Public speaking. For a lot of people, it’s a gut-wrenching phrase that is often accompanied by stress and anxiety. Even if you’ve had some experience speaking publicly, it can be intimidating to step in front of an audience. You’re not alone, though: studies done over the last several decades show that anywhere from 28.4 – 45% of people have some level of public speaking anxiety. How can you temper your fear and deliver a powerful, confident speech? In this guide, we’ll share tips to help you get comfortable in front of a crowd and tackle your next speaking gig whether you’re stepping behind a podium or leading a meeting.
As with any fear, understanding the source of public speaking anxiety can help you recognize and overcome your concerns. What is it about public speaking that fills many people with dread? Public speaking anxiety stems from a combination of negative self-thought and fear of judgement from others. When the pressure is on, it can be all-too-easy to convince ourselves that we’re unqualified to discuss the topic, haven’t done enough preparation, or that the audience is just waiting for their moment to turn on us, nightmare-style. How can you overcome this detrimental thinking and deliver great presentations?
First, recognize that these fears are common. As isolated as you may feel when you’re speaking solo in front of a group, your anxiety surrounding it actually connects you to many other people. Dr. Cheryl Mathews — who has a doctorate in Psychology and is a blogger, online course creator, eBook author, and coach who specializes in social anxiety and public speaking phobia — recently did a Reddit AMA where she discussed the prevalence of public speaking anxiety. “Everyone has some social anxiety,” says Dr. Mathews, “Thinking that you’re going to completely eliminate it actually keeps you stuck in it.” Even seasoned public speakers experience anxiety before they step out on stage. The trick is not eliminating your fear entirely, but, according to Dr. Mathews, “reducing your anxiety to a manageable level and…recognizing, managing, [and] coping with the anxiety at that level.”
To do this, it’s crucial to confront – and then work to contradict – your own habitual thoughts. It’s easy to start spiraling in your own mind, convincing yourself that the audience is going to get bored, disagree with every word you say, or just downright dislike you. “Practice and gradual desensitization are key,” explains Dr. Mathews, “Public speaking anxiety is caused by a fear of negative judgement and scrutiny, so the more you can increase your tolerance of scrutiny, the better.” To gain more comfort in speaking publicly, Mathews recommends finding “a safe group where you can slowly and gradually desensitize.” She recommends joining a Toastmasters International group or something similar, like the SpeakMeister Public Speaking Practice Club she manages. She also suggests doing simple exercises in your daily life to increase your tolerance of scrutiny. “Try sing[ing] happy birthday to a friend on a street outside a store, or hum in a store while shopping. Notice that nothing bad happens. One of the things you want to teach your brain is that scrutiny does not have horrible consequences. Tell yourself, ‘Yes, some people looked at me, but did anything really bad happen? Am I really paying a price for this?’ Start off doing…something you can handle, but is slightly uncomfortable. Then go to the next challenging situation.”
Being able to confront fearful thoughts enables you to counteract them. “Public speaking is actually a safe situation,” Dr. Mathews explains, “but when you add fearful thoughts, your brain interprets it as unsafe, and…has a harder time going through its natural process of desensitizing.” Here are a few examples Dr. Mathews gives of fearful thoughts and how to counter them:
- Fearful thought: ‘Fear is bad and fear symptoms are bad.’ Counter-thought: First fear is natural and I should expect it. I will get some adrenaline in my body and I will experience some symptoms. If I don’t add fearful thoughts on top of first fear, I can keep fear to a minimum.
- Fearful thought: ‘Social standards are high and I have to be perfect.’ Counter-thought: Actually, social standards are not as exacting as I think, and most people are friendly and supportive.
- Fearful thought: ‘I can read minds.’ Do you jump to conclusions and assume people are thinking negative things about you? Counter-thought: People with public speaking fear tend to think of social situations as more competitive or hostile than they really are. In many cases, people are thinking neutral or positive things, and are much more supportive than you might think.
- Fearful thought: Focusing on the negative. Research has found that those with public speaking fear tend to focus on the negative, like focusing on the one person in the audience who is not smiling. Counter-thought: Instead, focus on the positive, like all the other audience members who are
- Fearful thought: Having unclear goals like ‘I want everyone to like me.’ This is unattainable because there’s no way to know if you achieved it or not. Counter-thought: It’s more helpful to focus on goals such as ‘I want to get my message across clearly.’
