How to Conquer Your Fear Of Public Speaking

We humans can be pretty funny, can’t we? Any species would have to have a sense of humor to evolve the way we did. Because could you actually guess that our number one fear is public speaking? In fact, surveys show that we fear it more than death. And yet public speaking and proper communication skills might just be the most important thing we will learn on this planet.

We fear the very thing that will bring us success. I hate to say it, but I am one of the 75% of people in this world who would rather eat a fistful of worms than get up on stage.

But I don’t want it to be like that. I don’t want my speaking anxiety to keep me from standing up in front of the classroom to share my research, or from asking a question as an audience member, or from walking into a room and confidently introducing myself.

No fear should ever keep us from sharing our ideas and opinions.

And this is why I am so so excited for the Speak Like A Pro virtual conference. Five days with some of the best speakers and thought leaders out there. I can’t wait to hear all their tips on how to calm nerves, practice like a pro, connect with the audience, and still be authentic and, well, real.

I was so eager I decided to do a little interviewing myself with the Life After College crew.

The Life After College Team on how to Speak Like A Pro

Melissa, tell us about your process for structuring and organizing speeches:

"The first thing I do when structuring my speeches is to create a bullet list of the three or four key takeaway items I want the audience to leave with. Whether it's a shift in mindset, new knowledge points, or a big idea - I start with these points as the basis of the talk/or a loose outline.

From there, I fill in the content with a story or anecdote to ensure that the talk is engaging and relatable, and end with placing the transitions, additional explanations and stage actions."

Melissa Anzman

Davis, what is the most important thing you do to practice for a presentation?

"The first time I was asked to give a speech was in 3rd grade for Black History month. I was assigned the role of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,  a great honor. I researched everything I could and even read his MSN Encarta entry (this was before Wikipedia). Up until the day I was suppose to give my report in front of my class, I had done everything except practice. I thought the words would naturally come out of my mouth; after all Dr. King gave great impromptu speeches and even Ms. Britton, my 3rd grade teacher, did not have a script when she taught us.

In short, when it was my time to speak, I had no lines memorized, I didn’t even have a script; I froze, didn’t say a word, and had to be escorted back to my seat. I received an F on the assignment.

That was 12 years ago and since, I have won multiple state public speaking competitions, been a finalist in multiple national competitions, and delivered multiple key notes. My secret? Making time to practice. Everyone from Tony Robbins to my mentor Susan Cain, who have both built careers public speaking, practice their speeches daily, what excuse do I have not to?"

Davis Nguyen

Rebecca, how do you ensure you are connecting with your audience?

When I'm giving a talk, I make sure to actively read my audience throughout: is anyone nodding along, smiling at my ridiculous jokes, glaring, sleeping, running for the exit? This audience read is only worth as much as I'm willing to act on that read and change course, though - and that's the scary part.

So I've worked to get comfortable with being somewhat spontaneous. When I'm working with slides it's hard or impossible to fully alter my path, of course, but what I say with each slide often varies depending on what's happening in front of me. I find that the best way to lose an audience is to have a speech prepared and to hold to it stubbornly, come dirty looks or confused glances.

I'm also a big believer in the use of self-effacing humor. The expert advice on speaking probably holds something like, "act confident and your audience will feel at ease" but I find that personally, the more uncoordinated and self-conscious I act, the more people are right there with me. That's because, at heart, I am uncoordinated and self-conscious.

I find that it's all about being comfortable with vulnerability - both my own and that of the people listening to me. When I'm willing to good-naturedly point out my faults - without getting anywhere near self-pity, of course - and perhaps run into a podium or chair while I talk, all the better for the likeability factor, and for my audience's willingness to open up to me in return.

But this last point brings up the most important matter of all: being self-effacing and appearing physically clumsy is my shtick. It's what works for me. If someone else tried it, it might be a total disaster, just as it's a total disaster when I attempt to appear perfectly polished and pulled together, which I've tried more often than I care to admit.

It's like a story a colleague recently told me: days before she had a big speech, her partner encouraged her to "be inspiring - like Obama!" My reserved, thoughtful colleague thought the 180-degree turn from her usual approach might be just what she needed to make her audience enthralled. Long story short, my colleague is no Obama, and the more she tried, the worse the talk went. Her partner was actually in the back of the room covering her eyes by the end.

Above all else, audiences sense authenticity. So being who I truly am - and sizing up the audience as I go to make sure my authentic self is connecting - are the ways I keep an audience in their seats...and their minds in the room, too!"

Rebecca Fraser-Thill

Jenny, do you ever get nervous before a speech? How do you deal with those last-minute anxieties?

"I almost always get hit with a huge wave of nerves before delivering a speech, whether I'm in front of 50 people or 500; but the most helpful thing for me to remember is that it is a wave, not permanent state or a reason to panic.

If I take three deep breaths, pace a little bit (where no one can see me), and open and close my fists a few times, I can usually work out the extra adrenaline in my body before going on stage. Even if I still have a pounding heart when I first start, it will often calm itself down after a few minutes.

Public speaking understandably engages our fight-or-flight response. As author Scott Berkun put it in his book Confessions of a Public Speaker:

  • We are an animal standing alone on an open plane
  • With no weapons and nowhere to hide
  • With dozens (if not hundreds of eyeballs staring at us)

Evolutionarily speaking, this is a scenario in which we were surely about to die! So our bodies produce extra adrenaline to help us high-tail it out of there.

The key when public speaking is to give this adrenaline something to do, so that it doesn't express itself in a shaky voice (or if you're like me, a whole shaky leg). From a post I did earlier this year on Michael Bay's CES freak-out, here are 5 Tips for Handling an In-the-Moment Flood of Nerves:

  1. First and foremost, you must breathe. This is critical. Take a few moments just to collect yourself and breathe. Take in a nice big inahle of air. The audience will hardly notice and it will start to reactivate your relaxation response, letting your brain and body know they are safe.
  2. Second, if you’re in a Bay or Blake Situation (hah) try to laugh! Crack a joke. Which brings me to number 3:
  3. BE YOURSELF! Nobody expects you to be perfect, especially when they can clearly see that things are going haywire.
  4. Acknowledge the issue. Bay did a good job of saying, “The type is all off . . . sorry, I’ll just wing it.” Okay, great! Now breathe and ad lib. Take an improv class if you want to get more comfortable with this.
  5. KEEP GOING! This is critical! The show must go on! Don’t make a fight-or-flight response worse with the internal monologue of, “Well now you’re really fucking it up.” Or, “Screw those tech guys — this should not be happening! My reputation is ruined!” Acknowledge the snafu, but KEEP. GOING. An American Psychological Association study even recently found that Getting Excited Helps with Performance Anxiety More Than Trying to Calm Down. The worst thing you can do is start freaking out about freaking out.

People will love you more for keeping strong and (awkwardly) carrying on.

Jenny Blake

Paul, what inspired you to get into the business of public speaking?

"There is no other work that makes me feel more alive than up on stage doing my best to bring an audience to life. Because as a public speaker I feel like I'm part performer, artist, advocate, comedian, entertainer, teacher, and story-teller -- changing my role from one sentence to the next.

Public speaking requires me not only to fully be myself, but to be more than I thought I was capable of. It requires me to be fully present as I strive to present something that might change someone's life from that moment on."

Paul Angone

More About Speak Like a Pro


The Speak Like A Pro conference is going on now through Friday, August 29.

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