22 Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking

By Lou Solomon

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In a few minutes it will be your turn. You’re about to make a big presentation to an important audience. Your mouth is dry. Your heart is pounding. You wish you hadn’t drunk that 5th cup of coffee. 

You begin to wonder if what you came to say has any value. There is no air in your lungs. Your neck is blotched with red spots that will surely shock everyone. Your hands are clammy. You are certain you are about to prove you’re an impostor. 

At Interact Studio, we call it “head trash” when you begin to think this way. This is why the average adult ranks public speaking (also known as glossophobia) as the #1 fear.

A successful talk is a little miracle–people see the world differently afterward.

–Chris Anderson, TED Talks

Before you shrink from what Chris Anderson calls “a little miracle,” here are the top  22 Tips on Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking:

  1. Allow Yourself Perspective:

    This is not your private boogeyman; it happens to everyone on some level. Ask your teammates and other speakers you admire how they navigate the nervousness that comes before a talk. You will feel less unique.

  2. Identify One Big Idea and 3 Support Messages:

    Every great talk has one guiding Big Idea. Grounding yourself in that central idea will give you confidence. Begin with the end in mind. Here’s an example of a Big Idea:

    • Artificial Intelligence will never replace the nuance of human perception.

    Having a simple framework will keep you from rambling. Support Your Big Idea with 3 Key Points. For example, 1) Artificial Intelligence cannot express human empathy; 2) complex jobs are non-linear; and 3) Healthcare will always require humans. Help each of those key points come alive with examples and stories.

  3. Keep it Simple:

    Don’t try to be overly intellectual or speak perfectly like the written word in complete, grammatical sentences. You’ll sound canned and feel awkward. Instead, use short, sturdy sentences. Allow for bursts of vocal variety (projection, pace, emotion). You’ll feel more at ease if you speak the way you normally would.

  4. Submerge Yourself:

    In order to write well, you must know 10 words about the subject for every word that you write. –Ernest Hemingway 

    This applies to speaking as well. Submerge yourself in your material so you can be conversational and speak from your knowledge and not your notes. The moment you begin to read or recite, any connection with the audience goes up in smoke.

  5. It’s All About the Audience:

    Your #1 goal is to provide value to the audience. At Interact Studio, we like to say that the audience is “the hero.” It’s our job to help them win the day. Talk with influencers within the group to understand who you’re talking to—and what they need from you. Knowing the issues that concern your listeners will relax you. It will feel as though you’ve met them.

  6. Tell Stories:

    Use words that evoke imagery. Too often speakers with technical topics feel they have to present something like a textbook, which can put the audience into a coma. No matter what your field, always balance data with story. The language of story includes metaphors, examples, anecdotes and quotes. Storytelling not only makes your message stick, it has a way of releasing you into your authentic style of speaking. You can be more animated and interesting.

  7. Welcome Your MOJO:

    A few minutes before your presentation, you will feel the adrenaline surge. Don’t let it surprise you. Determine how it shows up for you—butterflies, palpitations or clammy hands—and begin to expect these symptoms as a natural prelude to speaking. As soon as the symptoms show up, say to yourself, “Oh, good. My MOJO is here!” When you reframe it, you can  harness nervousness as powerful energy.

  8. Breathe:

    When you start to speak, your chest may tighten, and suddenly there is just a small stream of oxygen going to the brain.  We’re out of air and can’t project our words. This is a terrible sensation.

    Breathe slowly through your nose, from the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle wall between the chest and the abdomen.  It’s the major muscle we use in natural breathing, so you should feel it expand and contract. If you develop the habit of diaphragmatic breathing, you can lower your anxiety level.

  9. Record Yourself:

    The initial rush of adrenaline does not mean you aren’t doing a good job.  Over and over, researchers have found that for the most part, audiences miss the anxiety reported by speakers. People generally don’t believe this until they see themselves on video.

    If you’re giving your talk virtually, platforms like Zoom allow you to record yourself. Watch it back and notice your strengths and where you smile more, tell a story or simplify. You will find this comforting. 

    You can also record yourself on audio (look for the Voice Memo app on your smartphone). When you listen back, pay attention to warmth and vocal color, which is the opposite of a monotone voice. Notice the parts of your talk that seem repetitive and eliminate them. Being clear and concise will help to build your confidence.

