5 Ways to Reduce the Fear of Public Speaking

Your heart is racing. Your breathing is short. Your hands are shaking. If you could sink through the floor, you would. As much as you wanted to leave it at the door, your fear of public speaking has accompanied you right to the front of the room.

Welcome to one of the fundamental challenges of public speaking. When harnessed correctly, this fear can be a powerful motivator. If left unchecked, this fear can trigger lingering anxiety – the kind that derails presentations.

Stressed male speaker or presenter worried before making presentation for colleagues in meeting room

Let’s not let the latter happen.

You might be thinking, “Great, let’s eliminate this obstacle and get on to the business of a successful and effective presentation.” That’s some sound thinking, except for the part about elimination. Anxiety is an entirely normal, reflexive, and useful response when we face a difficult or dangerous situation. It’s what makes us highly alert and reactive to threats – quick on our feet, as they say. Some anxiety can be useful. It is a matter of degree and duration. A more productive goal is to work on reducing and managing that anxiety.

We’ll soon move on to the five ways to reduce and manage your fear of public speaking, but first we do a quick dive into fear itself. Everyone develops, experiences, and manifests fear differently. To offer remedies without proper diagnoses can lead to a negative cycle of frustration followed by more anxiety. Again, let’s not let that happen.

Fear of public speaking: The Mechanics

Find the roots of your fear

Is your fear being driven by a good ol’ case of the nerves or is it something deeper? Here are some of the more common causes that we hear from clients during their public speaking training:

  • A previous presentation that you consider a disaster
  • A boss or coach offered you well-intentioned, but, ultimately counterproductive feedback that buried your natural self and most engaging qualities
  • You’re uncomfortable with or embarrassed by something related to your physical appearance or manner of speaking
  • A self-imposed expectation of perfection
  • You are aware of the gaps in your knowledge and are terrified the audience will see through you
  • A tendency to become stressed or anxious

Hand holding sign Old Way or New Way sign

Reappraise your fear

Think of that coach who lays it on heavy in her pre-game pep talk. When her athletes leave the locker room, they do so with a mix of apprehension and excitement – a potent combination that is available to public speakers. In a recent paper, Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School addresses this dynamic: “Individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better.” She suggests motivational pep talks, or simple reminders to boost the concept of opportunity rather than dread.

Think of this: Speakers who used the reappraisal strategy performed better than the ones who simply tried to convince themselves to “calm down.” In that context, attempting to deny or dismiss anxiety appears to be a poor substitute for acknowledging and redefining it.

Contextualize your fear

Imagine a suitcase filled with those fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities that keep you up at night. Because public speaking can leave you feeling vulnerable, you often carry that suitcase right into your presentation.

How do you unpack all that? Put your presentation into a broader context. This is but one moment of one day before one audience that you hope to sway with your message. That’s it. If it sounds like we’re saying your presentation doesn’t matter, we’re not. Rather, it’s the opposite. When you free yourself from worrying about how your talk will be seen in light of the annals of public speaking history, you just might loosen up and perform better.

It also helps to have a plan. So, without further delay, here are five ways to reduce your fear of public speaking.

Fear of Public Speaking: The Remedies

1. Fear not the past

Fear of public speakingIt’s important to learn from past mistakes. Athletes do it all the time. They power through the miscalculations, injuries, or mistakes that cost them the win by recognizing that these are the lessons that make them better. Perhaps, one of your previous presentations went awry and every subsequent talk has brought up that feeling of defeat. Well, it’s time you started learning from your past missteps, rather than reliving them every time.

Instead of allowing that negative self-talk to become the predominant dialogue in your head, employ a process called cognitive restructuring. It’s a fancy name for the process of uprooting unhelpful, anxiety-producing thoughts and planting healthy and productive ones in their place.

Here are some examples:

  • Unhelpful thought: “My last talk was a lesson in failure.”
  • Healthy rebuttal: “My last talk showed me where I needed to improve and how I could better have handled the more stressful moments. It made me the better speaker I am today.”
  • Unhelpful thought: “I know I’m going to forget something important.”
  • Healthy rebuttal: “I have effectively prepared, practiced, and planned, which gives me the confidence to know I will be successful in conveying my most important points.”
  • Unhelpful thought: “I will not only sound ridiculous, but I will look ridiculous, too. What makes me think I know what I am doing?”
  • Healthy rebuttal: “I will arrive early to give myself time to make sure I look and feel good. Given my background and expertise, I have the skills and talents to deliver this talk.”

2. Fear not imperfections

Let’s get this out of the way: Practice does not make perfect; practice makes progress. Most of our clients tell us that the single best way for them to reduce their fear of public speaking is to get familiar with their material and practice in advance.

By practicing, you:

Gain a better grasp of your material.

Prepare yourself for possible snags, snafus, and other rough spots, which can be a source of pre-presentation jitters.

Can record and analyze your performance before the big day. However, remember to be kind. This is an opportunity to create a better you, not a chance to pick yourself apart.

Are able to approximate the experience in several ways – ask a small group of co-workers, friends, or family to serve as a practice audience. Once you conclude, ask for questions and feedback.

Here’s one more thing: No one is judging you on a scale of perfection. It’s okay to stumble over a phrase, let slip an occasional “um,” or omit a word or two. Focus on the big things, such as delivering quality content with authenticity and passion. You ultimately want to make a connection with your audiences, who, by and large, want you to succeed.

Sculpture of Buddha on green background.

