How Sam Harris Overcame His Fear of Public Speaking

He’s never the most charismatic speaker on stage, but I would never have guessed Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, had a fear of public speaking:

At the end of my senior year in high school, I learned that I was to be the class valedictorian. I declined the honor. And I managed to get into my thirties without directly confronting my fear of public speaking. At the age of thirty-three, I enrolled in graduate school, where I gave a few scientific presentations while lurking in the shadows of PowerPoint. Still, it seemed that I might be able to skirt my problem with a little luck—until I began to feel as though a large pit had opened in the center of my life, and I was circling the edge. It was becoming professionally and psychologically impossible to turn away.

The reckoning finally came when I published my first book, The End of Faith. Suddenly, I was thirty-seven and faced with the prospect of a book tour. I briefly considered avoiding all public appearances and becoming a man of mystery. Had I done so, I would still be fairly mysterious, and you probably wouldn’t be reading these words.

He also offers a few tips for overcoming the fear that might be helpful to some people. It’s decent advice. I would add that the most important thing about public speaking is being passionate about your subject. It might be tough to speak in front of strangers, but it’s even worse when you’re not invested in what you’re saying — if you lack confidence in your opinions or lack interest in your own subject matter, the audience will notice.

I’ve been coaching public speaking now for several years and it’s amazing how easy it is to transform a person who hates getting up in front of an audience to someone who is captivating to watch (even when the subject is normally boring). But it does take practice, even if you’re a natural.

Side note: Jerry Seinfeld used to tell this joke:

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two! Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

In homage to that, we wore shirts during my first year on my high school’s Speech Team that read “We do for fun what most people fear worse than death.” :)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • pman5595

    Now at least I have an explanation of why Sam Harris bores me so much.

  • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

    I’ve never had a fear of public speaking so much as a proactive sympathy for my future victims (i.e. the audience).

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  • Crodley

    I wonder if stage fright for playing music in front of people is the same cause and effect?  I suffer from that, unfortunately.  Just the though of playing music (either solo or a band) in front of people makes my heart pound.  I’ve no idea why.

  • Thin-ice

    Now, that’s ONE thing that I can do, and that is thanks to my theology degree (classes in homiletics) and having to preach and speak in front of congregations at times. There’s precious little from that christian life that I am thankful for, but speaking confidently before groups of people is one of them.

    But I never could play my saxophone solos in front of groups without my lips quivering with nerves and ruining it!

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    What great t-shirts. I love public speaking and I’m very lucky to be able to be paid for doing it.  You’re right, a passion for what you’re talking about is essential.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking in public terrifies me.  If I plan what I’m going to say then my mind goes blank.  If I write things down then I end up reading my notes out.  If I don’t plan I waffle.  Give me a keyboard and I’ll chatter on all day but get me to speak to any group with more than three members and I become a quivery jelly man who stutters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    I really enjoy listening to Sam Harris speak.

  • Sue

    Sam Harris’s advice is excellent.  Toastmasters is the tool that worked for me – I’m now only slightly nervous of public speaking instead of completely terrified.  (It’s also given me the opportunity to prove to some devout christians that atheists can be awesome people.)

  • deityfree

    I can relate. If I’m passionate and knowledgeable I do fine and I love to engage, otherwise there is a gnawing anxiety that eats at my chest.

  • Gus Snarp

    One thing that I think helped me was doing community theater. It’s much easier to speak lines that you’ve rehearsed a hundred times, that someone else wrote and are proven winner, and while the lights are so blinding you can’t really see the audience. I wasn’t very good at acting, but I think it helped ease me in to being more comfortable with public speaking.

  • Anonymous

    Requisite plug for Toastmasters International, which has been helping people with this for 80+ years.

  • Anonymous

    Requisite plug for Toastmasters International, which has been helping people with this for 80+ years.


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