Conquer your fear of public speaking with these 5 tips

500 days ago 6 minute read
Conquer your fear of public speaking with these 5 tips

Public speaking is a fear greater than death for many people. This fear can paralyze and throw off the best of us, with an estimated 3 out of 4 people suffering from speech anxiety. The good news is that public speaking is a skill that can be learned, not an in-born talent, and the first step to becoming a great speaker is settling those nervous jitters. Use these tips to help overcome your fear of speaking in public.

It’s normal to be nervous

When exposed to a perceived threat, your body kicks into fight or flight mode. This is the human body’s evolutionary response to being faced with a predator, like a bear or saber toothed tiger that wanted to eat you. Instinct told our ancestors to run away as fast as possible, or use the burst of adrenaline to fight. The third response is to freeze in the hopes that the predator won’t notice you or think you aren’t worth eating.

In modern times, this fight or flight response is triggered by perceived threats, like the stress of giving a speech or presentation. Survival instinct kicks in, and you want to flee from the building or freeze in place like a deer in headlights to save yourself. The problem is that this response is not beneficial to your survival in the workplace. In fact, it is the people who can evolve to overcome this response who will rise up the food chain.

Rationally, you know that presenting this month’s financial reports or giving a speech at a conference is not a life threatening situation, but your sweaty palms, weak knees and increased heart rate tell a different story. The remedy is some simple mind control. Reframe public speaking as something mild and non-threatening. Imagine on one hand, being confronted by a saber toothed tiger, its sharp teeth seconds away from tearing into your soft flesh… compare that to the sedate atmosphere of a bunch of people in a safe, comfortable room listening to you talk. Which is scarier - giving a speech or being eaten by a tiger? Take a deep breath, remind yourself the audience is not going to eat you, and let your rational mind do the talking. If you can convince yourself that speaking in front of people is not as scary as it seems, you can help eliminate your nerves and focus on the content of your speech.

Practice makes progress

Another reason for being nervous is not being well prepared. The more you practice, the better you will know your content and messages, and you will get used to hearing yourself speak. Practicing in front of people is even better, as you can gauge their response to you and get used to being in front of an audience.

It sounds like common sense to practice before a speech or presentation, but many people avoid practicing in the hopes that not thinking about it will make the whole situation disappear. What happens instead is that dreaded day on the calendar arrives without fail, and not being prepared makes them even more nervous.

Keep it simple. Focus on the content of your speech and make sure your information is clear, relevant and understandable. Practice as many times as you can to get used to the content and delivery. If you can practice in front of people or in the actual room you will be in for the real presentation, even better. If you don’t have an audience, record your practice presentation on video and watch it back to see how others may perceive you. The more comfortable you are with your material and the act of speaking to a group, the less self-conscious you will feel. In turn, your audience will pick up on your relaxed vibes and feel at ease.

Ask for feedback

If you aren’t sure a PowerPoint slide is working or if your message is coming across clearly, ask someone who you trust to give you an honest opinion. Test your material on colleagues who will be attending your presentation, or record yourself on video and send it to a friend who you know will be unbiased. Be receptive to feedback and constructive criticism, as this gives you a chance to understand how you come across to your audience. Maybe you should pause less, or speak slower, or maybe there are positive things you can do more of. Getting an outside perspective can help you polish your performance beyond what you can accomplish on your own, so get a focus group together and rehearse.

Use a cheat sheet

You’ve rehearsed your speech until you know it like the back of your hand. You finish a sentence, ready to move on to the next point, and your mind goes blank. You can’t think of your next topic, and start to panic internally as time stands still. It might feel like an hour, but in reality it will only be a few seconds. Use that time to take a deep breath and look down at your cheat sheet, a piece of paper with your main points on it. As insurance, you can glance down at it periodically as a reminder of how your main points or topics flow into each other. While you can’t write out your whole speech, a cheat sheet can give you the added security of being there if you need it.

Learn from your mistakes

As renowned public speaker Dale Carnegie said: "There are always three speeches for every one you actually gave. The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave."

If you have ever given a speech where you stumbled or missed your mark, don’t be discouraged. It is an opportunity for continuous improvement. Give yourself credit for the things you did well, and work on improving the things you didn’t like.

Don’t be so hung up on delivering every line perfectly that you freak out if you mess up. Your recovery from a stumble or mind blank is your chance to show that a slip up doesn’t faze you. Use that moment to get the audience to relax by making a joke at your own expense, or simply don’t draw attention to it, keep calm and carry on. After all, nobody is going to eat you.



Statistic taken from Cheryl Hamilton, Communicating for Results, a Guide for Business and the Professions (eighth edition), 2008, Thomson Wadsworth.

Quote taken from Dale Carnegie Training, Stand and Deliver: How to Become a Masterful Communicator and Public Speaker (2011 edition), Simon and Schuster.

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