How To Conquer Public Speaking

A guide for turning fear into excitement and giving a dynamic talk

Trevor Mahoney
Nov 7 · 11 min read
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

For the majority of my life, I believed public speaking would be my greatest fear.

The idea of standing in front of even 10 people and putting myself out there terrified me in younger years. The fact that everyone was reporting on the same topic didn’t matter to me. My knees shook picturing my voice talking out to the room regardless.

When I made the mental decision to overcome my fear, I began researching top public speakers from history to see what I could learn from their presentations. I studied Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Steve Jobs like you would study notes before a test. They became my public speaking idols.

I tested every method for overcoming the fear of public speaking that I could find. Finally, I’m happy to say that I have gotten to the point where speaking in front of an audience doesn’t change my pulse rate at all.

My crowning achievement was performing an interview in front of an audience of 100+ live viewers — and getting the job.

Here’s the thing: my results aren’t extraordinary. They’re the product of months of research and dedication put into overcoming one fear. You can do this, too.

Below, I’m going to outline the methods of public speaking that specifically enabled me to overcome my fear. Using these, you can awaken the powerful speaker inside you.


Two Truths

Before we dive into the breakdown, there are two very important facts you should know.

You certainly feel alone when you’re up on that stage or in front of that class. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, affects about 4 out of 10 Americans and is often ranked on an annual basis in the top 10 fears globally. It’s important to recognize that your fear is normal and a large number of people understand what you’re feeling.

While the fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears, it is also one of the easiest to overcome with the right tools. A study of 50 participants was conducted which found that 75% claimed they had a fear of public speaking. The participates were then asked:

Do you think that your fear of public speaking can be overcome by using some strategies and seeking some professional help?

95% of the participants stated that they believed they could overcome their fear with the help above. It’s possible to defeat your fear, but you, too, have to make the mental choice to overcome it.


Adjust Your Breathing

The fear associated with public speaking is part of a larger process. According to the Harvard Business Review, we get anxious when speaking in public for reasons originating prehistory. Back then, pairs of eyes watching you signaled danger. The amygdala — which controls fear in the brain — kicks in by triggering fight-or-flight.

This natural reaction remains with us today. An audience is perceived as a threat on a subconscious level. This is the reason public speaking is such a common fear. The good news is that we are in control of our fight-or-flight instinct. One proven way to quell it is by using meditative breathing techniques.

By reducing your heart rate through breathing techniques, you can relieve your mind of survival concerns, thus allowing you to have a clear head for your presentation.

Considered to be one of the easiest breathing methods to learn, make sure you take your time with this. It is of the utmost importance that you activate your diaphragm. Most people breathe with their chests, resulting in shallow breaths, so be sure to follow the instructions below:

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet touching the floor and your legs at a 90-degree angle; keep your upper body completely relaxed.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and, using your other hand, trace along the bottom of your ribs until you find the middle point. Place that hand below there — this is where your diaphragm is.
  3. Now, slowly breathe in through your nose and focus on only letting your stomach expand. The hand over your stomach should move outwards while the hand on your chest should stay still.
  4. Allow your stomach to relax and fall inwards as you slowly breathe out through pursed lips; almost as if you’re whistling.
  5. Repeat three times.

If you begin to feel dizzy at any time, stop the exercise and return your breathing to normal. As your body is not used to this form of breathing, it can take some practice to perfect.

This form of breathing technique is based on older yoga forms designed to control breathing. The key difference with this advanced technique is that you hold your breath — allowing your organs to absorb more oxygen. Additionally, by forcing the mind to count, it has the added benefit of stopping you from thinking about whatever is worrying you. It’s performed as follows:

  1. Once again, sit upright with a relaxed upper body and legs at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Part your lips and exhale all the air from your body, making a ‘whooshing’ sound as you do so.
  3. Close your lips and inhale through your nose; count to four in your head.
  4. Hold your breath for seven seconds.
  5. Exhale completely for eight seconds, making the ‘whooshing’ sound once again.

The ‘whooshing’ may sound funny, but it is intended to ensure you are exhaling hard enough to remove all air properly. As with the technique before, if you get lightheaded, stop the exercise.

