How to Get Over the Fear of Public Speaking
Zombies. Ghosts. Axe-murderers. In-laws. They’re all scary, but for many people, none of them are as scary as making a speech in front of a bunch of strangers. In fact, the fear of public speaking, also known as glossophobia, is one of the most common phobias. Close to 80% of us fear it to some degree, according to a 2013 Dovepress study.
glos·so·pho·bia | \ ˌglä-sō-ˈfō-bē-ə , ˌglȯ- \
fear of public speaking
In this guide, we’ll look at how to get over the fear of public speaking and keep your audience on tenterhooks from start to finish.
Overcoming the fear of public speaking
Are you a press office representative? A fledgling PR guru, or a CEO? If so, there’s no getting away from public speaking. From press conferences, to media interviews and award acceptance speeches, at some point, you’re going to have to face your fear.
As with most phobias, there isn’t an easy explanation for why people develop a fear of public speaking. Phobias can develop for many reasons. That said, here are some of the most common causes of glossophobia.
Fear of public speaking: Facts
Some people have a fear of public speaking because it makes them feel vulnerable. Think about it. When we stand up in front of a crowd, our insecurities are on full display. It’s even worse when the audience is full of journalists, eager to record our flubs for time immemorial.
Besides that, delivering a good speech takes more practice than most people think. As a result, it’s easy to feel underprepared.
A 2018 YouGov survey found that 50% of people with glossophobia have avoided applying for jobs due to their fear of public speaking. Statistics like this show that the fear of speaking in public won’t just wreck your self-confidence, it could also ruin your career.
Breaking out of the cycle is hard, but not impossible. The most important step to overcoming a fear of public speaking is changing your mindset.
Here are some public speaking tips to help you build your self-confidence and set you on the path to success.
Getting over your fear of public speaking: tips and advice
The first thing to know is that getting over a fear of public speaking can be difficult. It won’t happen overnight. Instead, you should think of public speaking as a skill. Like riding a bike, it’s something you get better at with experience. As you improve, it’ll become easier to keep your nerves under control. You may be quaking in your boots ahead of your first speech, but by the hundredth, you won’t give it a second thought.
That said, there are still plenty of ways to give yourself a head start.
Seven simple tips to bear in mind when facing your fear of speaking in public.
Tip 1: Prepare, prepare, prepare
Lack of preparation is the main reason why people have a fear of speaking in public. Most of the time, this means not doing enough research on your topic.
It’s impossible to deliver a speech confidently if you’re not sure what you’re saying is true. Taking the time to double-check your sources can do wonders for calming your nerves.
If you’re worried about forgetting facts or figures, use a ‘spaced repetition system’ like Anki to memorise them. These programs schedule review-sessions for your topic. Stuff you struggle with gets drilled more frequently than the parts you already know by heart until it all ‘sticks’. According to a 2019 study from the National Academy of Sciences, this strengthens your memory far better than rote memorisation, where you just focus on repeating all your revision material over and over.
Besides preparing your talk, you should also familiarise yourself with the venue. If you can, go there the day before your speech to get used to the room and the acoustics. An alien environment can add another layer of stress to your glossophobia.
Here are some other things to nail down about the event:
- How big will the audience be?
- Are you speaking to experts or the general public?
- How long will you be speaking for?
- Will you have to wear a microphone?
- Will there be a Q&A afterwards?
- Will your speech be recorded? (you don’t want to find out on the day that your private, informal talk is actually being streamed online to thousands of viewers).
Preparation is the most important step in overcoming a fear of public speaking. Thankfully, it’s also one of the easiest. Spend a little time every day practising and honing your speech, and when the day finally comes, your speech will roll off your tongue.
Tip 2. Compose yourself before you speak
If you want to inspire confidence in your audience, don’t start talking the second you step foot on stage. It gives off an air of insecurity and nervousness.
Instead, quietly walk out on stage. Take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, wait a few seconds, and begin. It may feel excruciatingly awkward when you do it, but it’ll show the audience you’re confident and in charge of the situation.
Tip 3. Make eye contact with the audience
The scariest thing about public speaking is the speech. But the second scariest is the audience. When you’re up there and see hundreds, or even thousands of eyes staring back at you, it’s natural to feel butterflies in your stomach.
That’s why an important tip for overcoming the fear of public speaking is to stare back.
Despite what your mum told you, staring isn’t always rude. Making eye contact with individual audience members can help you tune out everyone else’s gaze. You can pretend you’re having a one-on-one conversation, which is great for keeping your cool.
It can also keep people engaged in your talk. According to a 2006 study in the National Library of Medicine, making eye contact just 30% of the time massively boosts how well people remember what you say.