  10. Craft an Open:

    When you begin your presentation, the attention in the room is high—perhaps as high as it ever will be. Typically, people open a presentation in a lackluster, low-energy way: “I’m very excited to be with you this evening and I’d like to thank blah, blah, blah. Our company is the premier blah, blah, blah.” Right away, the audience’s attention begins to slide and you can feel it.

    The advice is to know your opening lines by heart so that you can say them without being distracted by the adrenaline experience. You can grab our attention quickly with a surprising statement, interesting question or startling statistic. Then hold our attention with the simple framework we covered in #3, and Close with Strength (more about that in a moment). 

  11. Do a Dry Run with Another Person:

    Most people just don’t put enough heart into practice–when practice helps us feel more confident. In addition to recording yourself on your own, do a dry run with a teammate or friend. Speaking directly to another person will help relax you and give you the experience of connecting with your message. If they have questions about your speech, it is likely that members of an audience will have the same questions.

  12. Look Us in the Eye with Warmth:

    When speaking in-person, find engaged folks in every part of the audience and look them in the eye. The entire room will feel the connection, and so will you. Have “mini-conversations” one person at a time versus sweeping the room.

    Remember to lighten up and smile–not in an artificial way. Simply give us a warm and open facial expression. We will return in kind, which will relax you.

    Note: As a virtual presenter,  look regularly at the camera on your device to provide participants with eye contact. Their brains do not discern that you are looking at a green dot and not at them.

  13. Pause:

    The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause. –Mark Twain

    Speaking non-stop creates stress for you and your listeners. The pause is one of the most powerful things you can learn in this work. Not only will it help you breathe and slow your rate of speech,  it will eliminate the tendency to use filler words (um, uh). Silence also gives us the opportunity to consider the significance of what you’ve just said. 

  14. Relax Your Voice:

    Many of us worry that our voice is shaking when we speak. Pausing and breathing will help to keep your vocal cords relaxed. You can then drop your voice into a lower register. If your voice sounds pitchy and wobbly, oxygen is the answer.

  15. Consider Bio Prep:

    Mild cardio before a presentation will increase your blood circulation and send oxygen to your brain. Take a brisk walk before your presentation or do a few knee bends. A little blood flow can do wonders.

    A dry mouth is so uncomfortable when you’re trying to speak. Don’t drink a sugary soda or carafe of coffee before you speak. Room temperature water with a bit of lemon will help.

  16. Be Brief:

    The ideal length to speak is 15-20 minutes. Naturally there are times when you will facilitate for longer periods of time. Facilitating a conversation is a special skill that is aimed at getting participants to talk to one another. Use short learning cycles with stories, videos, exercises and discussion.

  17. PowerPoint Can Be Wonderful or Tragic:

    Author Guy Kawasaki has a formula for folks making high-stakes pitches: Speak for no more than 20 minutes, use 10 slides or less, and use a 30+ sized font. Slides that accent your message can be powerful–such as big numbers, dramatic and easy-to-see-charts, and rich photographs that add depth to your message. PowerPoint slides loaded with text that are your message are a waste of the audience’s time. It’s uncomfortable for you and for us. Either use vibrant visuals, or go without slides all together.

  18. Move:

    Adrenaline can be very uncomfortable if you are velcroed to the floor or frozen in front of your laptop.  Disperse the extra energy by moving with purpose. If you’re in a big room, take a few intentional steps. If you are presenting virtually, lean in, gesture and be expressive (without overdoing it).

  19. Envision a Positive Outcome:

    Athletes do it before the big game. Singers and musicians do it before they take the stage . Visionary business leaders do it every day.

    See yourself connecting and enjoying your talk–people in the audience smiling and nodding. When we envision ourselves reaching goals of any kind, our brain starts finding ways to make it happen. 

  20. Don’t be distracted by the sleepers: 

    There will always be someone in the audience with a weird expression on their face, or worse, nodding off. Do not take it personally. Tell yourself they had a bad night and move on to a person who is engaged.

  21. Close with Strength:

    Image by © Joho/cultura/Corbis

    At the close of your talk, the attention level in the room goes up as listeners anticipate a summary, recap, call to action or the “So what?.” When done well, your words will linger with them as they leave. At Interact we call this “sticking the landing.” 

  22. Master Q&A:

    If your program includes Q&A, consider it a wonderful opportunity to have a spontaneous conversation with your audience. You will feel prepared if you have submerged yourself in the topic. Practice answering all the questions you expect. After you’ve taken the last question, come back and close with strength again.

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