11 Easy Ways to Finally Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

Knock your next presentation out of the park with these public speaking tips.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
February 01, 2013

How successful we are at selling ourselves, our products and our services depends on our ability to stand up and be heard. What often prevents us from telling our story successfully is not our inability to articulate what we do, or how strongly we believe in the value of what we offer. Instead, it is simply the fear of speaking in front of an audience. Being nervous while presenting can put a dint in your credibility and have an adverse effect on achieving your business goals.

To manage the fear of speaking in public, you need to first understand the root cause of the fear. One of the best explanations comes from Scott Berkun, in Confessions of a Public Speaker. "The design of the brain's wiring—given its long operational history, hundreds of thousands years older than the history of public speaking ... makes it impossible to stop fearing what it knows is the worst tactical position for a person to be in," Berkun says. That "worst tactical position" is standing alone, in an open place, with no place to hide, without a weapon, facing a large group of creatures staring at you. As Berkun puts it, being in this situation "meant the odds were high that you would soon be attacked and eaten alive ... Our ancestors, the ones who survived, developed a fear response to these situations."

Understanding that our brain can't tell the difference between a real threat (a pack of wolves about to attack you) and an imagined threat (a group of your peers watching you present) is the first step to overcoming the fear. This awareness can help you manage the "false alarm" that happens in the absence of real danger. How so? As you feel your heart racing when you first start your presentation, you can consciously and deliberately interrupt the fear response with a quick deep breath and a rational thought, "This is just a false alarm." The more you get into the habit of interrupting the fear response as soon as you feel it happening, the quicker you'll prevent it from being your default response every time you present in front of a group. You must ingrain in your mind the thought that the fear of public speaking is simply a misfiring of the caveman "fight or flight" fear response, and that you can overcome this.

Here are 11 practical tips to help you manage performance anxiety so you can focus on your key messages:

1. Reframe the questions you ask yourself.

When you worry before a high-stakes presentation, you may have a tendency to ask yourself negative questions, such as "What will happen if I forget my material?" or "What if I mess up?" This form of self-talk is like throwing gasoline in a room on fire. All it does is heighten your anxiety. Replace these negative questions with positive ones. Take an inspiration from Seymour Signet, a specialist in helping people overcome public speaking anxiety. He advises to ask yourself: "What will happen if I knock it out of the park?" You can view more of Seymour's tips in his video "Ask Yourself Good Questions." Give this a try; it will calm the noise in your head.

2. Practice as if you're the worst.

When you know your material well, there's a tendency to get sloppy when practicing a speech: You might flip through the slides, mentally thinking about what you are going to say, without actually rehearsing out loud exactly what you plan to say. This results in a presentation that's not as sharp as it could be and might cause you to be nervous once you have 100 pairs of eyes staring at you. You can also forget some important sub-points and  key soundbites.

3. Avoid this by practicing out loud and verbalizing your complete presentation.

For a high-stakes presentation, do this at least five times, at spaced intervals, to encode your material in long-term memory. It's also crucial that you practice your transitions—the words that link one idea in your presentation to the next. These are easy to forget if you don't practice them and you end up with a staccato presentation. Transitions are the silken thread that guides your listeners through your story. Some examples: "Now that we have established ..."; "This leads us to ..."; "My next item is particularly crucial ..."

4. Memorize the sequence of your slides.

Knowing the sequence of your slides so you can anticipate and announce a slide makes you look in control. Nothing erodes your credibility faster than having to look at a slide to know what you have to say next. Being perceived as credible boosts your confidence and reduces your anxiety and the fear of failing.

5. Create a backup slide for some answers.

One reason people often experience anxiety before a presentation is the fear that they'll be asked questions that might be difficult to answer. Don't get caught off guard. Think carefully of what potential questions might arise and rehearse your best answers. Go one step further by creating slides for some potential questions about complex issues. You can include in your slide important information, numbers, stats or even a pertinent graph or pie chart that would be helpful to the audience. If such a question arises, it's quite okay to say, "I anticipated that you might be asking this question. Let me display a slide that will clearly show ..." 

6. Visualize your presentation.

A study at Harvard University showed the value of visualization in developing a skill: Two groups of volunteers were presented with a piece of unfamiliar piano music. One group was given a keyboard and told to practice. The other group was instructed to just read the music and imagine playing it. When their brain activity was examined, both groups showed expansion in the motor cortex, even though the second group had never touched a keyboard. Visualization is a powerful mental rehearsal tool that peak sports performers use regularly. Einstein, who's credited with saying that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” used visualization throughout his entire life. Take advantage of this tool and visualize yourself successfully delivering your presentation. Concentrate on all the positives of your presentation, and visualize the talk, in detail, from your introduction to your conclusion.

7. Stop seeing your presentation as a performance.

Instead, as Jerry Weissman puts it, "treat every presentation as a series of person-to-person conversations." The more you remind yourself of this, the more you can shift your focus away from the fear-inducing thought that you are required to perform.

8. Take some deep breaths.

This simple advice cannot be emphasized enough. When you're nervous, you breathe rapidly and shallowly. This is telegraphing to the audience that you're not confident. Slow and measured breathing is a sign that you're in control. Before you go to the front of the room, concentrate on taking a few, slow breaths. Repeat this a few times. When you start to speak, remember to pause and breathe after you make a point. Psychiatrist Fritz Perls said it powerfully: "Fear is excitement without the breath."

9. Try "power posing" before the presentation.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy discovered that simply holding our body in an expansive pose for as little as two minutes results in a higher level of testosterone in our body. Testosterone is the hormone linked to power in both animals and humans. At the same time, the expansive pose lowers our level of cortisol, the stress hormone. In her TED video presentation, Cuddy shows a number of expansive poses, such as spreading your legs, placing your hands on your hips, or striking the CEO pose: legs resting on desk, and arms behind your head. You can apply this advice before a presentation to lower your stress level and give yourself a boost. Instead of hunching over your notes or BlackBerry, find a spot where you can have some privacy and adopt an expansive pose: Make yourself as big as you can by stretching your arms out and spreading your legs, or stand on your tiptoes with your hands in the air.

10. Pause frequently.

In "The King’s Speech," a movie about the true story of King George VI, one of the successful strategies the speech therapist uses to help the king overcome his stuttering is the use of pauses. Pausing helped the king regain his composure whenever he was gripped by anxiety. When you feel anxious while presenting, consider pausing more frequently. A few strategic pauses between points have a calming effect.

11. Come to terms with audience expressions.

Your anxiety level is increased when you misinterpret the audience's facial expression. In normal conversation, we're accustomed to getting feedback from the listener—a nod or a smile here and there that signal approval. But when we present, audiences listen differently. They're more likely to give the speaker a blank stare, which doesn't mean they don't like what they hear; more often than not, it simply means they're concentrating on the message. This is especially true of audience members who are introverted.

You can get more tips for managing presentation anxiety in my book, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques For Effective Presentations. There's a Japanese proverb that says, "Fear is only as deep as the mind allows." Put your mind on developing your key company messages and crafting your story. Replace time expended on worrying with time spent on preparing thoroughly for your presentation, by knowing your material cold, and practicing it beyond the point of pain. Then go out there and win them over.

Read more articles on presenting to a group of people.

Photo: iStockphoto 

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.