If the thought of delivering a speech in front of a crowd leaves your hands clammy and your body shaking in your boots, you’re not alone.
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, more than 40 percent of Americans admit to a fear of public speaking. In fact, public speaking is the country’s top phobia. Dubbed glossophobia, it’s ranked scarier than spiders, darkness, heights, and even death. Symptoms can include intense anxiety, nausea, shaking, a quavering voice, and panic attacks. Even when it doesn’t reach the levels of outright phobia, public speaking still provokes nerves—up to 75 percent of people experience speech anxiety.
This fear may have biological roots. One theory posits that our “lizard brains” can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one, so we react to standing in front of a group of people the same way we may respond to being stalked by a mountain lion: with fear. Another possible explanation is that glossophobia stems from the fear of being judged or rejected by our peers.
Regardless of its origin, nervousness about public speaking has consequences for both an individual speaker and the speech itself. Fearfulness at the podium can manifest as distracting facial expressions, a lack of verbal coherence or a clear train of thought, stiffness, and an overreliance on verbal fillers such as “um” and “er,” which can make it difficult for the audience to focus on the speech’s content. (As if speakers don’t have enough to worry about!)
Even though most people dread public speaking, the fact is that it’s a part of life for anyone working in the professional world. Whether you issue a project update, conduct a tech demo for colleagues or clients, or present at a conference, odds are you will speak publicly at some point in your career. In fact, some studies have found that the ability to speak well has a bigger influence on job success than technical skills.
If you’re one of the many people who dread speaking in front of a crowd, then you have two options. You can spend your life trying to come up with excuses to get out of public speaking, which will require a lot of time, energy, and lost opportunities. Or you can face the fear head on and adopt strategies that help you reduce and maybe even overcome your fear of public speaking for good. Here’s how.
Adopt these strategies to help reduce or overcome your fear of public speaking
Practice out loud and in a safe place
One of the best ways to build confidence as a public speaker is to feel prepared when you step in front of a crowd. And the best way to feel prepared is to practice, practice, and practice some more.
Start out by organizing any props or visual aids you plan to use in your presentation. Next, ease into things by practicing by yourself. Speak out loud instead of reading through the speech in your head to get a feel for the cadence of your speech and get comfortable with articulating its content. Pay particular attention to nailing your intro. Research shows anxiety tends to drop after the first 30 to 60 seconds of a presentation. So if you feel confident about your intro, odds are good you can successfully make it through the rest of your speech.Once you’re comfortable practicing on your own, enlist a trusted friend or family member to be a supportive audience. Practicing in front of other people without the pressures involved on the actual day of your speech will help you get comfortable enough to present in front of an audience.
Visualize the good
You’ve probably heard about the power of positive visualization in a number of contexts. It certainly has its place when it comes to mitigating a fear of public speaking, too. If you find yourself ruminating on negative “what ifs” (“What if I forget my speech? What if I trip and fall?”), imagine best-case scenarios instead. Visualize yourself calmly striding out in front of the crowd, delivering an impeccable speech from start to finish, and basking in the glow of applause when you conclude your presentation. A positive outcome is just as possible as a negative one.
But prepare for the bad
If you find you can’t put worrisome visualizations out of your head, it may be helpful to roll with it. Let yourself imagine every horrible, embarrassing, negative outcome—and then develop a game plan for what you would do in each of those situations. Perhaps you could make a joke to win over your audience after a gaff, or you could take yourself out to dinner afterward to celebrate having survived. Even the best speakers make mistakes; what matters after a flub is that you continue with as much grace as you can muster. Imagining constructive responses to worst-case scenarios can help you feel more empowered to accept the speech for whatever it may be.
Get to know your audience
Familiarity breeds comfort, so it only makes sense that you’ll feel more comfortable in front of a crowd of familiar people. Before the day of your speech, ask around to find out if any friends or friendly acquaintances will be attending. In addition, it may be helpful to arrive at the venue early and chit-chat with folks in the audience. Then, when you deliver your speech, look out into the audience, briefly settle your gaze on a familiar face, and smile. This can decrease your anxiety and help your audience to perceive you positively.
Reduce stress in advance
The day of your speech, do everything you can to soothe your nerves before you even step into your presentation outfit. Aim to get at least 15 minutes of aerobic exercise in the hour or two leading up to your speech. Doing so will both reduce stress and improve focus, making it easier to shut out distracting thoughts during your presentation. Other helpful strategies include arriving at the venue early (so you don’t have to set up at the last minute), eating a healthy meal, and practicing yoga or meditation. It’s also a smart idea to wear clothes you feel comfortable in so you have a better chance at staying relaxed during your speech.
Remember why people are there
Contrary to what your brain may tell you, most people don’t actually attend speeches for the purpose of judging the speaker. Instead, they’re interested in the content you have to share. In other words: Your audience isn’t assessing you personally. They’re hoping to receive something of value from your presentation. Keep your focus on educating, inspiring, and/or entertaining your audience, and it will be easier to remember this isn’t about you.
Allow yourself to pause
Anxiety can cause you to tense up and feel like you need to expel your whole speech in one breath. But in reality, there’s nothing wrong with infusing some brief pauses or moments of silence into your speech. In fact, this can be a great way to calm down if you experience mid-speech jitters. There are two key ways to pause:
- Stop speaking and take a few steps to the side. Moving your body even a little can help channel nerves into physical movement instead of a psychological block. If you can’t step away from the podium, simply focus on straightening your back and lengthening your spine, which can trigger a feeling of confidence.
- Take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing is a common strategy to reduce nerves, and it will be even more effective if you focus on exhaling. Take a few breaths while emphasizing the rhythm of your exhales, which can help you feel calm and reduce any quavering in your voice.
Celebrate your successes
Once you finish a speech, take some time to learn from the experience and reflect on your successes. Even if you made a few flubs, you can find some aspects to celebrate. Make an effort to write down 10 things you did well. This will help train your brain to focus on the positive. And if you feel positive after a public speaking experience, it’s going to be that much easier to contemplate doing it again.
If you’ve tried all of these strategies but still suffer with debilitating nerves before a speech, then it may be time to seek out professional help. Many people find success with public speaking classes or speaking groups such as Toastmasters, while some may benefit from psychological counseling. Whether you go the professional route or you find that these strategies are sufficient for calming your speech anxiety, remember to be gentle with yourself. Celebrate your successes and keep practicing, and you’ll find yourself increasingly comfortable in front of a crowd.