I look around the boardroom table. I’m at a networking meeting. Everybody has 1 minute to introduce themselves. I wait for my turn. I feel sick. My heart is pounding, and it’s all I can hear. I try breathing slowly to calm myself. That helps, but negative thoughts still swirl around my head, I can’t remember what I’m going to say. Eventually, it’s my turn and I get through the 1 minute introduction. After, I’m not sure what I said. But one thing is for sure, I definitely didn’t enjoy it.
Ever felt like this when speaking in public? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. Fear of public speaking affects 3 out of 4 people (that’s 75% of us).
The good news is, it’s a fear that you can overcome. I’ve done it to the point where I love public speaking now, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s opened up many opportunities and increased my confidence in all kinds of situations. Here I am enjoying myself…:-)
What are the steps people take to overcome their public speaking fear? Read on to find out.
Tip 1 – Small steps
You can take the smallest of steps to build your confidence. You don’t have to do it quickly.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking, suffered from a lifelong fear of public speaking. However, in 2012 she delivered an outstanding TED talk which has since racked up over 27 million views online. Susan didn’t overcome her fear quickly. She spent a year of what she calls “speaking dangerously” which involved taking many small steps over a long period.
The steps can be tiny. Asking questions in meetings or when you are with a group is a wonderful way to start. One excellent tip I put into practice in meetings is to compliment somebody on their point. “I think that a great idea, Tim” is easy to say and gives somebody else a boost too. You get used to putting your voice out there with little risk involved.
Another small step tip is to practise speaking in front of small groups. Family and friends make ideal groups to practice in front of.
Tip 2 – Take a public speaking course for beginners
Warren Buffett, one of the most successful people in the world, was terrified of public speaking. He would be physically sick before he took the stage.
Buffet enrolled in a Dale Carnegie public speaking course as his first step to overcome the fear of public speaking. The first time he enrolled on the course, he was so terrified; he didn’t attend. However, he knew he had to get over his fear and signed up again. He remembers in the first session the people on the course could barely say their name, but the group members supported each other to get through every week and complete the course.
Buffet says the $100 dollar speaking course was the best degree he ever had, and he contributes this course to much of his success. Perhaps if he hadn’t done the course, he wouldn’t be the billionaire he is today.
My first step in overcoming public speaking fear was also a course. I met somebody at a coworking event for self- employed people who ran workshops for people who were nervous about public speaking. It was £30 for a four hour course which seemed like a bargain. Before I knew it, I’d signed up.
On the day of the course I felt terrified. But there were 7 other people on the course who were as nervous as me. They included a man who’d signed up for a best mans’ speech, a woman who wanted to do better work presentations and me who just wanted to get over this fear.
On the course it was scary speaking out in a group. But because everybody felt the same, it made it easier.
The course didn’t get rid of my fear. But it was a first step practising public speaking in a gentle atmosphere. If taking a course is a big step outside your comfort zone, consider going with a friend for moral support.
Tip 3 – Join a Speakers Club
The next step in getting over my fear of public speaking was joining a speaking club. I joined Stourbridge Speakers Club and went to my first meeting with a friend. There are many Speakers Clubs around the word. They include Toastmasters (which is an international organisation) and the Association of Speakers Clubs in the UK. Going with a friend makes it easier. You have somebody to talk to and a friendly face for encouragement.
Attending speakers club was the best thing I did to overcome my fear. I was among supportive people, some who’d been as nervous as me when they started. At the beginning, standing on the stage and delivering speeches wasn’t easy (tips of how to cope with nerves follow…) but as the weeks went by, my confidence grew. One day I realised I enjoyed stepping up behind the lecturn. And I became good at it, even winning competitions.
At our speaker’s club, I have seen many anxious people walk through the door. I consider them some of the bravest people I’ve met. They included a man with a stutter who stood up and spoke the first time he came. There were also people who went blank the first time they spoke and only said a few words. But the first goal at speakers club is to stand up, breath and say something. I don’t see their nerves, only their courage for coming along and giving it a go.
Tip 4 – Body Posture
The nerves didn’t go away when I spoke at speakers’ club for several weeks. During this time, I developed several strategies for coping with anxiety before each speech. One of these was power poses.
In her Ted Talk entitled “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are”, Amy Cuddy suggests using power poses to feel more confident. Power poses involve standing in a posture which makes you feel more powerful. For example, standing with your feet apart and hands on your hips.
High power poses, like the one I’ve just described, make your body bigger. In contrast, low power poses make your body smaller. People in low power poses cross their arms or legs. They are likely to look downwards or hunch over.
I only have anecdotal evidence. But I use high power poses frequently, and they make me feel more confident. Before a speech, I would go in the bathroom and power pose, standing with my legs apart and my hands behind my head. I would also make sure I was sitting in an alpha position while I was waiting to do my talk. No crossed arms and legs and I held my head held. These simple steps made my pounding heart slow down and beat softly as I waited my turn to talk.
Tip 5 – Turn fear into excitement
When we feel either excitement or fear we experience the same physical state. The body gives us a surge of cortisol that makes us alert. Your heart races. Your palms sweat. Your breathing quickens. The only difference between fear and excitement is what your brain is doing. It’s assigning a thought to what you’re feeling. If you’re excited, you’re thinking “wow, I can’t wait for this experience, it’s going to be amazing”. If you feel fear, you’re thinking “I’m dreading this, it’s going to be awful”.
