3 ways to overcome public speaking fear
By Nicole Lowenbraun
Mark Twain once said, “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” That might sound a little extreme, but it’s not far from the truth.
As an executive speaker coach, clients often ask me, “What do I do about stage fright?” “How do I deal with my anxiety before speaking?” “How can I get out of my own head and be present with my audience?”
If you get the jitters before it’s your turn to speak, you’re not alone. In fact, your fear is so common, it has a name: Public Speaking Anxiety (PSA). PSA is classified by the American Psychiatric Association as a social anxiety disorder, and it’s prevalent in 15 to 30 percent of the general population.
While stage fright is both real and common, that doesn’t make it any less challenging to deal with. And that’s especially true now that many of us are returning to in-person meetings, conferences, and events.
In fact, more and more leaders are telling our executive speaker coaching team about their nervousness to return to in-person presenting. So, as you prepare for that next talk, here are three ways you can overcome stage fright.
Create a speaker profile
People who have a fear of public speaking usually identify it simply as “nervousness”, but labeling the feeling isn’t enough to change it. You can’t manage or decrease your fear until you uncover where that fear is coming from and how it physically shows up in your body.
That’s where a speaker profile can help.
When you’re preparing to speak, take some time to observe and write down any thoughts you’re having and any sensations you feel. Creating this written speaker profile will help you find the right solutions and the right positive triggers for you.
First, start with a mental assessment. Think of a past speaking situation that you made you feel nervous and ask yourself the following questions:
- What was on your mind ahead of time?
- What was on your mind while you were speaking?
- Was the audience unfamiliar?
- Was the setting unfamiliar?
- Was your content familiar?
- Was your content controversial?
- Were you new to your company?
- Were you speaking to senior leadership, angry customers, or stressed-out colleagues?
- Were you anticipating pushback?
- Were the stakes high?
- Were you thinking about other past experiences that didn’t go well?
Once you’ve explored these questions, next do a physical assessment. Think about what happened in your body when you felt nervous.
- Was your heart pounding?
- Were you short of breath?
- Did you feel your face turning red?
- Was your mouth dry?
- Were your palms sweating?
- Did you feel dizzy?
- Did you ramble on and on with your content?
- Did you lose your train of thought?
- Did you pace back and forth?
- Did you use repetitive gestures that had no purpose?
- Did you use a lot of verbal fillers?
Review your answers and look for noticeable trends. Uncovering these patterns can help you identify moments where you need a little extra preparation. With this information from your speaker profile, you now have a deeper awareness about what’s driving your speaking anxiety. And you can use this insight to build a game plan later.
Develop a new mindset
If you have a fear of public speaking, your mind probably feels like your worst enemy. It might ruminate over everything that could go wrong, or it might dredge up memories from that last time something did go wrong.
It might feel impossible, but you can change your mindset when it comes to your public speaking fears by speaking differently…to yourself. Here are a few examples.
Mindset change: “I’m ready, not nervous.”
Instead of saying, “I’m anxious,” say, “I’m ready.” The nervousness you feel physiologically is actually adrenaline rushing through your body, causing a flight, fight, or freeze response. In business, you’re trained to interpret this adrenaline as nervousness. In sports, though, you’re trained to interpret that adrenaline as readiness. Start thinking of that feeling as adrenaline preparing you to deliver a great presentation.
Mindset change: “My aim is progress, not perfection.”
Instead of saying, “I have to be perfect,” say, “I’m going to make progress today.” It’s easy to buy into a perfectionist mindset. And while there’s nothing wrong with ambition and striving to do your best, there will always be something to critique. So, aim for progress, not perfection.
Mindset change: “I’m a mystery to my audience.”
Instead of saying, “My audience is going to see my nervousness,” say, “They can’t tell that I’m nervous.” The best speakers in the world are described as confident. But that’s just our impression of them. As audience members, we have no idea what’s going on inside the speaker’s mind or body. Take comfort in knowing that most of the time, despite what you’re feeling internally, your audience can’t outwardly tell how nervous you are. You’re a mystery to them.
