6 tips to overcome your public speaking anxiety

6 tips to overcome your public speaking anxiety

Did you know that 74%* of people suffer from speech anxiety, or glossophobia, and more people are afraid of public speaking than of dying?

I don’t know about you, but I find those stats oddly comforting.

Knowing that I’m not the only person that experiences the shaking hands, wobbly legs, racing thoughts, extreme sweating and quivering voice that occurs when standing up to speak in front of an audience is the one thing that makes me feel better about how awful it feels.

Previously, I wrote about how the Toastmasters Speechcraft course allowed me to develop greater confidence in myself and in my ability to speak in public, as someone who has social anxiety.

In this blog, I’d like to talk about six of the practical public speaking skills and valuable lessons I gained from participating in this course:

1. Breathe

I’m sure this won’t be the first time you’ve been told to breathe when you’re struggling against those public speaking nerves. It always seemed to me to be a cop out piece of advice… like, how will breathing help me suppress the overwhelming urge I feel to run away and hide under the bed covers forever?

But it actually works, if you let it. Reminding yourself to take deep breaths will help to slow down your words and your heart rate, which will help to ease the tension in your voice and shortness of breath. It will also help your brain catch up with your mouth so that you’re more aware of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.

If you’re someone who experiences a terrifying mind blank when you forget your speech or are asked a question you don’t know how to respond to, allow yourself a moment to breathe, and you’ll find it’s easier to begin speaking again.

2. Know your material

One of the most important lessons I learned from attending a Speechcraft course was that if you plan to talk about something you are passionate about or a topic you know well, you will feel more confident delivering the talk.

What topic do you know the most about? Yourself.

The second part to this tip is one you might have been expecting, and that is to learn your speech and practise it, over and over again, until you know it.

There is a difference between knowing your material and memorising your speech word for word. Don’t get hung up on memorising each word of your speech because if you do happen to forget one, this is when you will stumble. As long as you know the key points you want to make, the segues and the introduction and conclusion, you will be able to adapt if you forget a few words or a section, and still be able to deliver a strong presentation.

3. Don’t draw attention to your nerves or apologise for them

I remember someone telling me once that it was ok to tell the audience you were nervous because everyone can relate to that feeling before speaking in public, and by making a joke about it, you help yourself relax.

Toastmasters helped me realise that if you don’t tell people you’re nervous, it’s more than likely that they wouldn’t know.

I’ve always assumed when people tell me I seemed calm and in control when presenting they were just being kind to me, because they could see I was a nervous wreck. Having gone to Toastmasters and seen this scenario play out before my own eyes, I can say with certainty that a lot of the time people can’t tell when the person presenting is nervous.

So don’t draw attention to your nerves. You never know, you might just be fooling everyone, and even if they do pick up on some physical signs of your anxiety, they’ll soon forget them as you continue to speak and grow in confidence.

4. Fake it til you make it

That being said, yes, you may demonstrate physical signs of your nerves when delivering your speech. Some of the most common giveaways can be the use of filler words such as ‘um’ or ‘so’ or ‘like’ or ‘uh’, lack of eye contact (i.e. staring at your feet), clasping your hands together, and the pace, tone and strength of your voice.

The key to overcoming these physical symptoms is to do all you can to control them by ‘faking it til you make it’. If you can do this successfully, the audience will be none the wiser of your inner anxious dialogue.

Here are some of the tips we learned to help us fake public speaking confidence:

  • If you find yourself using filler words a lot, consciously make the decision to pause and take a breath when you’re not sure what to say. This allows your brain to catch up with your mouth so that each word that leaves your mouth has meaning and purpose.
  • When it comes to your hands, try to leave them hanging at your sides when they aren’t being used to gesture or emphasise what you’re saying.
  • Look at everyone in the room – if making eye contact makes you feel awkward, look directly below each member of the audience’s eyes. They won’t be able to tell!
  • If your nerves tend to show themselves via a quiet, quivering voice, taking deep breaths prior to and during your speech will be your best bet. Without taking a conscious effort to do this, your nerves tend to let your voice get away from you, and you can find yourself breathless and teary before the end of your speech. Slow it down and make an effort to pace yourself to demonstrate that you’re in control of your voice and your nerves.

5. Focus on improving one thing at a time

A lot of public speaking anxiety comes from our perceived need to be perfect and the fear of being judged for failing to meet this unrealistic expectation. The truth is, no one expects you to be perfect every time you give a speech or to cure yourself of all your presentation anxiety in one go.

By focusing on just one thing you’d like to improve on during your presentation, you can take some of the pressure off yourself. This makes it much easier to continue your learning journey rather than giving up any time you make a mistake.

Some of the things I had to work on throughout the six-week Speechcraft course I completed (in addition to my nerves) were: using gestures to emphasise points throughout my speech (rather than clasping my hands together the entire time); using volume and pitch vocal variations to avoid sounding robotic; pausing to avoid using filler words or rambling; and using a variety of paces and pausing for emphasis rather than rushing my way through the entire speech.

If I had tried to ‘fix’ each of these elements in one speech, I would have made myself a nervous wreck (or, more than the one I already was). So, each time I was practising a speech and each time I stood up to speak, I tried to focus on one particular element I knew I needed to improve.

This strategy really helped reduce some of the nerves I felt going in to each speech, because it allowed me to observe myself as if I was observing someone else speak, and somehow, oddly, gave me a sense of control over my body language and voice that usually my anxiety strips away from me.

6. Practise, practise, practise!

The strategies listed above may not be new to you, but the key to make them work for you is practising them, over and over, until you realise that you can actually do the thing you have been so scared of.

This is probably the biggest lesson I learned from attending a Speechcraft course. If you know anything about exposure therapy, you know that the more you do the thing you’re afraid of, or put yourself in situations that cause you anxiety, the easier it will eventually become. Each time you face your fears, you prove to yourself that you’re stronger than your fear, and you’ll begin to grow in self-confidence.

Each time you face your fears, you prove to yourself that you’re stronger than your fear. Click To Tweet

This may not necessarily follow a linear pattern. The Speechcraft course I attended was held on a Thursday every week for six weeks. The anxiety I felt before the first session was probably at 90/100, and was largely fueled by the fear of the unknown as well as dread due to the knowledge that I’d have to face my biggest fear. The anxiety I felt before the third session, which was when I had to give my first prepared speech, was much worse – 100/100. On this day, I felt ok until I was walking to the session, and experienced extreme need to flee. But after I gave that speech, that intense anxiety turned into intense elation because I had actually done it!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the next time I have to give a speech I will still feel the same nerves I’ve always felt, but the comforting reality is that it does get easier. I can vouch for this fact.

Don’t give up. Don’t let your fear control you. Click To Tweet

It takes courage to do the thing that scares you more than anything else in the world. It’s uncomfortable. But you become stronger each time you face your fears, so embrace the feeling of discomfort, because you can do whatever you set your mind to.

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