July is Freedom from Fear of Speaking Month and to celebrate, I’ve invited a team of speaking experts to share their best tips and tricks for improving your speaking skills and overcoming speaking anxiety.
Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking: The Ultimate Guide
By Carma Spence
It’s your turn to speak. Suddenly your ears feel hot and your hands begin to shake. You can barely remember what you intended to say. Your palms are sweating and you can feel your neck muscles tensing. You see purple at the edges of your vision and you feel sick to your stomach. What is happening?
You are having an attack of speaking anxiety, also known as the fear of public speaking or glossophobia.
The bad news is that this is a very common experience. The good news is that you can overcome these nasty symptoms if you wish to do so. In this post, I’ll provide you with an atlas of tips that can help you on your quest to becoming an effective, courageous speaker.
What is the fear of public speaking?
The fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears on the planet. Research suggests that about 75% of the Earth’s population has experienced some degree of public speaking fear in their lives. These people feel a sense of dread, nervousness, and concern, as well as physical discomfort when they have to speak to a group of people.
Some people have a mild case of speaking jitters, while others are paralyzed by their fear of public speaking, and many more are somewhere in-between. Some people fear to speak in front of a group of strangers. Some people fear to speak in front of a group of friends. And yet others fear both situations.
If you let this fear stop you in your tracks, you will not be as effective, successful, or as happy as you could be, were you to confront this fear.
Fear of Public Speaking Facts: What you don’t know CAN hurt you!
If unchecked, speaking anxiety can cause a wide variety of negative effects on a person’s life and career. If you let the fear of speaking get in your way, you can:
- Be paid 10% less than those who overcome it.
- Reduce your chances of graduating from college by 10%.
- Reduce your chances of getting into a professional or managerial position by 15%.
Patricia Fripp, an executive speech coach, says, “If you can stand up and speak eloquently with confidence or at least stagger to your feet and say anything at all, you will be head and shoulders above your competition.”
These fear of public speaking statistics can be very sobering. “If you want to realize your full potential in the world of business,” says Brian Tracy, “you must learn how to improve your effective communication skills to better communicate with people.” And that includes public speaking.
However, now that you know how harmful letting the fear of public speaking go unchecked can be to your life and career goals, you can begin to overcome your fear. First, let’s take a look at the root causes of this anxiety.
What to expect when you’re expecting … to give a speech
There are a wide variety of symptoms you can experience when suffering from speaking anxiety. They are almost the same symptoms that one would experience when afraid of anything at all, including spiders, heights, and first dates.
Physical responses include:
- Your throat tightening
- Shortness of breath
- An increase in heart rate and blood pressure
- Year ears and face becoming warm and flushed
- Shaking, trembling and fidgeting
- Increased perspiration
- Difficulty speaking articulately and an increase filler words such as um and ah
- Dry mouth
- Gastrointestinal upset, including nausea or diarrhea
- Neck and upper back tension
- The sensation of increased or decreased body temperature
- Acute hearing
- Dilated pupils
- Sweaty palms
Other non-physical responses include feeling awkward, having a hard time formulating your thoughts or remembering what you want to say, and even avoiding eye contact with your audience.
I remember when I was competing on the Speech Team in High School, one contestant gave his entire speech to the blackboard, never looking at his audience at all! And when I was interviewing speakers for my book Public Speaking Super Powers, I heard stories of people fainting, throwing up, and going completely blank.
The fear of public speaking can often feel like the world is coming to an end, but if you decide to face this fear and stare it down, you can make it to the other side. Many people have already done so and therefore have paved the way for you.
What causes the fear of public speaking?
Why are people scared of public speaking? The science behind the fear of public speaking seeks to understand the root causes of this anxiety and there are a variety of theories available. Ultimately, the specific reasons for each person’s public speaking fear will vary. Here is an overview of the prevailing theories.
Previous speaking trauma
If your first experience with speaking in front of a group was negative, you are more likely to develop a fear of public speaking. This doesn’t necessarily mean it was a disaster and you were booed off the stage with bits of tomato in your hair. You just needed to perceive it as a bad experience. In this sense, speaking anxiety is a (usually) mild form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
For whatever reason, you’ve silently talked yourself into a tizzy. You believe that you should be afraid, and so you are. This could be caused by a previous bad experience or just something you picked up from other people around you.
