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How to Manage Your Fear of Public Speaking

You’re nervous and anxious about public speaking. Now what?

Sarah Milstein
Jan 24 · 10 min read
Me, standing in one place, much calmer than I’d been ten minutes before walking on stage. Credit James Duncan Davidson.

Public speaking often has personal and professional benefits, and it’s required in many jobs. What do you do if the very thought of it sparks dread? The bad news here is that the fear is not just in your head; it’s a real physical experience. The good news is that you can learn to tackle it, and the steps to doing so are not hard to follow.

There are a number of theories about why people get nervous before speaking in front of others. One that makes a lot of sense hypothesizes that standing apart from a group of people and being watched by them (or the idea of doing that) triggers an instinctive sense of potential threat. You’ve probably heard this referred to as the fight-or-flight response, in which adrenaline floods your body. The physical results are distinctly unpleasant:

  • Your digestive system slows down, so your mouth gets dry, you get butterflies in your stomach, and hunger evaporates.
  • Your breathing and your heart rate speed up, and your breathing gets more shallow.
  • In extreme cases, you may lose hearing or get tunnel vision.
  • The queasiness generally comes in 30-second waves—and you have to live through this unpleasant feeling.

You may not be aware of these specific physical responses, but when you get up in front of an audience, you can tell you’re unhappy. Moreover, you may find yourself deeply concerned about being judged for your ideas or your delivery.

The good news is that you can take 12 simple steps to make the adrenaline effects of public speaking less severe and to combat your own internal monologue about how people will receive your talk. In 10 years of hosting conferences, I coached hundreds of speakers. I also tested these ideas on myself in nearly 100 public talks.

These tips for handling stage fright and other physical aspects of public speaking are effective. There are 12 tips total, organized into those that can be used before your talk, those that can be used right before your talk, and those that can be used during your talk.

Things to Do Before Your Talk

1. Know that your job is to make the audience members awesome, not to make yourself look awesome.

Lots of speakers worry about appearing less smart or less dazzling than they think the audience expects. Popular speaker Kathy Sierra (who deals with stage fright every time she talks) gives this tip:

You will seem incredible to the audience if your talk gives them a new super-power or makes them better at what they do. Focus your energy on them, not on making yourself seem awesome. If you can lose yourself in that part of the experience, stage fright fades quickly.

Sierra, author of the terrific book Badass: Making Users Awesome, suggests thinking of your audience members as your users. They’re there to learn something or feel something that you guide them to. They aren’t there to judge you.

How do you put this insight into practice? Pick a topic and an angle in which your experience or expertise can truly help others. Then frame your talk in terms of lessons they can take away. Putting your focus on substance that serves them, rather than on style, will help you and them.

(Sierra and I talked about this tip, and many others I discuss here, in a YouTube session a couple of years ago. There are no visuals, so it’s more like a podcast you can listen to anywhere.)

2. The single most important thing you can do to serve your audience and beat your own nervousness is practice. A lot. Then do it some more.

By “practice,” I mean giving your whole talk:

  • Out loud
  • Standing up
  • In the tone of voice you’d use in front of people
  • With a timer

Counterintuitively, a ton of practice makes you seem spontaneous. Little or no practice makes you seem stilted. During practice, you’ll iron out the kinks of your talk and get a feel for its phrasing, which will create muscle memory you can fall back on during the real event, when adrenaline tries to override your brain.

I always, always find that practicing out loud at home is awkward at first, but then it gets immediately easier. Do it for the dog, and then for a friend, coworker, or partner/spouse (in person is great, but via video call is totally fine). Working up to bigger and more relevant groups not only helps you work out nerves but is also a great way to get feedback and gain confidence that your talk is resonating with people.

Aim for 10 full run-throughs of your talk — and maybe more if you’re giving a big keynote or the type of talk that requires you to memorize it. If your pets can give your talk, you’ve probably practiced enough.

