You’ve no doubt heard it before: people rate fear of public speaking as their number one fear. Despite some validity issues with that statistic, it’s clear that public speaking anxiety is strong for a lot of people.
There are plenty of articles on how to overcome this fear, but very few of them are worth your time. In reality, you will likely never completely eliminate the fear. You will simply learn to manage it better.
Here are some of the better, more practical tips that I’ve found for dealing with public speaking anxiety.
13 ways to deal with public speaking anxiety
1. Understand that nervousness = excitement
If I could only tell you one way to reduce public speaking anxiety, it would be this.
This tip comes “Confessions of a Public Speaker” by Scott Berkun. It’s a great book on public speaking.
Scott points out that your brain is simply wired to freak out in front of an audience. You’re out in the open, with no weapon, being stared at by multiple living creatures. That’s not a good place for you to be. Your body will always give you a nice injection of adrenaline in front of an audience, because it thinks that’s what you need.
What you need to realize is that being nervous is very similar to being excited. It’s just a matter of framing. Ian Tyson, a motivational speaker, said “The body’s reaction to fear and excitement is the same… so it becomes a mental decision: am I afraid or am I excited?”
Next time you’re nervous while giving a speech, just treat it as excitement and feed the speech with that energy.
2. Breathe deeply
This applies the most to the very beginning of your speech. Right before you open your mouth to speak, take in a deep breath and let it out. This will lower your heart rate and signal to your mind that you’re okay.
If you don’t breathe properly, you will feel rushed and suddenly realize that you’re out of breath. It’s like the rushed feeling that you have when you need to use the restroom. Except worse because it affects you when you’re giving a speech in front of a large audience.
If you’re in the middle of the speech and realize you’re out of breath, find a convenient moment to pause and draw in a deep breath. Also slow down, it is likely that you are speaking too quickly.
3. Always be well-prepared
I find it amusing when people talk about how nervous they are, then later confess that they did little to prepare for their speech. You can’t complain about public speaking anxiety if you don’t prepare properly.
A lot of the anxiety comes from the fear that you will say the wrong thing, the audience won’t laugh at your jokes, or that you’ll forget a line. However, if you’ve prepared properly, then you’ll be reasonably certain that the speech will go well.
Practice giving the speech from memory until you can do it without a mistake. Make sure your jokes actually work with an audience by telling them to a few friends. (This is no guarantee, however, because sometimes the humor is lost on strangers).
Practice on-the-fly adjustments to your speech. (In other words, try varying the way that you deliver certain lines.) It will help you find better, more natural phrasing, and it will help you get better at correcting yourself when you make a mistake.
If you’re using a PowerPoint for your speech, you should know every slide by heart and in order. You shouldn’t have to look back at the screen to see what slide is up when you click next.
If public speaking anxiety has been an issue for you in the past, but you haven’t prepared in the ways that I described here, you really should give it a try. It’s the best thing you can do to reduce anxiety.
4. Give yourself buffer time
There are few things more stressful than arriving late to speak and having to quickly situate yourself. It’s even worse if you’re in a new venue that you’ve never been in before.
Make sure that you arrive early enough so that for at least 10 minutes before your speech, you have time to just sit around or prepare. If you’re running around trying to set up the PowerPoint or adjust the sound levels, you’ll get sweaty from nervousness and everything will go downhill from there.
If you have plenty of buffer time, it gives you a chance to practice your speech again right before you go, get yourself into the right mindset, or do power poses.
5. Listen to pump-up music
Some time before the day of your speech, figure out what song makes you feel confident and pumped up. You want to turn your emotional arousal into excitement rather than nervousness, and music can help you accomplish this.
Listen to the song or songs of your choice right before you give your speech, and it will help you feel excitement instead of anxiety.
I used this technique right before a speech contest, and it worked very well. Every time I felt nervous, I just remembered the song and reframed the nervousness into excitement.
6. Power pose
Power posing is striking a confident pose in order to increase your confidence. Surprisingly, confidence and body language are linked. Confidence improves your body language, but confident body language also makes you more confident.
Ever since a famous TED talk by Amy Cuddy, power posing has been a fairly well-known way to improve confidence and reduce your public speaking anxiety.
7. Understand that people usually won’t notice
Countless times, I’ve heard people give a decent speech, then complain to me when they’re done, “I was so nervous! I must have looked so dumb!” In reality, I thought they did a pretty good job.
Besides nervous habits like fiddling with your hands, pacing, or a wobbly voice, it’s usually not obvious that a speaker is nervous. Even less so if the audience aren’t experienced public speakers themselves.
Another thing that people freak out over is mistakes. They forget part of their speech and later lament that it must have looked really bad. This is usually just a case of the curse of knowledge. Only the speaker knows the speech well enough to realize that they forgot a part. People usually don’t notice the missing piece if you play it off.
Even if you have several verbal missteps, they are usually way less obvious to other people than they are to you.
So relax. People won’t lynch you because you forgot a piece of a speech that only you know about.
8. Allow yourself to pause
The best thing to do when you are facing public speaking anxiety is to slow down and pause more often. When you’re nervous, you tend to speak quicker than you should, which affects your performance.
Focus on finding good moments to pause and let your words sink in. Even pausing too much is better than speaking too fast.
9. Exercise the day of your speech
Exercising is scientifically proven to reduce stress. I’ve read this advice before, and I discarded it because exercise is a really difficult habit to create. While the best case scenario is that you make exercise a lifestyle, even taking a walk outside before your speech will help.
10. Find your allies
Few things are more discouraging as a public speaker than seeing someone who isn’t receptive to your speech. That image can stick in your mind and make you nervous.
Scan the crowd until you find someone who is nodding, smiling, or otherwise responding well to your speech. It might be a friend, but not always. Sometimes you have friends that you think might judge you.
Find someone that doesn’t judge—a friendly person who seems to be enjoying your speech. Whenever you feel nervous, look back at that person and it will give you a confidence boost.
11. Get into the habit of meditating
Meditating has been smeared with negative associations in many people’s minds, but there are very legitimate benefits to meditation. It teaches you to deal with anxiety and distracting thoughts.
Dan Harris, a co-anchor of Good Morning America, said that meditating helped him to overcome his fear.
This is something you should make into a habit, because it will help you more the more that you do it.
12. Look at the big picture
Remember that there’s very little that can happen to you if you mess up. The worst case scenario is that a few people think you’re not that great at speaking.
Even if your speech ended up being absolutely awful, you could say something like “I apologize for my delivery, I’m feeling unwell. But I hope my message got through, because that’s what is important.”
At the end of the day, people appreciate genuineness and passion. If you care about your topic and you are genuine, then the audience will like you, and they won’t mind if you aren’t a great speaker. Keep in mind that most of those people are also very afraid of speaking in public, and they will sympathize with you.
That’s all worst case scenario. But if you follow all of these tips, it won’t even come down to that. You have little to lose, so go conquer that speech!
13. Talk to yourself in third-person
“A recent study published in Scientific Reports found that thinking of yourself in the third-person can be an effective way to control your thoughts and behaviors under pressure. The researchers recruited participants to recall painful autobiographical memories using either “I” or their name. Participants who had to recall these memories with “I” statements reported much higher distress than those who got to talk about these memories with some linguistic distance.” Source: https://www.theladders.com/p/27271/stressed-third-person
You can also try to detach yourself from the situation by imagining what you’d say to a friend who is feeling nervous.
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