Certain situations can trigger specific fears. You may be fine when talking with your friends and family around a table, but shake in your boots when you need to speak up in a meeting at work. Situational fear of public speaking strikes each person who suffers from it differently, usually related to a previous negative experience.
Another fear in disguise
You may not fear public speaking at all. Instead, you may be afraid of being judged or looking like a fool in front of others. Perhaps you are suffering from Impostor Syndrome or low self-esteem. In these cases, it is not speaking in public that scares you, but what it represents.
Lack of skills
It can be scary doing something for the first time. But this is the best way to learn speaking skills. You can read books and articles, watch videos and listen to lectures until the cows come home, but at some point, if you want to be a better public speaker, you are going to have to get up in front of a group and speak!
If they can do it, you can do it
Many people who ended up as skilled orators started out fearing public speaking. Joel Osteen, Thomas Jefferson, Warren Buffet, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill faced their fear of public speaking and became known as powerful speakers. Many–if not all–accomplished speaker still experience some butterflies before getting up on stage. “I still get a little nervous before I go on stage,” says Maurice DiMino. “It is natural.”
How to vanquish the public speaking mind goblin
There are numerous ways to overcome speaking anxiety, but you can break them down into four basic categories: General anxiety-relieving techniques, mindset hacks, planning ahead, and practical advice. Here’s an overview of the methods that have proven to be most effective for most people:
Anxiety relief techniques
Anxiety relief techniques are methods of calming your physical response to stress and fear.
Meditation is a practice that attempts to create a state of total physical relaxation while being completely mentally alert. This can be achieved through a variety of exercises and practices that are beyond the scope of this article. Methods that have helped many people overcome speaking anxiety include breath control, focusing on a single point or repeating a mantra. Here are some resources you might find helpful if you decide to try meditation:
- Book: Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield, PhD
- Book: Practical Meditation for Beginners: 10 Days to a Happier, Calmer You by Benjamin W. Decker
- Book: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book by Dan Harris, Jeffrey Warren and Carlye Adler
- Blog Post: Tips for meditation by Carma Spence
- Audio Program: Magical Fear Release Meditation by Carma Spence
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is an approach used to help people change the thoughts that support their fears. It has proven effective in relieving a variety of anxiety disorders, including glossophobia. CBT uses both thinking (cognitive) and behavioral techniques to help sufferers both identify and control the irrational thoughts and beliefs that make them fearful. More than likely, you can find a practitioner of this methodology near you. Here are some resources to help you.
- Article: Listing of CBT Practitioners in Your Area from Psychology Today
- Book: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – An Alternative Treatment for Greater Personal Happiness and Contentment by Bill Andrews
- Book: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: 7 Ways to Freedom from Anxiety, Depression, and Intrusive Thoughts (Happiness is a trainable, attainable skill!) by Lawrence Wallace
- Book: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies by Rhena Branch and Rob Willson
EFT or Tapping
Developed by Gary Craig in the early 1990s, the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), often called tapping, is a self-improvement technique in which a person taps their fingertips on specific meridian points while simultaneously talking through negative experiences, thoughts, or beliefs. It has been effectively used to treat depression, PTSD, and the fear of public speaking. Here are some resources for you to explore:
- Book: The Tapping Solution: A Revolutionary System for Stress-Free Living by Nick Ortner
- Book: The Tapping Solution for Manifesting Your Greatest Self: 21 Days to Releasing Self-Doubt, Cultivating Inner Peace, and Creating a Life You Love by Nick Ortner
- Video: The EFT Basic Recipe by Gary Craig
- Video: How to Tap with Jessica Ortner
- Video: Fear of Public Speaking – Tapping with Brad Yates (Embedded below)
Breath control and strategic pauses
When you are afraid, you are more likely to breathe rapidly and shallowly, as well as speak quickly. By controlling your breath, slowing it down, and using strategic pauses to slow down your rate of speaking, you can fool your body into thinking it is calm. This reduces many—if not all—of the other symptoms of speaking anxiety. Here are some resources to help you use this technique.