3. Go see the room where you’ll be speaking.

Knowing what the room feels like and how it’s laid out gives you less to process and think about when you show up. Being able to picture yourself onstage helps with your final out-loud practices too.

Do a rehearsal with a mic and the slide setup if you can. Then, for the actual presentation, you won’t be surprised to hear yourself amplified or be baffled in front of everyone by the system for advancing slides. Plus, again, you’ll have some muscle memory to rely on. Main presenters at most conferences get a chance to rehearse. People in breakout rooms don’t always get this opportunity, but you can often go look at a room ahead of your talk.

At one of the conferences I ran, one of our keynoters was a former TED producer. Of all the speakers I’ve ever hosted, she was the most single-minded about not only seeing the room she’d be in, but also doing a full-length, mic’d rehearsal to a near-empty room. After years of watching speakers try different things to prep, she knew exactly how important this stage could be.

Things to Do Right Before Your Talk

4. Rate your nervousness.

When you’re in the middle of one of those 30-second waves of adrenaline I mentioned above, rate your nervousness on a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 would be that you’re aware of your nerves but they’re no big deal; a 10 is “I might die if I go out onstage.”

Just the act of observing where you are on that scale and externalizing your fear will help you ride the adrenaline wave. When you check back in a couple minutes later and rate yourself, you’ll find that you will almost always be at a lower place on the scale.

This one sounds weird and unlikely to help, but I have found it’s actually one of the most effective things I do. And lots of speakers have told me that trying it helped them a surprising amount. Do it as needed in the hours or minutes before your talk.

5. Breathe.

Breathing is the only autonomic bodily system you can control — and doing it intentionally can have calming effects on everything else. So about five minutes before you go onstage, or between those adrenaline waves, focus on slowing down your breathing for about a minute. You’ll find that it helps your whole body. Try it again a minute later, or as needed.

6. Do the Wonder Woman power pose.

Several years ago, Amy Cuddy gave a TED Talk about the Wonder Woman power pose, and it’s become one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time. The theory is this: Stand with feet planted at shoulder width, hands on hips, shoulders back, and head straight ahead for about two minutes. You’ll get the benefits of higher testosterone and lower cortisol just from standing in a different way.

In the years since her talk, controversy has arisen about whether this actually works. But that doesn’t matter at all if it works for you — and the placebo effect is real. So try it with an open mind. Lots of people find it’s very effective. I’ve seen many a nervous speaker run off to the bathroom to give it a whirl before his or her talk and come back smiling a little more assuredly.

7. Eat and drink—a little—beforehand.

Adrenaline suppresses your appetite. But do eat a little bit, or you may get jittery from hunger. When I first started hosting conferences, the morning adrenaline would persuade me not to eat. That would seem fine — smart, even — until early afternoon, when I’d suddenly feel like crying for no reason, even when the event was going swimmingly. It took me a few turns to realize that adrenaline would override my hunger but didn’t actually compensate for food. So I’d hit a huge dip midday from not having eaten, and that was avoidable. Nibbling rice cakes or eating some yogurt, even when I didn’t feel hungry, solved the problem.

It’s also important to beware caffeine: it will feed your adrenaline response, and it will make you have to pee. Definitely don’t drink more coffee, tea, or soda than you normally would. You might even cut back, since adrenaline will keep you plenty alert.

Because adrenaline will create dry mouth, you’ll be tempted to drink a lot. Sipping water is great since you don’t want to get dehydrated. But don’t drink so much water that you’re dying to pee the whole time you’re onstage. (By the way, it’s great to have water onstage with you for dealing with dry mouth up there too.)

During Your Talk

8. Don’t mention that you’re nervous.

Speakers are often certain that the audience knows they’re nervous. So they say something to acknowledge what everyone can plainly see. Except that literally nobody knows how you’re feeling if you don’t mention it. Moreover, audience members are there to learn something from you (selfishly), and they’re quietly rooting for you (generously). They want you to do well, because that will serve them, and so their cognitive biases cause them to see you as confident.

