How I Conquered My Deadly Fear of Public Speaking

The truth is that most people have some form of fear of public speaking, We’ve all been there: dealing with the knot in our stomach, the sinking feeling of doom, and that the world is going to end when people find out about your deadly fear of speaking in front of a crowd. For those of us that want to become better speakers, we try to find articles on how to improve presentation skills, find resources to get practice like joining a Toastmaster group, or going through paid trainings like the Dale Carnegie programs. Here is my confession: I have tried them ALL. I’ve even seen therapists for my stage freight. My fear was THAT real.

What you’re about to read next is not written by some expert or experienced speaker. It is written by yours truly, who’s had a severe, diagnosed form of public speaking anxiety. After a lot of trial and tribulations, I am proud to say that I can now finally give presentations and speak to a crowd well. However, the road to this blissful destination was no walk in the park. I lived and breathed this debilitating fear for years. First, there were 2 years of business school, where presentation was required for almost every single class. After that, I entered into the workforce in the field of marketing, where I regularly had to report-out business analytics to teams of 5+ people, often involving upper management. I’ve had countless moments where I contemplated faking a car accident or wondering what would happen if I just dashed out of the meeting room door and never came back. “Is it better for people to think I’m weird/crazy/unreliable, or that I’m bad at public speaking?” was a constant question in my head, whenever I was tasked to speak publicly.

Preface: Here’s My Motivation To Become A Better Speaker

For most of my 20’s, the idea of being a poised speaker one day was an eternal impossibility to me. I knew the problem was in me: that fear was in my head, deeply rooted based on traumatizing experiences and negative self-talk. I read and read, researched and researched; I even sought help from therapists about this anxiety. For years, I was trapped in this cocoon of “I’m just destined to be bad at it”, despite my outward effort in trying to get better. Yet, I kept at it. There was something in me that kept pushing myself to be a better speaker. In hindsight, I attribute it to the people that I was surrounded by. They believed in me and they constantly told me that I DO have what it takes, that I do have a way of garnering attention when I DO speak without anxiety kicking in, and that I always had unique and distinct points to share. This mirrored my internal drive of becoming a successful businesswoman, having my own ground to stand on, and the ability to realize my own aspirations and inspire people to do the same. So, I never stopped attempting to better my public speaking skills.

After having said all of that, I want to share with you the things that I’ve done that helped me along this journey. I am not where I want to be yet, but recent experiences have shown me that I can at least be comfortable in speaking in front of a crowd. But there are MORE, oh SO MANY MORE areas that I can improve on. So here it goes:

7 Things That I’ve Done To Curb My Deadly Fear Of Public Speaking:

1) Find out what the root case(s) of your anxiety is (are)

This may sound really abstract at first, but here’s what I mean. Psychologically speaking, our emotional reactions, especially the more extreme ones, often have external triggers. These triggers are usually associated with life events where we may not even be aware of their effects.

Regardless of our natural tendencies as introverts or extroverts, what were your experiences like growing up when it comes to public speaking? Were your parents and close ones not supportive and encouraging of you to express your opinion? Are there people around you that are afraid of public speaking or just expressing their opinion? These are all factors that could contribute to us having fear or anxiety in speaking publically.

Perhaps you’re like me in that English wasn’t your mother tongue or native language. For those of us who learned English as a second language, we may have beliefs in our head that we just don’t’ have as good a command of English.

Or maybe, you actually have a lot of good public speakers in your life as positive influence. They are great examples of what good speakers should be like, but they make you feel like it’s an unreachable goal and that you could ever be like them.

All of these could contribute to your anxiety toward public speaking. If you can’t figure this out on your own and you REALLY want to find out, find an anxiety specialist to talk to. I have seen a few in my late 20’s and I have learned different things from each and every therapist. Oftentimes when our anxiety kicks in, we’re not able to stop it because each thought is so closely associated with the emotion it triggers; seeing a therapist can sometimes help you learn how to slow that thinking process down which is the first step in taking control of your anxiety.

2) Know what is driving you in wanting to become a better public speaker

For me, it’s the fact that that I have this intrinsic belief that I have the potential to be a great speaker; it’s an identity that I feel the urge to realize. On top of that, being a marketing professional, I know the power of persuasion of a great speech. Therefore, all my efforts has been toward aligning my external behavior to this internal belief.

What is your motivation to become a better speaker? Is it a good grade you need in a class? Is it to impress someone? Is it because it feels like everyone else is a good speaker and you’re not? While all of these could be legitimate reasons to fuel you and keep you in your efforts, they’re not lasting motivations. Because they’re not aligned with your internal values and are not based on things that define who you are. Find out what your intrinsic motivations are by asking yourself this question:

o If I don’t master public speaking, I will feel ____, because I wouldn’t be able to ____.