So, when I get butterflies before a speech, I tell myself I’m excited and I can’t wait to deliver my speech. Amazingly, changing the fear into excitement this way works.
Human beings like predictable fear. This is why people choose to go to a haunted house at a theme park. They know they will feel fear, but they also know they are safe.
Science can explain this. Research reveals that if you learn to foresee scary situations, you can trigger the nucleus accumbens, which is the reward center of the limbic system. (Klucken 2009). So if you know you are about to feel fear, you can trigger the brain’s reward centre and make the event into a positive experience. Interestingly, an unpredictable fear doesn’t trigger the nucleus accumbens. So when an intruder enters your house in the middle of the night, the fear will still be there.
As most public speaking is a predictable event, we can use this predictability to activate the brain’s reward center. Changing your perspective of public speaking and changing your self talk can activate the limbic system, making us excited about the event. It also lets our mind know not to worry about dying!
Tip 6 – Repeat a mantra
Another tip is having a mantra that you repeat to yourself when you are overwhelmed. My mantra is “you can do this”. I repeat it constantly in my head so no other thoughts can get in. This works, especially when I unexpectedly get an attack of nerves.
In her book, Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers tells the reader to never let the three little words “I’ll handle it” out of their mind to help deal with fear. Often when we face something scary, like public speaking, we think “what if statements”. What if people lose interest when I speak? What if I I forget what I was going to say? Whenever something scares you, replace “what if” statements with “I’ll handle it”. These 3 magic words make a a fine mantra to repeat when you feel anxious.
Other popular mantras include “This too shall pass” and “All is well”. Or make up your own. For example, “I feel powerful / strong / excited”. It doesn’t matter what the mantra is, say it repeatedly and you will believe it.
Tip 7 – Preparation and practice
Being prepared increases my confidence before and during a speech. Good preparation means I’m less likely to forget my lines. And if I forget something, I move onto the next part I’ve prepared and nobody notices.
People prepare themselves in many ways. Public speech experts tell you not to learn your speech word for word, but in the beginning this worked for me. However, learning a speech isn’t the best way for many people. My friend likes to have a list of bullet points she refers to rather than memorise a speech.
Prepare in the way that works for you, but whatever you do, practice delivering it. Before every speech, I practice repeatedly. I rehearse in front of a mirror. I record it and listen back to it. I perform the speech in front of family members. I say it again and again while walking through the house.
Practice helps you cope with situations like when you forget your words. On a side note, don’t worry if you forget a part of your speech. The audience won’t know unless you tell them. Just pause (you can pause for longer than you think!) Then move onto the next part that you remember.
It doesn’t matter how you prepare – do what works for you – but make sure you practice, it will give you more confidence in front of the audience.
Tip 8 – Breathing
Rapid shallow breathing is a natural reaction to nerves and fear. Deep breathing is easy to learn. Practice it discreetly and anywhere. A marvellous thing to do before it’s your turn to speak.
There are many exercises on the internet telling you how to breath to calm yourself. Here is one to try:
1.) Breath in through your nose deeply into your stomach so that your abdomen expands
2.) Hold your breath briefly
3.) Exhale slowly.
Repeat until you feel calmer
This kind of breathing mimics how you breath when you relax. Practise it and focus only on your breath and nothing else. You can use it in a myriad of situations, not just for fear and anxiety but when you feel angry or upset too.
Tip 9 Exercise
Brian Tracy, a public speaking expert with 40 years experience, recommends light exercise before a speech such as going for a walk or doing knee bends to calm your nerves. When you’re nervous, you expend energy tensing muscles (think hunched shoulders and clenched fists). Exercise releases muscle tension. Exercise also reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. It releases endorphins (the body’s natural painkiller). It elevates mood and sends oxygen to your brain.
Of course, you don’t want to overdo it. Nobody wants to see a sweaty speaker! But gentle exercise helps.
Tip 10 – Change Your Focus
When I worry about public speaking, I focus my thoughts on how I’ll look and feel. I worry I’ll make a fool of myself. Perhaps I’ll forget my words. Or freeze with stage fright.
My mind is good at taking thoughts and making them real in my head. My imagination fuels them and gives them a life of their own.
But I’ve learned that’s all fear is – imagination and stories. Nothing about this fear is truth.
A way around this problem is to change focus. Now instead of focusing on myself, I think about the audience. What stories, information and insights do I have that they can benefit from. What can they learn from me? How can I help?
When you think in terms of what you can give, it changes the way you feel about the speech. Make it a habit. Each time a thought about what the audience will think of you enters your head, change it into a thought about what you can give to the audience.
When I started speaking, I didn’t believe that I’d ever be good. My initial aim was to get over my fear, so that I didn’t have to deal with the heart in your mouth feeling anytime I had to talk in a group.
I never imagined that I would love getting up in front of an audience and speaking. .
But after my public speaking journey, that is where I am today. I get nervous when I speak in front of a new group or in an unfamiliar environment. But I know how to deal with nerves. I have strategies to get through anxiety. And that fills me with confidence.
Public speaking can be fun. Okay, you don’t feel it now. But take that first step on your public speaking journey. It changes lives. I promise you, it will be one of the best things you’ve every done!
Klucken, T. et al 2009. “Contingency Learning in Human Fear Conditioning Involves the Ventral Striatum.” Human Brain Mapping 30:3636–3644