- Book: Breathe: Simple Breathing Techniques for a Calmer, Happier Life by Jean Hall
- Video: Breathing Exercises for Confident Public Speaking by Dominic Colenso
- Video: Sound Like A Leader: How To Breathe Correctly When Speaking by Raquel Baldelomar
- Video: How to train yourself to breathe from the belly, Carma Spence interviewing Cindy Ashton
- Video: Voice Lesson: Speaking Fast? Slow down in the Natural Way with Cynthia Zhai
Dr. Amy Cuddy has done a lot of research on how body language can affect body chemistry. She has discovered that by holding what she calls a “power pose” you can change your brain’s chemistry and feel more confident. Watch this video of her TED talk to learn more.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP
According to Wikipedia, neuro-linguistic programming “is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, United States in the 1970s.” Some people swear by this technique for relieving anxiety. Others don’t. My research showed mixed results, but if nothing else works, you could give it a try.
Hypnosis has been used to treat a wide variety of anxiety disorders. You can find audio recordings that address everything from weight loss to smoking cessation to overcoming the fear of public speaking. As with NLP, there are mixed results.
The American Psychological Association describes hypnosis as a cooperative interaction in which the participant responds to the suggestions of the hypnotist. It is a methodology that puts you in a relaxed and focused state and helps you go around your conscious mind’s chatter. The problem lies is that no one can make you do something under hypnosis that you don’t agree with. So, if your fear of public speaking is deeply rooted, this technique may not work for you.
Fear of Public Speaking Medication
As a last resort, there is always prescribed medication. There is evidence that some symptoms may be eased or lessened by medications such as beta-blockers. You’ll need to speak with your doctor or psychiatrist about this option.
Your mindset, or how you think about and perceive things, has a very powerful effect on the way you experience things. Here are some techniques for changing your mindset to be less afraid of speaking in public:
Growth mindset and self-confidence
There are two ways you can perceive the world: With a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that they were born with or without skills and that they cannot change. People with a growth mindset believe that everything is learnable when you apply effort and perseverance.
When you cultivate a growth mindset, you empower yourself to become a better speaker and overcome speaking anxiety. You won’t stop yourself just because you aren’t where you want to be now; you’ll embrace the journey to where you want to be.
Growth mindset leads to increased self-confidence, which is very helpful in reducing the fear of speaking. Here are some resources to help you develop a growth mindset:
- Book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
- Article: Harvard Business Review: What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means by Carol Dweck
- Blog post: Growth Mindset: How to Cultivate One by Carma Spence
Pretend you’re not afraid
This may sound too simplistic, but it really does work. Pretend that you are courageous on the stage, and believe it or not, you soon will be. When you feel your heart begin to race, think of it as being excited about sharing your message with your audience rather than being afraid to speak to them. In fact, research suggests that focusing on “becoming calm” rather than “being excited” is not very effective. Check out these resources to learn more about this method:
- Video: Public Speaking Tip #4: Pretend You’re Not Afraid by Carma Spence
- Blog post: The Evocation of Heroes by Carma Spence
Many people get this technique mixed up with meditation or affirmations. However, it is quite different.
Visualization is a very powerful way to create the success you want. Researchers have found that people who visualize what they want to happen are more likely to do well than those who don’t.
Take about 15 minutes to calm your mind. Then imagine yourself being a great speaker on the stage. What does it feel like? Are you excited? Are you happy? Are you energized? What does it sound like? Do you hear applause? What does it look like? Are people leaning forward in their chairs, hanging on your every word? Add as many experiential stimuli to your visualization as you can, touch on all your senses: Sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
Here are some resources to help you with this exercise:
- Book: Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life by Shakti Gawain
- Book: The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy
- Book: Visualization and Imagery: Harnessing the Power of the Mind’s Eye by Dovber Pinson
Be authentically you
Sometimes speaking anxiety comes from pretending to be something you are not. Your audience doesn’t want to watch you imitate other speakers. Let Tony Robbins be Tony Robbins and you be you.
When you’re on stage, show off your best authentic self. This means that if you’re silly, be silly. If something you’re saying makes you feel vulnerable or sad, share your vulnerability or sadness. Genuine emotion and honest communication win audiences. You might be surprised how well an audience can spot a fake or tell when you aren’t being authentic with them.
It’s not about you!
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Your speech isn’t about you. It’s about your audience. Dale Carnegie says that, “an effective speaker knows that the success or failure of his talk is not for him to decide — it will be decided in the minds and hearts of his hearers.”
Ask yourself: What do they need to hear? What do they need to know?