This is a personalized technique and my go-to choice for reducing my anxiety surrounding public speaking. I was introduced to this at a young age while training in MMA and adapted the technique to my daily life. Quite simply:

  1. Sitting or standing, breathe in deeply through your nose for five seconds, to the point of full lung expansion.
  2. Slowly exhale for five seconds, while making the ‘whooshing’ sound discussed earlier.

Truthfully, these exercises may feel awkward to perform in public and that’s why I choose this last technique. It is the most inconspicuous to perform before speaking publicly.

You have the freedom to choose whichever form works best for you. Just make sure that your method brings your heart rate back under control.


Fix Your Body Language

Body language has a fascinating impact on the human brain. We register micro-expressions that tell us when a person is angry or thrilled with us.

I found adjusting how I stand and changing my body movements during a presentation are two of the most important factors in achieving success.

Since we register body language at a subconscious level, how you act in front of an audience sets the tone. If you appear standoffish, then audience members will appear tense in return.

My time studying Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Steve Jobs revealed something crucial. All three held something in common. Using exaggerated body movements, they built up the energy in the crowd, which further fueled their energy. It was a sort of positive feedback loop.

Part of how we perceive ourselves comes from our body language which, most of the time, we don’t even consciously control. As social psychology Amy Cuddy discusses in her Ted Talk about the power of body language:

We smile when we feel happy but when we’re forced to smile by holding a pen in our teeth, it also makes us feel happy.

Our nonverbal actions have the power to influence our minds. Training your body to assume powerful speaking positions will reduce your nervousness.

In other words, it is possible to fool your body into being more comfortable and relaxed.

My problem with public speaking was the fact that so many people were staring at my face, so I began to rely on gestures to distract my mind. Besides the fact that they take the attention away from your face, they also show confidence as you essentially say, “this space is mine.”

A strategy for movements I have always relied on is the N.O.D.S. method. The following tips are meant to keep your body comfortable and moving during a presentation in a way that captures an audience.

Neutral: Always start speaking from a neutral position. Keep your hands down by your sides or interlaced behind your back.

Open: Throughout your presentation, the goal is to keep your body open. On a subconscious level, this calms you by assuring your mind that there is no threat to your safety. Additionally, audiences find open speakers to be far more alluring.

Defined: When you make gestures, you must do so sparingly — otherwise, you risk appearing nervous. I have found a crisp raising the arm with one finger up to enunciate a point to be the best all-around movement.

Strong: Making your movements appear crisp and strong will increase the level of confidence you portray. Don’t softly bring up a limp arm, but rather explode with passion.

I understand how awkward it may feel at first to use gestures, but keep in mind that it only seems that way to you. Your movements, believe it or not, look perfectly normal to an audience. I learned this when one of my teachers wrote the comment: great use of gesturing to further your points on one of my grading rubrics.

In my experience, focusing on one person during a presentation is creepy. Yet, scanning the room and never focusing doesn’t display any confidence. I have found a happy medium that seems to send the correct message to listeners.

  • Focus on a friend to start, or at least someone you are familiar with who is sitting a little behind the middle of the room.
  • Maintain eye contact while talking and gesturing for around 3–5 seconds.
  • Scan and make eye contact with people horizontal to them.

By staring out into the room, people can be fooled into thinking you are looking at them. By scanning, you can increase the range of people who believe you are making eye-contact. This is important because it is a confidence display that gives power to your words.

When not gesturing or pacing, set up in a power pose to improve your public speaking skills.

During the Ted Talk discussed earlier, Cuddy also mentioned that assuming a power pose increases testosterone, a dominance hormone, and decreases cortisol, a stress hormone.

For public speakers, two main power poses produce testosterone:

The Wonder Women/Superman Stance

  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart and stand up at your full height.
  • Place your hands directly above your hip bones with your four fingers in front and your thumbs behind.

The Take-It-Or-Leave-It Stance

  • Assume the same position with your feet being shoulder-width apart as before.
  • Place your hands down firmly on a desk or table in front of you when speaking.