- Fearful thought: Overestimating negative consequences and the likelihood that something horrible will happen. Counter-thought: It’s unlikely that something horrible will happen, and the consequences of making a mistake are usually not that bad.
Your goal is not to be the most charismatic speaker to ever step in front of a crowd, it’s to provide your audience with information in an engaging way. No one else will be comparing you to viral TED Talk-ers, so you shouldn’t do so internally. Once you’re able to recognize the irrationality of this negative thinking you can start to turn public speaking anxiety into excitement and, over time, you just might surprise yourself at how good you become at it.
One of the best antidotes for anxiety is preparation. Thoroughly researching your topic and practicing your speech will help you feel calm and in control.
Get to Know Your Audience
To speak effectively, get to know the group you’ll be speaking to. While you may not have the luxury of one-on-one time with each audience member, you can still tailor your speech to the crowd. Think about how they might talk to each other about the topic, and what questions they may be seeking answers to. Instead of focusing on your own insecurities and what you might gain (or lose) from giving the speech, keep your attention on the benefit you’re offering the audience.
Get to Know Your Venue and Tech
Knowing your venue and practicing with any tech you’ll be using can help you avoid any unforeseen (and embarrassing) complications during your speech.
If you can, visit the venue (whether stage, conference room, or corner office) before presentation day. Having a sense of the space will give you a sense of comfort and familiarity with the location and can help you determine the most effective ways to move around while you’re presenting. If you can practice your speech in the location beforehand, all the better.
Getting bogged down by technical difficulties can frazzle you, especially if it happens in the middle of a high-pressure situation. If you’ll be using a slideshow or other visual aids, make sure you’re including them in your practice sessions. It will help you identify aids or props that aren’t worth the hassle, and can help you strategize a back-up plan if something goes wrong.
Start with an Outline
Before you dive into the bulk of your research process, create an outline to establish your main points. Like a great story, a well-crafted speech needs three basic sections: a compelling opener, a thorough body, and an impactful conclusion.
A compelling opener might be a surprising statistic, a personal story, or even a joke, depending on your topic and audience. If you have the benefit of knowing your audience well (if you’re presenting to a group of co-workers, for example), you can make your topic poignant and tangible by recounting conversations you’ve had with them about the content you’ll be covering. If you have a lot of hands-on experience with the topic, a personal anecdote helps establish your expertise and engage the audience. If it’s appropriate for your topic, humor establishes a conversational tone and puts you at ease before you dive into the body of your presentation.
The body of your speech should be the longest section, where you present your main points and supporting research. Give as much valuable information to the crowd as possible, but keep in mind that no one wants to listen to a single presentation for hours on end. Make sure you organize the information effectively, avoid redundant points, and keep things as succinct as possible without sacrificing quality.
A great conclusion should summarize everything in a way that will have an impact on the crowd. Just like with your opener, statistics, stories, and humor can go a long way in making the difference between a ho-hum conclusion and a powerful one.
Watch Other Public Speakers for Inspiration
You certainly don’t want to rip off someone else’s style or language, but watching how other speakers organize and present their information can help you focus effective strategies. Watching videos can help you see how other people use visual aids and body language, and reading transcripts can help you see how they organize their points.
Practice A LOT
If you only take one tip away from this guide, it should be this one: practice, practice, practice! No matter how confident you feel, you can’t give your best delivery if you don’t practice your speech several times. It helps you become intimately familiar with the information you’re presenting, which will do wonders for your comfort level once you’re in front of a crowd. The more you’ve done the speech already, the less overwhelming it will feel when it counts.
Your body language and presence are just as much a part of public speaking as the speech itself. Record yourself delivering the presentation so you can watch back and identify any nervous gestures – both physically and verbally – that you’re unknowingly making. Standing as still as a statue isn’t compelling either, so if you tend to freeze up when you’re nervous, this will give you an opportunity to incorporate movement into your delivery.
Practice the speech in front of friends or family as much as possible, too. This helps you practice things you can’t target just by recording yourself, like eye contact. Practicing in front of people you’re already comfortable with lets you gather feedback without getting self-conscious. Practice audiences can help you to identify points that struck them as well as points they’d like to see reduced, eliminated, or addressed in more detail. They’ll also be able to tell you how well any visual aids you’re using are working. If they know you well, they may even be able to offer suggestions for personal stories you can incorporate.