That’s all they care about.
In fact, the audience is on your side. They want you to do well. They want you to inform them, inspire them, entertain them. They aren’t giving you their precious time so you can bomb!
When you can get your mind around this idea, you will release a lot of the stress behind your fear of public speaking. You’ll realize you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to get your message across. “The truth is,” says Dr.Gary Genard, an internationally recognized expert in communication performance, “that you’re just there to talk to listeners about a topic of mutual interest. The audience really does want to hear what you have to say.”
Your audience will overlook a few filler words, a faulty PowerPoint and even a wardrobe malfunction if you give them your message with passion, enthusiasm, and authenticity.
Here are some more resources on this topic:
- Blog post: Book Review: The Perfection Deception by Jane Bluestein
- Blog post: Authenticity: How to bring it onto the stage by Carma Spence
- Blog post: Vulnerability Is Key to Authenticity by Carma Spence
Focus on your material, not the audience
OK. This may sound like I’m contradicting my last point but stick with me for a moment. When I say focus on your material, what I mean is focus on your message. Before you developed your presentation, you thought about the audience and what they needed from you. Now that you’re on the stage, focus on communicating that message in the best way possible.
Here are some resources to help you out:
- Podcast (with video): The CAP Podcast, Episode 17: Your Million Dollar Message, Carma Spence Interviews Maurice DiMino
- Video: What moves you?, Weekday Wisdom Episode 101 with Carma Spence
- Blog post (with video): Power Thought: Let your light shine
Celebrate your successes
More than likely, you’re not going to go from knee-knocking to knockout, so don’t get down on yourself when you don’t reach perfection right away. Instead, focus on what you did right. Focus on where you are showing improvement. Celebrate those successes!
Dale Carnegie once said, “Only the prepared speaker deserves to be confident.” Although things don’t always go to plan, it can be really helpful in reducing the stress around speaking by making sure you’re prepared for your presentation.
Talk about what you know and are passionate about
“The best speeches come from the heart and reflect your passion,” says master speaker coach Arvee Robinson. Nothing is more stressful than giving a presentation that you don’t know much or couldn’t care less about. One time, I developed a speech on memory and forgot it. How embarrassing!
When you are passionate about what you’re talking about, when you’re confident that you know what you’re talking about, it is so much easier to make your butterflies fly in formation.
Not sure what your passion or expertise is? Here are some helpful resources:
- Book: The Passion Test: The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Life Purpose by Janet and Chris Attwood
- Blog post: Audio File: The Passion Test by Carma Spence
- Blog post: The Power of Passion in Public Speaking by Carma Spence
I don’t recommend memorizing your speech verbatim. In fact, that was one reason why I forgot that memory speech I mentioned earlier. Instead, develop a strong, memorable outline as your guideline and memorize that. If you’re talking about something you know and are interested in, you can flesh out the outline on the fly.
There are two ways to prepare yourself for your presentation: Practice your speech and create a Plan B for when things go wrong.
Entertainers often practice an hour for every minute of their performance. Many speakers follow this rule of thumb, as well. You want to get to the point where you know your opening and your conclusion by heart and can easily flow from one point in the body of your speech to another. “The goal,” wrote Michael Port in his book Steal the Show, “is to know your material so well that you are free to be in the moment.”
For some people, this equals an hour of practice for a minute of presentation. For some, it is less and for others, it is more. Find your sweet spot and remember that it is better to over than to under, practice.
And, of course, we all know about best-laid plans, right? Well, your presentation could go off without a hitch—or it couldn’t. So develop a Plan B, and a Plan C, if you really want to make sure things go well.
What does this mean?
It means having a backup plan for when the projector doesn’t work or PowerPoint won’t cooperate. It means having a game plan for when your shoe’s heel falls off or your suitcase doesn’t arrive. It means being mentally—and sometimes physically—prepared for mistakes, technical difficulties, and acts of nature.
Anticipate your audience
Along these lines, do your best to get inside the heads of your audience and come prepared to answer their questions, address their concerns and make them feel like they made a good choice to listen to you today. I have a video program that can help you do this.
Now that you’ve addressed your fear of public speaking by calming your body, strengthening your mind and planning for your best speaking performance, here are a few more things you can do to reduce speaking anxiety:
Practice in front of a mirror or video camera
For many, speaking in front of people is too big a step. They are paralyzed by their fear. What they can do is push the envelope of their fear by taking one baby step at a time. I recommend practicing your speech in front of a mirror so you can better visualize how you’re doing.
