5 Powerful and Practical Ways to Tackle Your Public Speaking Nerves

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November 10, 2022

“How can I stop being nervous about public speaking?”

Unsurprisingly, it’s the number one question I’m asked by clients. Speaking in front of an audience (or “glossophobia”, to give it the more formal name) is a thought that fills so many of us with dread. It’s been estimated that up to 30% of the general population struggle with public speaking anxiety on some level.

But throughout my years of working with clients to overcome their public speaking fears, I’ve developed some tried and tested strategies to help you be more confident, assured and comfortable when you speak in public - and I’m going to share five of those techniques here for you to try.

Why do I get anxious when public speaking?

Before we get into the solutions, let’s talk about what might be causing those public speaking nerves in the first place.

It all comes down to basic, primitive instinct. The fight or flight response that kicks in when we’re faced with a situation we perceive as dangerous.

Speaking in public means putting ourselves in a vulnerable position with the potential to be judged by others. People are looking at us, scrutinising what we’re saying, and all eyes are on us.

We’re conscious that we'll make a mistake or make a fool of ourselves somehow. That we’ll say the wrong thing or simply forget everything that’s ever been in our heads. So naturally, that causes nerves and anxiety.

Public speaking stress can create physical effects too. You might experience:

  • Sweaty palms

  • A pounding heart

  • Dry throat

  • Shaking and trembling

  • Blushing and flushing

  • Wobbly or squeaky voice

  • The feeling of “butterflies” in your stomach

It’s no wonder that all of these things combined can create an incredibly tense situation. So what can we do to reduce those public speaking nerves?

Side note - you’ll notice I’m saying “reduce” rather than “eliminate” because a few nerves can actually be a good thing. The shot of adrenaline from your nervous energy can give you the extra push you need to help you perform at your best, as long as you’re in control and not allowing those nerves to take over.

Now let’s look at those five practical steps you can take to help overcome your public speaking fears. 

#1 - Prepare

First, you need to get specific and identify the root of the problem. What in particular is making you nervous or anxious about public speaking? Where is that fear coming from?

When one of my sons was young, he was afraid to go to sleep at night because he was worried about monsters under the bed. I know many parents will have faced a similar situation. And rather than telling him, “There are no monsters under your bed; go to sleep,” we tried a different tactic and made a game out of it.

First, we’d check under the bed to make sure there were no monsters there. Then we came up with a strategy. What could he do if a monster did appear under the bed so he could get that monster and be victorious? It worked like a charm. Instead of dismissing his fears, we made a sensible plan to tackle them so he felt prepared and calm.

I use the same principle when working with my clients. We look at what exactly it is about public speaking they’re afraid of. Then we ask what they can do to alleviate those fears by taking action.

For example, if you’re afraid you’ll forget your place in your presentation, we can start by reviewing your slides and reducing the amount of information on them. This means you won’t be completely dependent on the slide content and can talk around it rather than directly from it. Now you’re having a conversation with your audience rather than “delivering a presentation” to them.

Using a clear, audience-focused structure for your presentation will also give you freedom from worrying about being “word perfect.” Your structure is simply a framework and you can elaborate on your main points rather than being tied to the content word for word.

For more on this, you might like to read: Is the Gift of the Gab Really Your Key to Speaking Confidence?

Pull it back and keep it simple. Have your preparation work done well in advance so you’re completely confident with your content.

#2 - Practise

Now you’ve planned and structured your content, what’s the best way to become familiar and comfortable with it? There’s no magic shortcut here - the answer is practice. But we’re not talking about learning your speech off by heart. Your goal is to internalise the content, which again helps you avoid the worry of “losing your place” when you speak.

For more tips on this, take a look at my 3-part video series on effective presentation prep:

1. How to prepare for your presentation

2. What to practise before your presentation

3. How to ask for effective feedback on your presentation

If you’d prefer the written versions of these resources, you’ll find them (and lots more helpful advice to boost your speaking confidence) over on my blog.

#3 - Visualise

Another powerful technique to get yourself in the right zone for delivering your presentation is visualisation.

Many years ago, I entered a Toastmasters speech contest. I had won at my local club level and now was moving onto the area level. And that was going to require a lot of practice and rehearsal to make sure I was comfortable and confident delivering my speech.

The problem was, thanks to a bad bout of laryngitis, I ended up spending the three days leading up to the contest unable to speak! I couldn’t talk, couldn't practise at all. So because I couldn’t practise out loud, I visualised.

I imagined myself at the competition, getting up from my seat, walking up to the stage and shaking the hand of the contest chair. I pictured where I would stand, and how I’d deliver my content, then ran through the whole presentation in my mind.

I visualised the audience and what their reception would be like. Of course, they were all smiling up at me in my visualisation because I wanted to feel assured and completely at ease. As a result, when it came to actually delivering my speech at the contest, I felt totally prepared because I’d walked through all of it in my mind in the days beforehand. And as it turned out, despite no “physical” practice in the days beforehand, I won that competition and continued on to the next round! 

#4 - Breathe

It sounds too simple to be true but focusing on your breathing before you speak or present is an excellent way to calm your nervous system. We often end up breathing into our chest as the default, but for this technique to work, make sure you’re focusing on breathing right down into your core.

Try putting your hands on your tummy, feel it rising like a balloon as you inhale and then deflating again as you exhale. As your breathing slows, you’ll feel a sense of calm and be able to speak more slowly and with authority.

 

#5- Warm Up

My final tip is to try some vocal exercises to warm up your vocal cords before you speak. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated; basic tongue twisters work brilliantly for this.

Try something like:

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;

A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.

If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,

Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?”

Or maybe:

“You know New York, you need New York,
You know you need unique New York.”

Say them slowly, deliberately and out loud to help loosen up your voice and make it less likely you’ll stumble over words when you start to speak.

 

So there you have it, five simple but hugely effective ways to tackle your public speaking nerves. And you don’t have to do them all every time. Pick your favourite and try it out before your next presentation. 

 

I'm Maureen McCowen and I work with individuals and teams to help them unlock their speaking confidence. To explore how this can support you or your team, email me or use the contact form here. And if you’d like to receive a copy of these tips straight to your inbox, feel free to sign up here.

Contact:
Maureen McCowen, Presentation Skills Specialist
maureen@softskillsuccess.ie, (087) 280-8734