When practicing your speech, always time yourself. Your presentation may or may not have an official time limit. Either way, it’s important that you’re not talking at such length that you lose the audience’s attention or talking so quickly that the crowd can’t retain the points you’re making. People tend to talk quickly when they’re nervous, so this is another thing you may be doing without even realizing it.
Visual aids are a boon to any presentation and, quite frankly, unless there’s a specific restriction, you should use them. Here are a few crucial tips for choosing and preparing your visual aids:
- Visual aids should emphasize your points, not make them for you. Keep in mind that you’re giving a speech, not just clicking through slides or handing out pamphlets for your audience to read.
- Keep text in slide presentations concise. Use bullet points, not lengthy chunks of text. Don’t deliver slide text verbatim in your speech – if your slides say everything for you, why are you even there? Your text should summarize or emphasize points, but your speech is where you will fully flesh them out.
- Make graphics, photos, and charts colorful and unique, but don’t go so over-the-top that they become distracting. Generic-looking stock photos aren’t compelling, but layer after layer of flashy custom imagery runs the risk of overshadowing your speech.
- When presenting graphs or charts, stand to the side of the image. You want to make sure the entire audience can see the information you’re discussing, but don’t wander so far away from the screen that they forget you’re there.
- Keep props limited and effective. Don’t roll out with a trunk full of props like Carrot Top. Physical props add an extra layer of complication to your speech preparation and delivery, so make sure they’re effective and serve to emphasize information in ways you can’t achieve otherwise. Remember the golden rule: all visual aids are there to reinforce your points, not make them for you.
- If you have handouts for your audience, pass them out before or after your speech, not during. Fussing with papers while you’re talking can draw audience attention away from you during important moments in your speech.
One of the biggest challenges in delivering a quality public speech is keeping your audience engaged, especially if you’re nervous. Practicing beforehand will help you feel more relaxed in front of a crowd, but there are a few things you should have in mind while you’re honing your skills:
- Speak with passion. Even if you’re presenting information that isn’t particularly exhilarating to you, remember that your audience is there because they are interested in it. Appearing disengaged undermines your credibility and gives the audience a signal that they don’t need to pay much attention. Plus, finding a passion for your topic can help reduce your fear. As Dr. Mathews points out, “one key way to overcome anxiety is to become passionate about what you want to share with the world.”
- Use movement and gestures to engage the audience, but don’t use them as a crutch. Moving around on stage when you change topics or approaching the audience when making a point or posing a question will give your presentation energy. But just as standing stiff as a board comes off as awkward and creates a wall between you and the audience, so can too much movement. Make movements intentional and pepper them with moments of planting yourself as you elaborate on points.
- Inject some personality into your presentation. Of course you want to keep things professional, but letting the audience get to know your personality a little makes them more invested in what you’re saying. If you’re a funny guy, inject a little humor where appropriate. If you have a lot of experience with the topic, include a personal story.
- Make eye contact. Focusing on the audience as a whole is intimidating, and gazing over their heads to avoid seeing them will disconnect you. Focus on making eye contact with individual audience members as you talk. Make sure you’re not ignoring one side of the room or the other, which can be easy to do unintentionally if you’re speaking to a larger group. Shift your eye contact around the room as you talk. Eye contact displays confidence, keeps everyone engaged, and can help you feel more like you’re talking one-on-one.
- Be a presenter, not a salesman. The point of your presentation may very well be to sell something, but that doesn’t mean the audience wants to listen to a blatant sales pitch. People see right through a slick salesman exterior, and if your speech comes off as pressuring them into giving you money, they’ll become alienated quickly. Build your presentation around offering them something genuinely valuable, even if they aren’t going to buy anything.
The advice we’ve gathered here will have you well on your way to conquering a fear of public speaking, but you may find yourself wanting to dive even deeper into the topic. Here are some resources for additional advice and information:
Articles and information on public speaking anxiety and anxiety in general, including tips for coping with it and resources for improving your communication skills.
Videos from one of the foremost resources for great public speakers. Includes talks on topics ranging from inspiring action and effective body language to presenting complex information in a relatable way and overcoming stage fright.
This completely free course takes a super deep dive into what makes an effective speech. It covers topics like how to speak confidently, audience analysis, selecting a topic, performing research, being persuasive, and presentation aids. It also includes a free text book and exams to help you test your understanding.
Toastmasters International is an organization dedicated entirely to helping people become better communicators and leaders. They have over 16,000 clubs around the world where members meet to learn and practice public speaking and leadership skills.
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