They can’t feel or see the butterflies in your stomach or your dry mouth. And they admire that you’re onstage. Meet them where they are by leaving out your internal narrative about your nerves.

9. Speak at a normal pace.

Adrenaline will speed you up, and speaking too quickly not only makes it hard for the audience to follow you but can throw you off your game. Making matters worse, as a speaker, you exist on a different time continuum than your audience: what will feel to you like a slow pace with excruciatingly long pauses will feel completely normal to everybody else. So you have to plan for that. Indeed, for conferences where I’ve collected feedback about individual presenters, one of the most common complaints is that speakers were hard to follow when they spit out words too quickly.

Of course, it’s helpful just knowing that normal speed will feel slow to you, because then you can aim for that. In addition, in transition moments in your talk, take pauses to emphasize a point and catch your breath or take a sip of water. You can even build pauses into your deck with occasional visual slides that you don’t intend to speak about. When you practice, you’ll get a feel for where you need to slow down or pause.

Finally, if you’ve practiced with a timer, you should have a sense of where you should be, say, three slides in or after five minutes. If you’re running ahead of schedule, you know it’s time to sloooow down.

10. Plant yourself in one place on the stage.

There’s a very big myth among speakers that moving around the stage makes you seem more energetic and helps people connect with you. It’s a complete lie. If you’re a person who naturally has a lot of physicality, and you can really get behind your movements, flying all over the place and punctuating your talk with incredible physical gestures, great. If that’s not you, and if you are speaking for one of the first times, the absolute best thing you can do is find a spot, stand in it very firmly, and stay there the whole time.

People will see you as grounded and confident if you are standing on both feet very solidly.

You can stand somewhere in the middle of the stage, and there’s also no shame at all in staying behind the podium and standing there very solidly. You can move to the side of the podium and just have it be your friend right next to you (but don’t lean on it, as that’ll look too casual).

What you want to focus on — and this will take a little bit of practice — is standing so that you’re very grounded and aren’t jiggling or shuffling around. It’s great to use lots of hand gestures, but you want your feet to be very planted. Practice. Be surprised at how hard it is at first.

11. Make eye contact with the audience. Sort of.

In many conference rooms, you’ll have what’s called a confidence monitor — a smallish screen on the floor in front of you that lets you see your slides as you speak. It’s very tempting to just look at your slides the whole time, which to the audience will look like you’re staring at the floor.

That matters, because people like it when you make eye contact with them; they feel more engaged. But eye contact can make you feel very threatened (part of the fight-or-flight response comes from a lot of eye contact with a lot of other people). You don’t want to trigger yourself into a bad place by making a ton of eye contact, and it will feel to you like you’re holding people’s gaze for a really long time if you’re looking at them for, like, half a second.

You can cheat your way through this. Think about the room in front of you as being in four quadrants — two in front and two in back, left and right. All you have to do is look at each quadrant one at a time and change quadrants approximately every sentence you speak. You don’t have to actually make eye contact with anybody in the quadrant, but everyone will think you have. This works even in a room where the audience is in the dark and you’re under lights so that you can’t see them.

12. At the very end, signal your talk is over by saying thank you.

Go out strong and avoid the awkward, “Uh, so that’s it…” by saying a definitive “Thank you” to let people know they can leave or ask questions or expect the next speaker — whatever is appropriate for your situation.

After your talk, especially if it was short, you might feel the effects of adrenaline draining away and find that you’re surprisingly tired. Managing nerves is hard work! But hopefully, you’ll also get a rush from having delivered a talk that you not only survived but also used to help other people. That’s a physical feeling that’s hard to get any other way — and it’s a great one.

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.

Sarah Milstein

Written by

Force multiplier. Currently @ Mailchimp Eng. Formerly 18F, Indie.vc, Lean Startup, O’Reilly Media. www.sarahmilstein.com

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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