How I overcame my fear of public speaking
Last week, I climbed on stage and delivered a keynote presentation to a room of 110 people. Despite my self-confessed fear of public speaking, I sailed through the talk with no notes and no nerves.
How did I go from terrified of public speaking and saying no to every invitation, to confidently delivering a keynote to a packed room? That’s coming up in this video.
Glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking. It comes from the Greek glossa, which means tongue, and phobos, which means fear or dread. And it’s a really common phobia. Around three quarters of people experience some degree of nervousness or anxiety when it comes to public speaking. The phobia can manifest itself as a racing heart rate, increased sweating, stiffened muscles, dry mouth, even uncontrollable shaking.
So bad is this phobia, that some people would rather die than give a presentation to a group of people. It’s fair to say that, until quite recently, I was in that camp. I’m an ambivert; someone who displays classic traits of both introverts and extroverts, in specific situations. When those situations are public speaking, I fall very much into the traits of an introvert.
So what led me to a) saying yes to this invitation to deliver a keynote presentation to such a large audience, and b) pulling it off without too much in the way of nervousness or anxiety? After some reflection, I’ve noted the main steps I took to overcome my fear of public speaking; steps I hope you can follow if this is something you want to tackle as well.
It’s a transferable skill
First up, was a lot of practice. Last week’s speech was only my second of the year in a formal, on stage, professional capacity. But it’s one of hundreds this year, and well over a thousand in the past five years, in any capacity at all. What I’ve come to learn is that public speaking is a transferable skill. By getting lots of practice in other, perhaps less pressured environments, it felt more natural to step onto that stage and deliver a talk in a more formal setting.
The practice I’ve accumulated in different contexts include making videos like this, recording podcast episodes and hosting live webinars. Outside of the business context, I’ve been Run Director at our local parkrun on 75 different occasions over the past five years; each time standing up at the start in front of 100+ people to talk through the rules and give some updates. That was scary on the first ten or twenty occasions, but became a lot easier in time. I’ve also hosted community events which involved elements of public speaking; about a month ago I presented our local In Bloom awards, talking for 20 minutes on stage to a room of 60 local volunteers.
So get lots of practice in different contexts because public speaking is very much a transferable skill. I know a lot of people join Toastmasters or similar groups to gain this practice. Groups like that aren’t really my style, but find opportunities to develop your speaking skills, even if that means talking into a microphone once a week for 20 minutes to record a podcast episode.
Leave your notes at home
My second learning point was to remove my training wheels. Those stablisers for me were notes and a detailed PowerPoint presentation. We’ve all heard the term ‘death by PowerPoint’. Lengthy slide decks aren’t just dull and boring for your audience, they are probably doing you a major disservice too. By keeping your slides light and using them as prompts instead of detailed notes, you remove a source of potential anxiety.
The same principle applies to notes. When I spoke last week, it was the first time I can think of that I’ve delivered a presentation with zero notes on stage. I purposely left my notes in the car. Without notes, I wasn’t constantly thinking about the precise words I intended to say. Instead, I could talk naturally around each subject and key point. By all means, rehearse your key messages and some soundbites. But don’t try to recite a rehearsed presentation word-for-word, as this makes it more likely you will stumble over your words, desperately trying to remember what it is you wanted to say. Leave your notes at home.
Find a friendly face
Third tip is to look for some friendly faces in the audience. There’s lots of nonsense when it comes to public speaking about picturing your audience naked. Please don’t do this. If you’re nervous before you start talking, imagining a sea of naked flesh is going to make it much, much worse – especially if there are some especially attractive people sitting in the front row.
Keep in mind that your audience wants you to succeed on stage. They probably share some of the same anxieties as you around public speaking. In fact, unless you’re presenting at a professional speakers convention, only a tiny number of people sitting in your audience would be willing or able to do what you’re doing right now. But these people are on your side. It’s only natural to want the speaker to do a good job. Look for the friendly and encouraging faces in the crowd, keep looking back to them and feed off their energy.
Other signs of a supportive audience, if you’re struggling to find smiles, include people making notes or taking photos of your slides as you land on key points. Ignore the grumpy faces, there’s always a few.
Own the stage
Point number four is to own the stage. When I arrived at the venue to deliver my keynote last week, the sound engineer asked if I was happy to speak at the lectern. There’s something quite reassuring about a lectern. You can place your notes there. It’s where that emergency glass of water was sitting. But I knew that speaking from the lectern meant being tied to the microphones there. And I wanted some freedom.
So I asked the sound tech if he would mic me up with a wireless lav mic, the type that clip to your shirt collar or tie. This gave me freedom to move around the stage. Remember, it’s supposed to be a conversation with your audience, not a recital or lecture. I’m not suggesting you spend your entire presentation prancing around the stage like a caged animal at the zoo. But choose two or three positions on the stage and occasionally move between them. Slide transitions are a good prompt to move, as your movement on stage can help to emphasise a new message.
Make yourself feel special
Tip number five is to get yourself in a great frame of mind before you start speaking. That means leaving plenty of time to get to the venue. If it’s a morning presentation, stay nearby the night before. I’ve got a personal rule which is to always wake up in the city I need to be in that day. And don’t schedule other things for the same day as your keynote. Leave yourself plenty of time before and after, so the presentation becomes the only important thing you need to do that day.
Getting in the right frame of mind is always about making yourself feel special. So get a haircut a day or two before. I bought myself a new shirt specifically for my talk. I made sure I wore my fancy watch instead of my Garmin that day. Ladies, get your nails done!
Be introduced first
Number six is to have someone else introduce you before you go on stage. Most of the presentations I see start with a personal introduction. Hi, I’m Bob and this is why you should listen to me for the next 40 minutes. If you start your presentation with an introduction and by establishing your credentials, you’re already on the back foot.
Get someone else to explain why you’re worth listening to and then you can get straight into the good stuff. Establish your reputation through the quality of your presentation; show, don’t tell.
Keep it in context
And last but not least, number seven, keep it in context. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s only 30-40 minutes of your life. You can manage to get through that. If you feel your presentation going off course, pause, take a deep breath, have a sip of water. Start again as intended. Remember that it’s your talk and you control the outcome.
So that’s my seven lessons for overcoming a fear of public speaking. Keep in mind that it’s normal and natural to feel some nerves before doing anything that’s worth doing. There’s good stress and bad stress in life, and it’s the good stress that drives us to meet our goals and do our very best.
What tips do you have for overcoming a fear of public speaking?