To be honest, both of these feel awkward to do at first. I usually default to the Wonder Women/Superman pose, as it’s less uncomfortable for me.

As for simply getting over the awkwardness, it helps me to remember that while it may not look impressive from where I’m standing, the pose invokes respect and attention from the audience and myself on a subconscious level.

I would suggest standing in front of a mirror and practicing the pose so you can get a healthy laugh at yourself. This also removes some awkward feelings before you get in front of people.


Change Your Material

There is nothing more difficult than trying to do a presentation on a topic you could care less about. Believe me, I understand the dread that comes with talking about a topic that’s drier than the Sahara Desert.

Though I noticed that when I started caring about the topic, I felt myself getting more and more into it. In fact, time seemed to rush by rather than drag on.

A great way to stand out from a crowd of speakers is to add a personal touch to your speech. For a moment, imagine you hear the prompt: discuss how failure has affected your life.

Which of the following intros catches your attention more as a listener:

Failure has taught me valuable lessons throughout the years such as perseverance, dedication, and drive.

vs.

I learned about failure when I got my baseball team knocked out of the playoffs. I was too scared to swing at a fastball; my father was the umpire who called strike three.

True story, by the way.

Relating prompts to yourself is an overlooked way of reducing nervousness. Identify how a topic resonates with you and build a true story from your life around it. You will be speaking from your history rather than memory, which will be far easier.

In an interview with speech pathologist Marjorie L. North, she advises against using any form of a script:

It allows the language you use to be more natural, it allows your voice to be much more natural, and eye contact is better.

North mentions that the lack of a physical script shows confidence as a speaker. This sends good, and important, messages to the audience. I will admit this was one of my hardest challenges to complete when I was learning to overcome my fear.

The other tips had seemed daunting enough, but not having any sort of script? It seemed impossible.

What helped me to do this was by drafting five talking points. I treat these talking points like a roadmap—it doesn’t matter how I get there, just as long as I do. If you forget where you were going with a point, remember your next talking point and ramble your way there.

A key thing that helped me get this ‘no script’ method down was remembering that an audience has no idea what I was going to say.

Combining this with stories from your life stops you from becoming lost for words during a presentation.

I have had more than a few presentations where I abruptly stopped talking and looked like a deer in the headlights. Fortunately, I always have a story about myself to relate to a prompt, and I can recover without anyone knowing I actually forgot my point.

It can get awkward talking to a room full of silent people no matter how good you are at public speaking. That’s why a few years ago I always worked questions into my presentations.

This is an important caveat, however: don’t create yes or no questions.

If you’re discussing the effects of nuclear waste on the environment, don’t ask the group: do you think nuclear waste is bad?

State something deeper, such as: with the rising prevalence of renewable energy, can anyone give me their thoughts on whether nuclear waste will be left untouched or if clean up efforts will be made and why?

The reasoning for this is two-fold. Supervisors and teachers are easily impressed by the presenter who asks questions. It shows adequate preparation and thoughtful insight into a matter.

The real reason is far more selfish. Asking a question this deep and thoughtful gives you time to regroup, breathe, and organize what thoughts you will use next. This has saved me in far too many presentations than I would care to admit.


It Worked for Me

Public speaking is a difficult beast, but with the right tools, anyone can conquer it. The techniques above address all the important aspects of public speaking.

Controlling your breathing, adjusting your body language, and adapting your material to your comfort will all help you to become the public speaker you have the potential of being.

In all honesty, mastering public speaking has had the effect of making me a far more extroverted person, which is something I always aspired to be when I was younger. I constantly feel ready for any social scenario and even volunteer to present group findings when I have the opportunity in lectures.

It’s hard to believe how much I’ve changed, but it’s important to know that if you take these tips to heart and put a large amount of time and energy in, you too can see amazing results in your public speaking abilities.

After all, I went from shaking knees and a quivering voice to performing a spinning hook kick in a job interview — but that’s a story for another time.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Trevor Mahoney

Written by

Studying Finance and Management Information Systems • Currently Experiencing New Zealand • California Born

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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