3. Fear not your racing heart

Do you remember that being a bit anxious is absolutely normal? Good. But, we also know that no one wants to keep that heightened level of angst throughout the speech. One of the more effective techniques in situations fraught with stress – or to counter a propensity to worry or be fearful – is to do something you do every day largely without thinking about it. That is to breathe.

The kind of breathing we are talking about requires steady attention to inhalation and exhalation. It’s the pre-performance relaxation an athlete might employ, or the deep breathing utilized by yogis during their practice. It helps you to calm down and be present.

There’s a science to all this: The average adult’s respiratory rate is between 12-18 breaths per minute, but the ideal rate is closer to five, say psychiatrists Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg in their book The Healing Power of the Breath. They recommend a technique called “Coherent Breathing,” which uses equal-length inhales and exhales. One variation of the exercise is as follows:

  1. Sit upright in a chair and release the tension in your muscles.
  2. Breathe in through your nose gently and inhale slowly for six seconds. Your belly should expand as you inhale. You can place your hand on your belly to make sure your hand moves outward with your breath.
  3. Breathe out through your nose gently and exhale slowly for six seconds until you empty your belly of air.
  4. Continue to use this pattern for 10-15 minutes.
  5. If the exercise feels difficult at first, begin with a count of two seconds for inhaling and exhaling, then build up to three, then four, then five.

This is but one version of a deep breathing exercise. An online search for deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing shows there are many different exercises. Pick the one that works for you. Then, practice regularly to gain familiarity. On the day you are to present, work through the exercises several times, including immediately before your presentation. The people seated around you won’t notice your quiet breathing exercise as you’re about to approach center stage — but your body will.

Close up legs of businesswoman running up stairs

4. Fear not those nerves

Just as deep breathing serves as a built-in stress regulator, relaxing those muscles can help calm the jitters. Progressive muscle relaxation is an intense and deep process that combines breathing with flexing and releasing your muscles. Here is how it’s done:

  1. Sit straight up or lie down and rest your hands on your lap or at your sides. Start to breathe deeply, gently inhaling and exhaling through your nose. Release the tension in your muscles.
  2. Flex your forehead for five seconds as you slowly inhale.
  3. Keep it flexed and hold your breath for a few seconds.
  4. As you begin to unflex it, exhale slowly through your mouth or nose.
  5. Pause for 10 seconds as you focus on how relaxed your forehead feels. Keep releasing the tension in your forehead and continue your deep breathing.
  6. Flex each subsequent muscle, one at a time, using steps 2-5. Flex your eyes by clenching them closed; then your mouth (smile widely and tense your cheeks); your neck; shoulders (lift them up toward your neck); upper back; chest; arms, wrists, and hands (one at a time) and just keep going down the line, making sure you isolate each muscle (that means each and every toe).
  7. Finish with deep breaths or repeat the exercise.

There are many online resources that lead you through the exercise as well, including several that are free audio and video narrations.

Physical exercise

In addition to the breathing, physical movement can create a rather nifty result – it not only calms those nerves, but also leaves you energized for your presentation.

There are many studies that point to the power of exercise to reduce anxiety, as well as increase self-esteem, which is a winning combination for any presentation. There are the exercises you can do long before you make your way to the podium and those just prior to presentation (or during breaks if the schedule allows). Some speakers have been known to go on a run or undergo a strenuous workout hours before their presentation to “burn off the nerves.” That’s not to imply that you have churn through the miles at a blistering pace or bench press two times your body weight. As the Harvard Medical School recently pointed out, nearly any type of exercise will do.

A single workout will not be the panacea for everything, but the single effort of exertion will have a similar effect on a singular case of the nerves – the kind that come on right before you are supposed to talk to a room full of people.

So, get moving, whether that’s walking, running, or climbing stairs. The timing is up to you.

Woman having panic disorder in city, surrounded by people in the street.

5. Fear not the audience

When you approach your presentation from a self-focused perspective, your fears about embarrassing yourself by becoming flustered, forgetful, or frantic take on an over-sized influence. It’s time to flip the formula and redirect your attention toward the audience instead.

As American author and speaker Nancy Duarte notes in her book “HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, “When audiences can see that you’ve prepared – that you care about their needs and value their time – they’ll want to connect with you and support you.”

If you have a fear of public speaking, however, making that connection could be difficult. One study by McGill University researchers, for instance, found that stress can be a barrier to forming empathy between strangers. Interestingly, they also found that when those strangers engaged in a shared activity, their empathy toward one another increased. To break down the barrier of that stress, think of the audience as people you already know. If that proves difficult, here’s a quick mental exercise to employ that will help to build that connection:

Look into the audience, select someone at random, and make up a story about them. For example, you might think, “I bet that woman is running through all the to-dos on her list, hoping to find the time to get them all done. I want to make sure that the hour she spends with me is one that will matter. How can I re-energize her to look at the possibilities for change I am proposing? And, how can I help her to leave with the confidence that she has the knowledge and tools to put those changes into effect?”

When you’re busy thinking about how you can improve somebody else’s life, there’s less time to be consumed with your own.

Fear of Public Speaking: Final Thoughts

We leave you with a couple of last thoughts.

One size does not fit all. Pick the technique that works best for you and then get to the task of delivering a successful and effective presentation.

Finally, it’s important to remember that anxiety, for most speakers, is a short-term challenge. A study conducted by Texas Christian University faculty members Amber N. Finn, Chris Sawyer, and Ralph Behnke found that speaking-related anxiety peaks for most speakers immediately before their speech begins and recedes after the first minute or so of talking. So, embrace your fear for the motivator it is, find those connections, settle in to your topic, and get ready to experience success.