It’s good to be nervous before a presentation. Apprehension shows you care about your content; you want your hard work to be successful. Natural anxiety fuels a great speech. But public speaking anxiety can be debilitating.
Thankfully, there are numerous ways to overcome a fear of public speaking, which this article will outline. Firstly understand public speaking anxiety. Then learn how to overcome it. Finally, know how to master the art of public speaking.
Because whether it’s a weekly meeting, a big presentation or a conference call, your voice deserves to be heard.
Know what it is
What is a fear of public speaking?
The official name is glossophobia, literally meaning fear of the tongue. It’s a social phobia based on fearing the judgement of others. When we speak in public, all attention is on us as an individual. And like everyone else in the room, we become very aware of ourselves.
Face your fear is one of society’s favourite sayings. And for some phobias, it certainly works. Arachnophobia? Hold a spider. Acrophobia? Go bungee jumping. Aerophobia? Fly to Australia. Yet giving a public speech might not have the same triumph over your fear of public speaking. With every speech, we confirm the fear rather than overcome it. The near impossibility of a perfect performance makes mistakes inevitable.
So the trick is to not try and totally eradicate the fear. The best public speakers still get nervous. But they transform anxiety into energy and take pride in their performance, regardless of its flaws.
Why do we get it?
Fearof.net listed glossophobia as number 13 in their top 100 common phobias. In fact, 7% of the US population, 27 million people, admit to having the phobia. Public speaking is both a common fear and a daily occurrence, especially for professionals like entrepreneurs or teachers. So where does this inconvenient phobia originate?
One theory is based on evolution. Once, at London Zoo, Charles Darwin conducted a simple experiment. He put his face to the glass separating him from a poisonous adder. Whenever the snake attacked, Darwin would jump back impulsively. Despite our developed minds knowing we are safe, we are still influenced by primitive instincts. One unavoidable impulse is fight-or-flight. Even in non-life-threatening situations, our body reacts before our mind. So standing in front of a room full of people can trigger the same physical response as when faced with a poisonous snake.
Another theory blames our modern lifestyle for the commonality of glossophobia. With the rise of technology, we spend less time engaging with the public. We replace physical conversations with virtual ones. We talk via email more than with our own voices. It’s easier to communicate with a keyboard than with speech. Theoretically, we lack the daily habit of speaking to groups of people. And when we are forced to speak publically, we simply aren’t used to it.
Who has it?
As glossophobia is so common, even society’s most confident members face the same inherent fear.
One shocking example is Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and third richest man in the world. During his childhood and early adult years, Buffet hated speaking in class, even avoiding calling out his own name, before taking a course and overcoming his fear. Political revolutionary, Mahatma Gandhi, faced similar problems and was once unable to finish a speech in London due to blurred vision and shaking. Even actors, like Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, who are famed for the control manipulation of their voice, faced public speaking fear due to childhood speech problems. Mark Twain once famously summarised the fundamental fear of public speaking:
“There are two kinds of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”
And if you’re not inspired by celebrities, consider people who have a physical reason to fear public speaking, such as those with a stutter like Megan Washington. Yet she still manages to stand in front of a room and give a TED Talk.
It’s surprising to realise how many famous people have public speaking anxiety. Yet it’s also liberating. If they have overcome the phobia, so can anyone.
Know how to overcome it
So now that you know what it is, and that you can overcome it, how do you face a fear of public speaking?
Physical things you can do
Many successful public speakers strongly endorse the power of exercise. Tony Robbins particularly encourages the healthy state of mind and endorphins triggered by psychical activity. Although you shouldn’t exhaust yourself before a presentation, light exercise can help relieve muscle tension and boost confidence. Muscle relaxation techniques and yoga are great exercises to practice before a speech. It’s also a great way to spend your time in the build-up to a presentation, rather than counting down the minutes.
Correct breathing isn’t only important for singers, it’s a vital consideration for anyone using their voice. Breathlessness is a common sign of anxiety. And in the high tension situation of public speaking, our breath is the first thing to falter. Learn in advance how to control your breathing by practising techniques and knowing how to utilise your diaphragm. First, calm your breath and a calm mind will soon follow.
Even short regular meditations can have a huge effect on the brain. It is a popular modern-day lifestyle choice endorsed by numerous public speakers, like news presenter Dan Harris. His use of a five-minute meditation technique lessened his anxiety on camera and reduced panic attacks. The act of sitting still and emptying your mind is very simple. It’s a great rest for your brain before it faces the stress of public speaking.
Behaviours you can practice
This seems like obvious advice, but the importance of practice should not be underestimated. Repeat your speech until it’s not just memorised but internalised. Start by simply watching yourself in the mirror as you speak. How are your facial expressions? Do you use hand gestures? Is your body language calm and welcoming?
Then record your voice. Notice its patterns and flow, whether you speak too fast or too slow, and if your voice is loud or quiet, and at which parts of the speech. Become aware of your body and its behaviour, and you will naturally adapt and relax it.