In terms of how much time you should maintain eye contact for, there’s no hard and fast rule, but try to keep it to a sentence each. On average, that’ll work out to around three seconds per person. That’s what a 2016 study found to be best for building rapport.
In contrast, ‘scanning and panning’, what most people do by default, is your worst enemy. Looking back and forth over your entire audience will make you look jittery, nervous and unprepared.
Of course, you can’t overcome a fear of public speaking just by altering the way you handle yourself on stage, but it’s important for giving off an air of confidence and authority. Act the part, and you’ll feel the part.
This leads on to another way people shoot themselves in the foot: speaking too quickly.
Tip 4. Speak slowly
When we get flustered or forget something, we tend to speed up, stumble over our words, and/or talk absolute nonsense. Needless to say, this won’t convince your audience that you’re calm, cool and collected.
To nail the speed, you need to practise speaking slowly. It might seem obvious, but, when you’re standing on stage with the spotlight on you, it’s harder than you think.
When you find yourself speeding up, force yourself to pause. You might think dead air is bad, but you’re not on the radio. Pauses are an important part of a speech as they make you sound confident, natural, and authentic. More importantly, pauses let you control the pace of the talk and add weight to your words.
A 2010 study in the National Library of Medicine has even shown that speaking without pauses stops people from understanding you properly.
So, how slow should you go?
US President Joe Biden’s victory speech is a great example of a slow and measured speech. He left a noticeable pause after every phrase and sentence. Besides letting him catch his breath, it gave the audience a chance to really think over what he was saying.
Granted, few people are as experienced at public speaking as Joe, and it can be hard to tell if you’re talking too fast. A good way to find out is to record yourself.
Which brings us neatly on to the next tip.
Tip 5. Record yourself
You may be wondering how you can get over a fear of public speaking when you don’t have an audience. After all, you can’t magically summon one up every time you want to practice.
The solution is to record yourself giving the talk and listen back to it. Every smartphone these days has a ‘voice memo’ app. Perform five-minute chunks of your speech each day and then listen back.
Besides giving your vocal cords a workout, this will help you:
- See which sentences feel stilted when read out loud
- Hear how clearly you enunciate your words
- Recognise if you’re talking too fast or too slow
Listening to yourself will probably be uncomfortable, at first. It makes everyone cringe, as this article from The Guardian explains. Basically, it’s due to the fact we’re not used to the mismatch between what we think we sound like and how we ‘really’ sound.
Getting familiar with your voice will help you get your patter down before you go on stage. Practise your talk in a safe environment and get an objective record of how you sound. This will enable you to improve your public speaking and turn your speech into a well-oiled machine.
Tip 6. Talk like a thought leader
Once you’re used to your voice, how do you deliver a speech in a way that feels confident and natural? Talk like a thought leader.
Thought leaders are influential experts who introduce bold new ideas, make waves and get people talking. Their confidence and expertise make them natural public speakers and masters of PR.
The most famous thought leader of the past few decades has to be Steve Jobs. Thanks to his skills, his keynote speeches as the head of Apple became cultural touchstones.
Jobs had lots of tricks up his sleeve, but his most impressive skill was turning a speech into an emotional story. Watch him introduce the iPhone. He doesn’t just say it’s good, he says it’s a technological revolution, striking out at all the other slow, complex, clunky phones on the market.
Jobs knew his products inside out and had a knack of explaining the complex technical aspects in layman’s terms. He inspired confidence in people when he spoke.
Of course, Jobs wasn’t superhuman. He had to practise like the rest of us. Brent Schlender, co-author of a Jobs biography, said of Jobs: ‘I once spent an entire day watching him run through multiple rehearsals of a single presentation, tweaking everything from the color and angle of the spotlights, to […] the order of the keynote presentation slides, to improve his pacing.’
You don’t need to go quite that far, but perfectionism is what sets thought leaders apart from the rest. Strive to impress audiences like Jobs did, and you won’t go far wrong.
Find more about Jobs’ presentation skills. Read: Comms 101: Four Tips from the Master of Presentations.
Tip 7. Focus on your fans
Poet John Lydgate once said, ‘you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’. This is as true of public speaking as anything else.
It’s inevitable that some people won’t like or agree with what you’re saying. If you spot people frowning, crossing their arms or shaking their heads at you, ignore them. Keep your focus on your supporters, those people who are smiling and visibly engaged. If you find the audience members who are positively interacting with you, you’ll be much more confident and relaxed than if you try to convince the naysayers.
So, there you have it. Seven simple tips on how to overcome your public speaking fears, anxieties and self-doubts.