Take some time to think about it if the answers aren’t immediately clear. But you should be able to complete the sentence with clear words to fill in the blank if being a good public speaker is aligned with your intrinsic values and motivations.

3) When you’re not confident, try memorizing your script and practice endlessly.

You will likely hear mixed opinion on this suggestion, but it worked for me. The fact is that if you’re shaking and not able to even speak, it’s better to sound like you’re reading from a script than just freezing in front of the crowd.

Also, practice your speech/presentation till you have nothing left to practice. Practice it so well that when you’re saying one sentence you already know what’s going to follow next. Just face and embrace the fact that when you’re less skilled in public speaking, this is what you have to do to make up for the lack of experience.

4) Pay attention to your body language.

If you haven’t yet, watch Amy Cuddy’s TedTalk on the power of body language. It changed my life, and it could change yours. The science on this method is controversial, but I know for a fact that it worked for me. More importantly, it gave me something to work on when I’m dealing with the jitters. What I used to do 10 minutes before I had to give presentations was to lock myself in an empty conference room or even in the lady’s room, and just spread my arms, stand tall with my chest up, telling myself “You’re going to OWN that audience.”

A more advanced tip along the same line is to watch your body language during your presentation. This also applies to when you’re in a business setting in general. I’ve included a few good ones here:

A. Sit in the front of the room

B. Don’t play with your hair

C. Speak UP when you are speaking

D. Speak TOWARD your audience and not the computer screen or projector screen

Remember that great mentor I talked about a few weeks ago? I learned all of these tips from her.

5) Seek help. Seek professional help.

Go to a Toastmaster meeting. I have gone a few times and the format of my local meeting didn’t work for me so I didn’t necessarily benefit from the Toastmaster group. But thousands of people have. Give it a try… it can’t hurt.

If your company has development funds set aside for employees, take one of those public speaking trainings. They typically last 2 days, and you are required to give presentations based on particular topics. The best (or worst) part is that you are taped and a professional speaker will then review the tape with you to find out ways you can improve for your next speech. I know Dale Carnegie and American Management Association both offer classes like this.

And if you feel like you’ve tried everything and you still find the fear overwhelming (which I did), find a psychologist or psychiatrist to talk to. Not all psycho-therapies are made equal and everyone needs different levels of interference. I am simply making this recommendation because it worked for me, so take it with a grain of salt.

6) Learn how to channel your jitters and re-process it as excitement instead of nervousness

Research has proven it again and again that the the way our body reacts in response to fear and excitement are very similar, if not identical. Learn techniques on how to convince yourself that you are positively excited for the event, as opposed to being scared and wanting to escape. It’s reported a lot in research that when people are told they are “excited” about something, that are much more likely to report higher rate of success than people that are told they are “nervous”.

I personally make little flash cards (very little for ease of storage and carrying around) that helps guide my thinking and keep my thoughts going in the positive direction. Notes on these cards include “You’ve prepared for this for so long. You are ready” or “No one is as much of an expert as you are on this topic. They are here to learn from you.” or “This is your chance to knock them out with your awesomeness and preparedness. You are going to rock the audience!” Yes, they borderline sound hypnotic, but this is the nature of our thought processes: very malleable and so easily influenced by our surrounding. Learn how to take control of it.

7) Lastly, volunteer to speak publicly.

This is the last step for a reason — do this ONLY after you’ve done all of the above, and know what you have in the tool kit for dealing with the queasiness and jitters. Then, look for those opportunities where you’d be able to put all the skills you’ve acquired to use.

I recently started volunteering to speaking engagement and it has been incredibly rewarding. 2 months ago at Taiwanese American Professionals, I was part of a panel of 8 and spoke about my heritage, cultural shift as an immigrant, and my views toward the future as an immigrant young professionalt. Just this past weekend, I was invited to speak at PoshFest as a panel of 2 for a workshop on sales and marketing tactics for how to improve your Poshmark closet.

In both events I was able to share my personal stories, my perspectives on various issues, and provide information to educate, inspire and empower the audience. Both times I had people that came to me after the event to tell me that they learned something new from me and that I have inspired them. Yes, it’s an ego booster and huge compliments. But more importantly, it made me realize that what I have to say is valuable and worthwhile, that my life experiences haven’t been for nothing. All the ups and downs I’ve gone through have put in in the position I’m in today and someone else benefits from my experience as a result of my speaking engagement. It’s so, so, so empowering.