Finally, practice to your friends, family, colleague, even your pets. Then take all their honest criticism, questions and feedback. Engage your speech in a social environment and see how it thrives or dives.
Check out these 60 speech therapy sentences. Most of them are extremely simple. But by repeating a single sentence, you can learn to influence your voice. Say the same words with different emotion – happy, sad, angry – and see how the meaning alters with varying tones.
Practice difficult sentences and struggle not to stumble over the words. Repeat “red lorry, yellow lorry” and try to speed up over time. Or refine your articulation of this tongue twister:
You know New York,
You need New York,
You know you need unique New York.
Also try the “Hum, Ha, Yawn” technique. The vibrational hum to loosen your throat muscles. The open-mouthed ha to stretch your lips and jaw. The yawn to release tension with large exhales of air.
Manipulation of your voice is a fantastic skill to learn before speaking publically.
As glossophobia stems from fears of social judgement, one theory is to get used to daily embarrassment. The root of public speaking anxiety is fear of your audience rejecting you and what you have to say. But if you don’t fear rejection, why fear public speaking?
Jia Jiang coined the concept of rejection therapy with his book Rejection Proof. His theory is that if you are rejected on a daily basis, you desensitise yourself to rejection. So every day, you should go out into the world and be purposefully rejected. He says it encourages you to keep fighting after your first rejection and not just run away. You learn how to deal with rejection in the moment.
Not sure where to start? Try asking for a “burger refill” at your local joint, asking for a stranger’s phone number, or requesting a free room at a hotel.
Mental things you can do
There are thousands of guided meditation and visualisation videos out there aiming to help people with public speaking anxiety. It’s for good reason. The act of relaxing your mind and visualising success can be very powerful. If you start your speech with the right attitude of confidence and assurance, you will present yourself that way to others.
Memorise your opening
A more powerful tool than cue cards is memorising your opening. Don’t give a vague introduction but a strong statement that captures your audience. Many people with a fear of public speaking find it difficult to start their speech. Then as you get into the flow of speaking, the following words come much more easily. So catapult yourself into the presentation with a well-rehearsed and seamless opening.
Have a great PowerPoint to depend upon
Public speaking and presentation skills come together. They work in a self-fulfilling cycle. Improve one and you improve the other. A PowerPoint acts as the backbone of your presentation. And when your legs are shaking from public speaking anxiety, a solid backbone comes in handy. Make it a solid and dependable ally for when you’re standing alone on stage.
A PowerPoint highlights the key elements of your speech. Not just for your listeners, but also for you. The slides remind you of the importance of your message. So focus your attention on your content, not the reactions of your audience.
One of our key presentation tips is to keep it simple. A PowerPoint is there to streamline your thoughts and keep you on track. This can be a fantastic help when nerves are affecting your confidence and memory. A visually powerful presentation also engages your audience. The more they focus on the content, the less they focus on you. After all, content is key.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start when creating your PowerPoint, check out our free PowerPoint templates of January 2019. Remember: a great PowerPoint can make a massive difference to your presentation skills.
The art of public speaking
Once you’ve overcome your fear of public speaking, become a master of it. Never stop refining your skills. Once you’ve got the basics, there’s a lot more to learn. The best public speakers have inspired individuals, changed lives and transformed societies. There’s no reason that can’t be you.
Many successful speakers, like Warren Buffet, overcame public speaking anxiety by taking a class. A coach or mentor will teach you how to control your nerves. But they will also push you to speak as eloquently and powerfully as possible. With the right mentorship, you could go from all to nothing; nervous mumbler to confident inspirer. They will transform your ability to speak in public into the art of public speaking.
There is plenty of self-help literature out there focusing on the art of public speaking. Some explain specific techniques and precise presentation tips. Others focus on the emotional mentality. For example, “Eloquence in Public Speaking” by Kenneth McFarland. He highlights the importance of caring about your content. To be an excellent speaker, you need to inject passion into your words.
Learn from the best. Copy the presentation styles of famous presenters. The internet is full of powerful speeches by great people, from Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech to Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch in 2007. Copy their mannerisms. Practice their style. Notice the speed and volume of their voice. And be inspired by those who mastered the art of public speaking.
TED Talks also portray fantastic presenters. And many of the speeches are about the act of presenting itself. They often focus on the art of communication and how to get your message shared to the world. This YourStory article highlights to best TED talks relaying presentation tips for nervous speakers. For example, Chris Anderson’s “What to Speak”.
When you’ve studied the art of public speaking, you will feel confident enough to include more expert techniques in your speeches. With time, you can master the power of the pause. Or harness the importance of body language in public speaking. Overcoming public speaking anxiety is an ongoing process. Although it takes time, the effort is worthwhile. Through the act of public speaking, you share your voice with the world. And with even more time, you make your voice a powerful and inspiring tool.
The best thing about overcoming public speaking anxiety?
You can not only face your fear. You can master it.