Conquering the Fear of Public Speaking
Sweaty palms. Upset stomach. Dizziness. Shortness of breath. Rapid heartbeat. These might sound like symptoms of the flu, but if you have a fear of public speaking, chances are you know them all too well.
A Common Condition
Fear of speaking in public is extremely common, says David Greenberg, author of Simply Speaking! The No-Sweat Way to Prepare and Deliver Presentations and member of the National Speakers Association (NSA).
"According to the Book of Lists, the number one fear of American adults is speaking in front of groups," says Greenberg, adding that fear of death ranks at number seven on the same list. Greenberg himself, who speaks several times a week to audiences of up to 1,000 people, admits he still feels nervous before each and every presentation.
Depending on which scientific studies you read, anywhere from 44% to 85% of people feel some level of anxiety or discomfort before speaking or performing in public, as do many professional performers, says Howard Gurr, PhD, a New York psychologist who treats professional musicians and singers for stage fright.
According to the experts, several factors contribute to the nerves many people feel at the sight of a podium and microphone, including fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, and fear of rejection.
"People just don't want to be on center stage," explains Marjorie Brody, author of Speaking is an Audience-Centered Sport.
The ironic thing is that a touch of stage fright can actually help you be a more effective speaker. You can use the fear of failure to promote your success, if you allow it to motivate instead of discourage you.
Ways to Conquer Your Fear
The experts offer these tips on how to conquer your fear of public speaking:
- Organize your thoughts. When preparing your speech, organize your thoughts and create short notes to bring with you.
- Keep it simple. Limit yourself to two or three main points, and use your own stories to illustrate your message, recommends Greenberg, who says people will remember your stories long after they've forgotten you or the topic of your presentation.
- Practice, practice, practice. This doesn't mean memorizing your speech word-for-word. "You want to know your material, but you don't want to be locked into some iron-clad presentation format," says Dr. Gurr. And although you should rehearse aloud, Dr. Gurr suggests you avoid "practicing the life out of your presentation."
- Think about your delivery. Notice your rate of speech, your voice's tone and volume, your energy level and your gestures, and vary them all for maximum effect. "Always be aware of monotony," says Ty Boyd, a member of the Speakers Hall of Fame and former president of the NSA.
- Arrive early. On the day of your presentation, arrive early, not just to address any last-minute issues but also to "meet and greet." Mingling with the audience for a few minutes can establish a friendly tone even before you begin your presentation.
- Focus on the information and the audience. When the butterflies take flight in your abdomen, tell yourself a little nervousness is nothing to be ashamed of, and remind yourself you don't need to be perfect. In fact, unless you're a celebrity, says Brody, "realize that people are not coming to see you; they're coming to get the information." Once you take the focus off your performance and put it onto your audience, you buy yourself some breathing room and remember why you're presenting in the first place.
- Don't dwell on your errors. What if your nightmares actually come true and you lose your spot or drop your note cards? "What's really important is recovering gracefully," says Greenberg. "If you don't call attention to it, no one's going to notice." He adds that a brief pause of a second or two can seem a natural part of a presentation to the audience, even if it seems to last an eternity when all eyes are on you. If the gaffe is so large as to be unmistakable like mispronouncing the name of your company's president or accidentally deleting your PowerPoint presentation, admit you've made a mistake and move on. Making a blunder or two can actually give the audience permission to relax, especially if you handle it with humor.
"The fact is, if you aren't perfect, your audience will relate to you better," says Greenberg.
The National Speakers Association
Canadian Management Centre
Presentation Training Center
Brody M. Speaking Is an Audience-Centered Sport. Career Skills Press; 1999.
Greenberg D. Simply Speaking: The No-Sweat Way to Prepare & Deliver Presentations. Goldenleaf Publications; 2000.
National Speakers Association website. Available at: http://www.nsaspeaker.org.
Toastmasters International website. Available at: http://www.toastmasters.org.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
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