Mindset change: “The audience wants me to succeed.”
Instead of saying, “They audience is judging me,” say, “The audience wants me to succeed.” Many speakers worry about what the audience may think of them—and that’s natural. But you need to reframe that thinking if you’re going to be a successful speaker. Your audience is not rooting for you to fail, even if they disagree with what you’re saying. The audience is there because they need to hear something from you. Start to think of your audience as being on your side, rather than against you. You’re in this together and they want you to succeed.
Mindset change: “My talk is about my audience, not me.”
Instead of saying, “This talk is all about me,” say, “This talk is all about my audience.” Your fears and anxieties about speaking are entirely about you: What will they think of me? What if I fail? Instead, focus on an audience-first approach: What do I have to offer them? How can my ideas help them? This mindset shift can be challenging, but if you master it before you walk on stage, it has the power to dissolve your anxieties completely.
Adopt Practical Habits
Once you change your mindset, you need to incorporate some new habits that will help you manage your public speaking fears in a practical way. Here are a few to try out.
Habit #1: Create a home court advantage.
Speaking in an unfamiliar venue tends to amplify nerves. One way to increase comfortability is to get there ahead of time and get to know the space. Walk every inch of that conference room or stage. Practice your talk under the lights. Then, pretend you’re an audience member, and sit in each section of the room. See what it feels like to watch and listen from their point of view.
Next, get comfortable with your technology. Get to know the AV team members and don’t be afraid to ask them for equipment changes that will make you feel most comfortable. You want to create a feeling of familiarity as if you have presented in that venue hundreds of times.
Habit #2: Establish a pre-game ritual.
There’s a reason sports metaphors are used in public speaking. Athletes are performers, too, and the best athletes in the world have overcome their anxieties using pre-game rituals.
Do you have a power song? Use it before your presentation to help you get excited and ready for the stage. How about exercise? Do physical activity to shake out those jitters. Or maybe your pre-game ritual is simply your normal routine. If you normally drink one cup of coffee, don’t have three; if you do yoga in the morning, do it; if you shower before work, do that. The important thing is to establish a ritual for yourself. Do that ritual the same way every time, and it will add a sense of comfort to your preparation while also helping you get ready.
Habit #3: Dress for success.
When it comes to clothing, there’s a difference between being comfortable and being confident. Speakers tend to feel more powerful when they wear more business-professional attire. Granted, you must take your context into consideration. You might not choose to wear a suit and tie or a formal dress when your audience is wearing jeans and flip flops, but you don’t want to dress too casually either. My advice is to dress a bit more business-professional compared to your audience. You’ll appear relatable and polished.
Habit #4: Breathe or meditate.
Aim for settling down before a presentation to calm your nerves rather than revving up. If you don’t currently meditate, give it a try. There’s a ton of free meditation apps out there, like Calm or Insight Timer. Some have guided meditations specifically for stressful work situations, like presentation speaking. And many start with focused breathing; a smart tool to get your nerves under control.
Habit #5: Pause
Pausing is one of the most powerful tools you have as a speaker when it comes to anxiety. If you’re a fast talker, pausing more frequently can slow you down. If you nervously mumble, pausing can help your audience understand your content more clearly. And pausing shows the audience that you’re comfortable with yourself and the silence (even if you’re not).
Growing your confidence is possible
As an executive speaker coach, I’ve seen and worked with speakers on every level, presenting in every type of scenario. I know firsthand that overcoming your fear of public speaking is completely possible.
But like any skill, it requires focus and repetition to truly master. By incorporating these ideas, you can step on a stage with greater confidence—and the more confident you are, the more clearly you can deliver the information that your audience came to hear.
For more tips on how to level up your public speaking skills and reduce public speaking fear, check out our YouTube playlist.