How I got over my fear of public speaking
If you’d told me a few years ago I’d be pitching my idea for an app at a hackathon in front of 100 people, I’d have laughed in your face. Or crawled under a rock. One of the two.
We’ve all been there. That feeling of absolute dread when someone says ‘So we’d like you to present at the session next week’.
In days gone by I would have cringed and immediately come up with a range of excuses as to why I couldn’t do it. I’ve even taken time off to avoid it. And my career has suffered as a result.
But recently, it’s become more and more obvious to me that public speaking is a career differentiator, and that the people who do it well are more successful.
So how have I gone about conquering my fear? In short, baby steps.
In other words, you can actually reprogram your brain. You know all those negative thoughts that start to creep in when you think about getting up on that stage? You can get rid of them.
I started with affirmations every day. Sometimes several times a day. And definitely every time I thought about public speaking.
The trick with this is to shoot for the stars and use positive words only. Don’t choose mediocre words (like ‘competent’) and don’t use negative forms (like ‘I won’t be nervous’). If you choose a negative, your brain will conjure up that image instead of the positive vision you want to create.
My phrases were: ‘I am inspirational, I am confident, I am brave’. As soon as I felt the nerves kicking in, I’d repeat these phrases in my head three times. I did this at least once a day over the course of a few months.
What you’re trying to do is create new connections between brain cells. You’re redirecting your mind away from your limiting belief, and forging a new path for it instead. It works. Try it.
In the past, when I thought about public speaking, my heart would race and I’d feel as if a hand was closing in around my throat. It was claustrophobic.
Adrenaline was closing my throat and restricting my breathing, which was making me feel panicky. And feeling panicky would create more adrenaline. A viscous cycle.
To get to this realisation, I did the following exercise. Sit with your eyes closed and your feet flat on the floor. Imagine you’re getting up on that stage. What do you feel like? Where is it affecting your body? Isolate that spot and remember that feeling.
Now here’s the trick.
Redirect your breathing away from that spot and into your tummy. Breathe through an open mouth. Relax your tummy muscles and try to keep them relaxed on the inhale and exhale (which is more difficult than it sounds). Tummy breathing opens your throat and calms your adrenaline.
Once you’ve mastered it, practice. When you think of getting up on that stage, start tummy breathing. It’ll immediately calm you down so you can use the adrenaline, rather than your adrenaline working against you.
3. Pick a happy colour
This might sound a bit out there, but it works as well.
Again, sit upright with your feet flat on the floor and close your eyes. Imagine standing at the podium and everything just falling into place.
What do you see? People are listening intently. You’re comfortable, relaxed and smiling. Everything is going to plan. Now, what colour comes to mind?
Once you have your happy colour, every time you think about being up there, imagine you’re bathed in that colour from head to toe. Mine was yellow, but yours will be whatever colour makes you happy and relaxed.
4. Start small
You don’t see babies suddenly get up and walk. They roll over, then they crawl, then they walk. We’re no different.
I started off by making myself ask questions at events. Small events to begin with, then bigger ones. Then, if a speaker was looking for a volunteer, I’d put my hand up.
It felt totally unnatural at first, as I’ve always hated being centre of attention, but gradually I got used to it. By practicing my breathing and my happy colour technique, I took my first steps towards getting over my fear.
And this is a weird one. I’ve discovered sitting right at the front helps. Not sure why, but it does.
This is key. I read somewhere you should do an hour’s prep for every 6 minutes you’re speaking. In reality, I think you need to do much more. I finished writing my 4 minute pitch about a week in advance, then I practiced it out loud over and over again.
Saying it out loud is very different from reading it in your head. It not only helps you work out how to present your speech, but it gives you the chance to find the words you’re most likely to stumble over so you can rewrite them. It also helps with your nerves, as you can practice your tummy breathing and your happy colour at the same time.
The next step is to find one person and say it out loud to them. This will seem like a big step, but the results are worth it. You’ll conquer some nerves and get some useful feedback about your delivery at the same time.
And don’t try to memorise it. That’s too much pressure and won’t help your anxiety. Practice your content so you know it inside out, but keep your notes to hand.
5. On the day
How you hold yourself while you speak will make a massive difference to how you feel. Holding a power pose for a few minutes before you’re due to go on will actually make you more confident. Literally make yourself bigger and own that space!
Once you’re up there, this is a great technique – anchor yourself to the floor. Stand straight with you feet shoulder width apart and imagine you have roots like a tree, that are spreading down through your body and tethering you to the earth. It’ll make you feel grounded.
Then put your shoulders back and your chin up. And if you hold the middle finger of the opposite hand when you’re not gesturing, that’ll get rid of that ‘spare hand’ feeling.
Now you’re ready.
So what have I realised from being on this journey for the last 8 months? It’s all about control. By controlling your mind, your breath and your posture, you can overcome that fear and start taking your career to the next level. Good luck!