and the most debilitating—is the inability to think. In stage actors, these symptoms of bad anxiety are ignited by an intense and irrational fear of the opening curtain or that first entrance.

The terror piles on. “Will I stumble and fall? Will I look okay? Will I forget my lines? Will I freeze? Will the critics hate me?” In theater, this is commonly known as stage fright. But public speakers encounter it, too.

People whose previous experience tells them that anxiety hijacks their brains when they speak in public don’t often deal with it logically. The logical response is to reduce your anxiety in advance, before your brain goes dead and autonomic responses rule your miserable world.

And get this: even when our logic tells us we’re being logical, we’re not. Human beings tend to defer anxiety, so we’ll avoid it as long as we can, even when it’s inevitable. It’s a natural response, and it’s irrational. We consider ourselves the most rational creatures in the world. In a sense we are. It’s our special gift. However, we are excellent at building rational arguments from irrational premises. And when they start piling up, it can turn into stage fright, a real, often habitual problem that can worsen over time.

The long-term consequences of anxiety avoidance

What happens to your anxiety about public speaking? As we’ve seen, it builds. You endure it. Then it’s over. After you’ve given a speech, you’re so darn glad it’s over you never want to think about it again. So you don’t. What a relief. 

Wrong answer.

Because the next time will come. And the time after that. Weeks, months, or years pass by between speaking events you must accept. Some you manage to avoid altogether. It’s easier to avoid thinking about the personal and professional cost of copping out on a speaking opportunity than to confront the issue and deal with it. Enduring each unhappy event means you’re depriving yourself of the opportunity to improve for the next time—and thereby reduce future anxiety.

Illogical. Why? The anxiety of dealing with speaking anxiety is stronger within you than the anxiety involved with giving the speech itself. 

Public speaking anxiety shows up only when you have to talk and lasts less time than it takes to deal with the bigger issue. Best of all, it goes away until the next time. As long as you don’t think about it.

So why think of it at all? 

Logical. Why? Short-term pain avoidance makes sense.

The long-term consequences? Like building up a pile of little stones, each time you avoid, deny, or unnecessarily endure public speaking anxiety, you add to your load. Over time, you end up building an avalanche in your head.

Bit by bit, visible and invisible symptoms pile up: mental blocks, stomach aches, heartburn, feeling out of control and confused. Your heart rate speeds up, your higher blood pressure courses through your arteries, and an involuntary, autonomic injection of adrenaline gooses your already overtaxed body. You stutter, you stammer, and you cause yourself to fail. 

What’s true about your fear of public speaking? Is your experience shared by other people? Even so, why is it true for you? “Because I’m special” is not a right answer. 

Trust me: bad anxiety about public speaking is not only totally unnecessary; it’s worthless. Good anxiety? That’ll get you on the right track. 

Go back to the definition of good anxiety we sketched out above. In your spare time or whenever you can, start drilling through those practical questions: “Am I ready to speak before this audience? Am I fully prepared? Dressed right? Properly rehearsed?”

Program yourself to go through this checklist or one similar to it, tailoring it over time to suit your own circumstances. You might even want to write it down as you develop it. Once you’re comfortable with your checklist, keep it in your pocket or in your desk at all times. When it’s time for you to speak in public again, and when you find that customary bad anxiety welling up and making its usual bid to take over, pull out your list and drown out that bad anxiety by dealing with each item on the list. Check them off one by one as soon as you can answer “yes.” It’s not a panacea. And you’re likely to encounter an internal battle when you’re doing this for the first time. 

But if you stick with it, you’ll learn to gradually replace your irrational bad energy with the good stuff. Over time, the bad anxiety will lessen. You’ll gain confidence. You’ll replace the irrational with the rational and controllable. And you might actually start looking forward to public speaking engagements instead of hiding your head in the sand, or even looking for another planet to live on rather than confronting a problem that’s relatively easy to solve.


Frances Ponick’s bookOnly Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn



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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from


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