How to overcome the fear of public speaking
The ideal public speaker comes across as
This is the perfect state that WE want to achieve when getting up in front of an audience.
Unfortunately there can be obstacles in our way to reaching this goal. The biggest one we often face is a fear of public speaking.
Although it may seem insurmountable, we can overcome this hurdle using mental and physical techniques that can be learned very easily.
Most people have a fear of public speaking
We need to appreciate that we are not alone in having this phobia.
Nearly all of us have experienced a fear of public speaking at some time in our lives. Everyone knows the familiar feeling of nerves – the mouth dries up, the legs go weak, there’s a knot in our stomach, we feel light-headed…
Studies have shown that public speaking is actually the most commonly held fear for people. According to one survey in the United States, fear of public speaking came ahead of death! As the comic Jerry Seinfeld says, “This means that to the average person if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than giving the eulogy”
A fear of public speaking is natural.
In other words, it’s rooted in our human nature.
Anxiety of public speaking is to be expected in all walks of life, whether it’s going for a job interview, meeting new people at a social gathering or signing up for a new activity with strangers. But by getting our heads around where this anxiety comes from we can realise that this fear isn’t as inhibiting as we first think.
Our anxiety is rooted in our biological and cultural make-up. Thousands of years ago humans lived in very small groups – in fact it’s estimated that back then the average person would interact with less than 400 people in their lifetime. If we ever met someone we didn’t know we were inclined to be aggressive and stand-off-ish, as this stranger could steal from us or even kill us.
At the same time, we developed a fear of being excluded from groups. Our prehistoric selves lived in small tribes to survive. Being ostracized or removed from this group meant a much greater likelihood of dying, through lack of food, shelter or protection from others.
This ‘fear reflex’ is an ancient in-built mechanism that we still retain today.
In the modern world these situations and dangers no longer face us of course, however we’ve retained the underlying psychological ticks; a fear of meeting new people and of standing out from the crowd.
These irrational fears limits our sense of self-worth and hold us back from our true potential. They supress our true feelings and make us worry about supposed inadequacies.
But this doesn’t mean that we can’t overcome them.
By understanding this fear reflex we can reframe these fears as irrational in our brains and learn to contain them.
So how do we overcome this fear of public speaking?
Don’t focus on being perfect, focus on learning.
Adopt a different mind-set
As we’ve seen, our mental state controls how we react to things. But rather than being dictated by this state, we can actually learn to change it. Adopting a different mind-set can help us change our world-view and tackle our fear of public speaking.
Think of every single public speaking engagement as an opportunity to learn something new. This allows you to enter the situation in a positive frame of mind, accepting any mistakes you may make along the way as part of your personal learning curve.
Understand that we’ll get better over time
Fear of public speaking often stems from unfamiliarity and the nagging feeling that we’re just not good at it. Again, this mental hurdle is rooted in our psychology and we can re-frame our outlook accordingly.
We need to develop a growth mind-set
Studies have shown that from an early age we develop a fixed mindset i.e. that we’re born with certain talents, and that if we’re unable to grasp further talents then we must bad at them. A more healthier approach is to develop a growth mind-set, which teaches us that many more talents are available for us to harness, through learning, effort and practise. With a growth mindset we believe that the future presents an opportunity to grow, even during challenging times.
This mindset allows us to have a much more positive, relaxed and realistic view of our public speaking. We don’t worry so much about our first attempts at public speaking, as we know we’re only just starting out and that we’re going to improve and get better. We also understand that the audience don’t notice any nerves or small mistakes half as much as we think they do.
Athletes with a growth mindset build strong characters by challenging themselves, and so we must to do the same with our fear of public speaking.
By ‘changing the environment’ we can ‘change the response’
In other words, by changing our mental state we can change how we react in a situation.
This simple maxim builds a protective bubble around the speaker, boosting our resilience in two crucial areas:
- Gaining self-respect
Using this growth better mind-set discussed above, we can view our public speaking in a much more positive light. This attitude teaches ourselves to think ‘I am doing the best I can in this moment and that’s all I can do. More importantly, I deserve respect for getting up and doing this’. We recognise that we’re imperfect and still have things to learn, but we don’t judge ourselves too harshly. Remember, we’re only just starting out at public speaking – we WILL get better over time.
- Gaining self-control
This mind-set also helps minimise any fears of public speaking. Hormones released by the brain flood through our body and make us feel symptoms of anxiety. But now we know where this anxiety comes from – it’s a remnant of our prehistoric selves. It’s not needed anymore. Besides, such hormonal symptoms are temporary. We know that if the fear reflex triggers we can use this mind-set to build up our self-confidence and gain control.
Self-respect and self-control are linked to each other – one gives rise to the other. By recognising our value we can turn fear into self-respect. Thinking more highly of our achievments gives us the confidence to take control.
Visualize your success
Now that we’re using mental techniques to overcome our fear of failure, we can prepare our brain for the outcome we desire by visualizing our success.
A scientific study found that people stimulate the same parts of the brain during a visualization of an action as they do when actually performing the same action. Therefore, if your visualization is successful your actual chances of success are improved since you’ve already ‘done’ it.
