Three Fears That Still Accompany Me in Public

(Originally sent out as an article under Eagles' Simply Proclaim)

I’ve spent most of my life dreading public speaking. Stage fright is natural, but watching great speakers, I had a hard time believing that they too started out like me—uncertain and afraid of making a bad impression. “Dude, you’re sure to bomb,” I kept hearing in my head.

But in molding me to become a speaker, God showed me that the oft-cited fear of public speaking can be a good thing—you just have to channel it in the right way. It never really goes away, so you might as well use it to your advantage!

Forget the old bromide of picturing the audience in their underwear. Here are three fears that once paralyzed me—and once I thought of them in the right way, freed me to speak with greater vitality and authority than ever.


1. Fear of Misrepresenting the Word of God

The more I learn about the Scriptures, the more I realize how little I have grasped its incredible depths. Charles Spurgeon grasped this when he wrote, “Nobody ever outgrows Scripture; the book widens and deepens with our years.”

This doubt that I am not doing the text full justice lingers in my mind, even when I’m sure I’m exegeting it correctly. Even when I listen to other preachers, I check their sermons for mistakes—with the same standards I set for myself!

Rather than dismiss it as mere paranoia, I’ve decided to embrace it as part of who I am. Taken the right way, it’s a healthy fear—coming from a reverence for God’s Word. The Bible says what it says with the authority of God, and we have the awesome responsibility of proclaiming it accurately to our listeners.

In short, we must be subject to it, not the other way around.

So adopt a spirit of humility before God and fellow teachers of the Word, and reverently immerse yourself in the text. Read the whole text in its context lest it become a “con text.” Meditate on it throughout the week, consult good commentaries, and pray that the Lord gives you understanding of the needs of your audience—so that your teaching is the purest, clearest and most direct presentation of the Word that you can provide.

That way, you do your part of delivering His message, and He does His part of building you and your audience up.

Finally, come up with relevant analogies and stories that make sense to your listeners, and will leave them (and you) with more clarity about the text than they had before.


2. Fear of Mockery and Criticism from the Audience

Few people have a good introduction to public speaking, possibly because classmates are among the harshest, most merciless critics you can have. (The good news? Most grow out of it, or at least learn to hide it better.) Whenever I presented a school assignment in front of the class during my secondary school days, my classmates would point and laugh at any slip-up I made. Sometimes they were real; sometimes I imagined them in my panic.

That fear has never gone away. At every public presentation or speaking engagement, I will inevitably imagine that someone is pointing and whispering a criticism into a companion’s ear. Early on, my nerves took over; and I over-reacted to their reactions to my speech.

Someone looking away or checking his watch would send me into a panic, and in my fear I would speed up or freeze. Social media doesn’t help; I wonder if I’ll end up on Facebook or YouTube for the wrong reasons!

Again, the key is to realize that you can’t control anyone’s response. As a result, you’ve to choose whose criticism and feedback mean the most to you. For me, that’s my fiancĂ©e and the people closest to me.

So if a single audience member takes issue with my speech, it no longer bothers me. I can focus on delivering the speeches and sermons I have prepared, and deal with the criticism when I am more receptive to it.

Take action by identifying the people whose feedback you value the most, and practicing in front of them if possible.


3. Fear of My Own Inadequacies

It’s often been said that people fear death less than they do public speaking. When I was just starting out, I would rather have died than got on stage! I spoke badly and often mispronounced words.

In some churches, baptism candidates announce ‘life verses’—passages from Scripture that resonate with them. Mine might well have been Moses’ protest to God: “I am slow of speech and of tongue … Oh my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 4:10, 13).

To this day, I still struggle at smooth, clear delivery. But I now thank God for the numerous opportunities I get to speak in front of people, testing myself and seeing where I can improve. A slip-up doesn’t mean I’ve failed—it reveals a weakness I can tackle. See mistakes that way, and you’ll find your confidence growing with every chance to speak!

As a cell group leader, I had chances to practice sharing the Word of God with my group members as well as non-believers I was reaching out to. Going on mission trips allows me to practice speaking and proclaiming God’s Word in front of a crowd. Don’t hide from such opportunities; seek them out and prepare to the best of your ability. What gets tested gets better.

Above all, get a mentor through a program like ARETE, which my organization runs for preachers and Bible teachings. Clarity is a critical part of understanding and correcting your mistakes, and that comes much more easily through mentoring and sincere feedback. Getting instruction and accountability through ARETE, an online course or a Toastmasters group is an investment in yourself that will pay off many times over.

What are your own fears on public speaking, and how do you handle them? Let me know in the comments—I read every one.

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