Recording your practice with a video recorder (you have one if you have a smartphone!) is even better. That way you can watch yourself more objectively and notice areas for improvement. Brian Tracy suggests you pay attention to your facial expressions, gestures and body movement, as well as how welcoming you appear. Then record the improved presentation and watch that video, making a note of where you improved so you can celebrate those successes, as well as areas for further improvement.
In addition to helping you get comfortable speaking before an audience, this is a great way to practice your speech in general.
Practice in front of people you trust
Once you’re comfortable practicing in front of a mirror and video camera, now it’s time to get in front of a warm, welcoming audience. Grab a friend, a family member or two, and practice in front of them. Then ask for their feedback. Coach them to tell you what you are doing well, as well as providing suggestions for improvement. You want this to be a good experience, not a confirmation of your fear.
Getting professional—and even non-professional—help is a great way to improve your skills, increase your confidence and decrease your fear.
Local community colleges and Parks and Recreation departments often offer speaking classes for adults. Take one!
Another good option is to join a local public speaking club where you not only learn new skills but get to practice them, as well, with others who are in the same boat as you. A 2018 study reported that previously trained students—near-peer mentors—can act as trainers for fellow students working to improve their public speaking skills. Toastmasters.org is a great resource for finding a club like this, but you can also check out MeetUp for other types of public speaking clubs.
If these group activities are too much for you, can also hire a coach to work with you one-on-one until you’re ready for a group environment. You can also check out the variety of online public speaking courses available.
Only 8% of people with a fear of public speaking seek professional help, despite the negative effect on their life and career. Don’t let that be you.
Wear glasses? Take them off!
Sometimes seeing your audience too clearly can be anxiety-provoking. When I was first starting out as a speaker, I found that taking my glasses off so that the audience looked muted and slightly out of focus helped ease my anxiety.
Harness your nervous energy
Your opening sets the stage for the rest of your presentation. Why not use those pre-speaking nerves to give your opening a bit of extra gusto and enthusiasm? Once you’re on a roll, your nervous energy will become genuine enthusiasm.
There is power in silence.
Yes, sometimes it is better to pause, say nothing at all, to emphasize your point.
Pausing has another effect, as well. It slows down your speech. Your audience cannot understand at the same rate they can hear. The human mind takes a moment to comprehend what it hears. Therefore, you need to speak almost painstakingly slow to make sure that your audience has time to digest what you are saying. Here are helpful resources on this topic:
- Article: Fast Talkers: How to Slow Down in Front of an Audience
- Article: How to slow down your speech: do we need a new approach?
- Article: How to Slow Down Nervous, Speedy Speech
Create your questing map
Now that you have a better understanding of the fear of public speaking and how to overcome it, it is time to develop a plan to take you from where you are to where you want to be. Which techniques will you try? When will you put them into action?
I’ve provided you with a variety of specific resources throughout this post. Here are some more general resources that you might find helpful.
- Book: Public Speaking Super Powers by Carma Spence
- Book: 100 Days to Brave: Devotions for Unlocking Your Most Courageous Self by Annie F. Downs
- Book: Being Unapologetic: Empowering You to Become an Influential Speaker and Visionary Leader by Davide Di Giorgio
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About Carma Spence
Award-winning speaker and bestselling author of Public Speaking Super Powers, Carma Spence knows that introverted and shy people can be decent speakers. She is fiercely committed to helping her clients unleash their inner content creation superhero and confidently communicate their message so that they can create a meaningful legacy. She helps them see what is possible and guides them on the journey from where they are to where they want to be, Vanquishing Mind Goblins along the way.
Her strength and courage were hard-won. She has survived an abusive marriage; an attack by her boyfriend; and being hit by a car (three separate times). This mix of experiences makes Carma a good mentor to those struggling with owning their gifts.
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Does Speaking Make You Nervous?
Discover 13 practices that will help alleviate your presentation fears and anxiety.
Inside You’ll Learn:
- Five ways to reduce anxiety before your audience arrives.
- Four practices to reduce anxiety as your audience arrives.
- Four things you can do to calm down right before stepping up to the platform.