So by ‘seeing’ our desired future we make it much more likely.
Remember – The audience want us to succeed. Pull from them and they will pull back from us, so keep that warm connection with them. Even if we make a mistake, they are on our side and willing us to keep going.
Give the right signals to the audience
We’re often hypersensitive to what an audience feel about us. Fearing rejection, we often misinterpret neutral behaviour from the audience as evidence of dislike;
- They don’t like me…
- They’re not interested in what I have to say…
- They think I’m not doing a good enough job…
But try to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. Many of them may not know you yet, so why would they dislike you? In actual fact these are unfounded fears that we’ve conjured up in our head.
Instead of worrying about ambiguous signals from others, it’s much more important to focus on what signals and vibes we can give to them i.e. proactively taking steps to reach an audience. By focussing on the audience this takes the pressure of us.
We want to make sure people are energised by our public speaking. We can do this by sending out signals that are warm, friendly and open – by being positive.
This is called energy exchange
The key to building healthy relationships is through reciprocity i.e. helping other people and being helped in return. In public speaking we can use to our advantage by giving energy to our audience. When we do this, our audience will be much more inclined to pay us back by engaging with us and sending warm signals back the other way.
We can send this positive energy to the audience in a number of recognisable ways:
- Making eye contact
- Positive facial gestures
- Open body language
- Controlled movements
- Warm and friendly tone of voice
If you haven’t already read it, our article on Charisma and Presence in Public Speaking has great tips for engaging the audience.
As well as these mental and physical techniques there are a number of preparations that can help calm our anxiety and get us in the best condition.
- Get used to public speaking on a smaller scale
Think of your next public speaking as training. Footballers play practise matches to get better with every performance. The same is true of public speaking.
So practise speaking at a variety of events, whether it’s with family, friends or in your local community. Don’t worry about starting out on a tiny scale. We want to get used to standing up in front of other people and having the attention focused completely on us.
- Know everything about the event you’re speaking at
We want to find out as much as we can in advance. Knowing more about the event will help build feelings of self-control. Try this check-list:
- Who will be there? What is the make-up of the audience? Do I know them?
- Who else is speaking?
- What is the running order? When am I on and for how long? What time of day?
- Is there any accompanying material?
- Have a look at the room you’ll be speaking in beforehand;Get used to the space. If you get a chance try and stand in the exact spot. Think about sending out those positive signals to the audience. Where are people are seated and what are the sightlines i.e. can everyone see you clearly? You’ll want to make to make sure you can engage with every single audience member.
- Prepare notes beforehand
Have everything you want to say written down beforehand:
- Keep the sentences short and punchy.
- Underline or bolden the points you really want to land with the audience.
- Break up your text into short paragraphs and lines. If it’s a just a stream of never-ending text that seems to go on for ever without a natural pause or break and that doesn’t seem to stop but instead just keep going so you spend more time focusing on the length of the text than you do engaging with the audience etc …… then that’s how it will come across when you talk. Brevity. Is. Always. Best.
- Highlight the pause points. These allow you to take a breath and for the audience to digest what you’re saying. Remember – silence can be just as powerful as your words.
On the day don’t just bring full speaker notes. Try and trim the text down, so that you just have prompt words with a basic structure. Having the full script can often be hard to read and we can easily lose our place. We don’t want to be staring down reading all the time – we want to be looking outwards sending that positive energy to our audience.
Use the keywords as prompts and trust that you’ve prepared everything you need to.
We want to practise our talk so we feel completely comfortable with it.
- Repeating things endlessly in our head doesn’t go the full way to helping us prepare.
- Instead practise saying the talk out loud. We can record it and play it back to ourselves.
How does it sound? Does it seem to flow? Does it follow your natural speech pattern? If not, re-write the text to match what you would say in your own voice. We want to get to a point where our words completely match with who we are. That way we will appear completely natural and the audience will engage with us even more strongly.
- Practise our talk in front of the mirror. Notice our body movements and our facial expressions – we want to exude warmth and confidence to our audience.
- Lastly, practise our talk while walking up and around – that can either be in the house or even outdoors! The more we can repeat our talk out loud, the more it will feel like second nature and the more in control we will feel.
This article on telling impactful stories has lots of tips on why stories are so engaging to audiences, and also help you remember your speeches too.
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We walked away with communication techniques that will stick with us for a lifetime.
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Improv has helped me to truly listen to what my clients want, understand their problems and then effectively work with others on my team to deliver a concise and consistent message.
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Improv has supported my listening and support work for people I represent.
Improv is a great release to just mess around while building on the communication skills, confidence and self esteem that help me in my day to day job.
Really useful for building self confidence and being able to communicate better with people who I was meeting for the first time.
Improv helped me have more faith in myself, particularly in meetings with clients or senior stakeholders. I have more confidence that whatever comes out of my mouth will make sense and be of value.
I think improv makes people kinder to others and themselves. It teaches you to listen, react and support and I think everyone could benefit from more of that individually and collectively.