Read on for 5 sure-fire strategies to help overcome your fear of public speaking.
We’ve written before about how to become a better negotiator, and how to master the art of persuasion, but knowing the right tactics is only half of the battle.
All of those critical business skills have one thing in common: they involve speaking in public.
If you’re anything like me, you so much as think about speaking in front of a group and your well-reasoned arguments dissolve instantly. Your palms sweat, your mind goes blank and your stomach feels like it’s on an aeroplane falling out of the sky.
Most people genuinely fear public speaking more than death… but not overcoming that fear will hold you back in your career.
You’re certainly not alone. In fact, surveys have repeatedly shown that most people fear public speaking more than death.
If you don’t overcome that fear, though, it will hold you back in your career.
It might be easy enough to avoid speaking at a conference or the like, but what about the smaller, everyday events? The management meeting? A team presentation?
If you’re scared of speaking in public, you often end up sitting quietly instead of making your voice heard. Burning up inside, but covering it with a painted-on smile. Spending hours watching a mental play-by-play of what you wish you’d said.
You can’t avoid it, so it’s time to start helping yourself overcome the fear of public speaking!
If you do speak up, all you can hear is your own voice and your pounding heart. You deliver your argument in a fast, ineffective monotone, desperate to get it over with so you can sit back down. Suffice to say, it’s not the most compelling way to present your point of view…
The good news is, it’s not as difficult as you’d think to overcome your fear of public speaking. Mind over matter, as they say.
5 Sure-Fire Strategies To Overcome The Fear Of Public Speaking
Embrace Being Bad
Fear of public speaking is a projection – you’re going to be awful, the audience will hate it, your peers will mock you, whatever – and it stops you standing up at all.
Often, you’re not scared of public speaking so much as public speaking badly. Well, you can’t get good if you don’t push through the bad – so just do it. Embrace it. Learning to speak in public is a process, so stop beating yourself up for not being good at it yet.
“Just about anything worth doing is worth doing better, which means, of course, that (at least at first) there will be failure. That’s not a problem (in the long run), it’s merely a step along the way.”
Acknowledge the fear
You know when you were a kid and you thought something scary was in your bedroom at night, and you’d go dead still and pull the covers over your head and hope for the best? That’s what most people are like about their fear of public speaking.
Jane Praeger is a founding faculty member of Columbia University Masters Program in Strategic Communications and has more than a decade of experience helping executives master public speaking. For Prager, the fear of public speaking often ‘has nothing to do with the speaker’s ability’ but rather, ‘is usually connected to some other fear or past wound’. The fear comes from having failed to resolve those issues.
‘Analyse your fear. […] Uncover the fear that underlies your public speaking phobia [and] know it’s probably not the reason you think’.
The examples she gives illuminate her advice further – such as the executive giving a speech about a recent trip to Brazil, whose fear really stemmed from worrying she’d embarrass certain colleagues who were on the trip with her who hadn’t conducted themselves well.
By uncovering the root of your fear of public speaking, you can address and resolve that issue specifically. As in the example above, Prager talks about helping the executive reframe her talk to focus on her own experiences – dissolving the fear of accidentally embarrassing colleagues and therefore calming her nerves over giving the speech.
The moral of the story? Face your fear, and you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
Practice box breathing
I went to a talk in London recently from 3x bestselling author and esteemed life coach Dr. Brené Brown and she introduced me to the idea of box breathing as a technique to manage fear.
Initially I was as skeptical as you probably are right now, but let me stop you in your tracks. Dr. Brown talked about her extensive experience working with the military and explained how box breathing has been adopted as a training technique all across the world. Mark Divine, the highly respected retired Navy Seal Commander and founder of SEALFIT, is another huge proponent.
Box breathing is a seriously useful way to ‘hack’ your emotional responses.
You simply breathe in, pause, out and pause, all for the same count. For example, breathe in for 4, pause for 4, out for 4, pause for 4, in for 4… and so on. This increases focus and energy, clears your mind, increases awareness, reduces stress and calms your nerves.
Find your optimum speaking voice
As the well-known public speaking organisation Toastmasters point out, “your greatest tool as a speaker is your voice. […] It is the medium of your message”.
They offer a number of strategies to uncover “your optimum speaking voice”, in order to make your entire speech more persuasive, more influential and more impactful. Implementing these tactics will in turn help overcome the fear of public speaking by increasing your confidence in your abilities.
The optimum voice, they suggest, is:
- Warm and pleasant
- Natural and sincere
- Dynamic and strong
- Expressive – never monotonous
- Easily heard and understood
They recommend a series of exercises to help you relax your voice, improve your volume, extend and control your pitch, project your voice, refine your articulation, introduce pitch variation, and control your speaking speed. (Read more).
The more you practice these exercises, the more nuanced your speaking voice will become, and the more compelling you’ll be as a speaker.
Connect to the audience
Creating an emotional connection, the Aristotelian pathos, with your audience is critical. The substance of your speech is important in creating this connection, but your delivery also has a part to play.
Ignore the glib advice to think of your audience naked, or to pretend you’re speaking to an empty room. Instead, scan the room and make eye contact.
“if there is one simple thing you can do to enhance your impact as a presenter, persuade others to see things as you see them, and make it more likely you audience will say yes to your idea, it is sustained, purposeful eye contact with one person at a time”.
The stories you’re telling yourself (‘they’re hating it’, ‘they’re dead with boredom’, ‘they think I’m a loser’) are usually far from the truth, and they’re only exacerbating your fear. Stop relying on your own fearful consciousness to generate a worst-case half-truth and connect to your audience instead.
The greater the connection, the more confident you appear and the better your delivery.
Fear of public speaking afflicts almost everyone, and it’s absolutely critical to address. Being a better speaker will have a big impact in every element of your career, helping build your image as a credible, authoritative professional in your field. The worst thing you can do is avoid it. Proactively seek out opportunities to speak in public, because you’ll only build self-confidence through practice.
Anything to add? Let me know in the comments below – my own quest to overcome the fear of public speaking is very much on-going…
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