Fear of Public Speaking: How to Deal with Presentation Anxiety

The fear of public speaking and presentation anxiety ranks with the phobia of heights, snakes and spiders. Maybe you have sweat running down your back when you have to deliver a presentation. Or you wish you were invisible. When you step in front of an audience, there’s a paralyzing and nervous rush of tenseness. 

The fear of public speaking even has its own Greek name: “glossophobia”. It refers to “tongue” and “dread”. Putting the big words aside, let’s delve into some practical solutions for this condition that plagues most people. 

You can grow your public speaking confidence and adopt new ways to manage nervousness. Hearing from others who understand and who have faced similar anxiety is a great starting point. 

We have put together a list of nine seasoned speakers and presenters to share their valuable advice and experience. Here is what they have to say about your fear of public speaking… 

How to Deal with Fear of Public Speaking and Presentation Anxiety

  1. Jump right into storytelling.
  2. Don’t make it about you.
  3. Have water on hand, stress hormones cause a dry mouth.
  4. Use large gestures to release nervous energy.
  5. Breathe deeply and slow it down.
  6. Listen to a power playlist while preparing.
  7. Don’t compare yourself with other presenters.
  8. Focus on something physical to build projected confidence.
  9. Stretch and loosen up your neck and shoulders before the speech.
  10. Fine-tune your presentation and practice beforehand.

Let’s get off the launching pad with an accomplished speaker and speaker bureau owner. She has spoken at the United Nations; done a TEDx talk and presents at various industry conferences and events.

1. Fear of Public Speaking: Jump Right into Storytelling

Bobbie Carlton, Speaker & Online Speaker Bureau Founder, Innovation Women

  • Everyone has been nervous at one point or another – every single one of us has experienced that fear and doubt.  Some people hide it better than others. Know that you are not alone.
  • Fear and nervousness feel very similar to excitement – the stomach flutter, elevated blood pressure, etc. Re-position your nervousness and channel it into energy.

SLOW down – one of the most apparent aspects of nerves is speed-talking.  A pause onstage always seems to loom large for the speaker whereas the audience rarely notices.  Think about the use of pauses as a way to emphasize what you say instead of a gap to be filled.

  • Panicking onstage?  Take a drink of water.  Use that moment to collect your thoughts and regroup. Again, the audience doesn’t really notice a momentary pause.
  • Many speakers freak out about “filler words” – the ahs, ums, etc. Don’t worry. Completely deleting them from your speaking actually makes you sound somewhat mechanical.
  • Don’t try to be perfect. A memorized speech invites forgetting. Chunk your presentation into pieces and focus on communicating those pieces.

Jumping right into storytelling mode is a great way to start any speech or presentation.  Generally, people are more relaxed when they are telling a story. 

  • Get to know people in the audience before you start – that way you are not presenting to a group of strangers. It also allows you to ask people what they are interested in and solicit questions up-front.  (There’s nothing worse than hearing crickets when you ask for questions. This way you can urge people to ask “that” question during the question period or even call them out at the end to ask their question.)
  • Practice! Coming in cold is the worst thing for a nervous speaker. If you have given your presentation many times (even if it is in your living room) you won’t be quite so nervous.

Bobbie Carlton founded Innovation Women designed to address diversity and gender equity by connecting technical, entrepreneurial and professional women with speaking engagements at conferences and events. Innovation Women is an online speaker bureau that helps event managers get more female speakers onstage.

2. Presentation Anxiety: Don’t Make It About You

Tommy Breedlove, Keynote Speaker, Premiere Business, Relationship & Mindset Coach, Tommy Breedlove

First of all, when we’re nervous or scared about giving a presentation it means we actually care about our topic and audience. The fear comes in when we’re worried about being judged, not being good enough, or that we won’t deliver. 

The speech or presentation starts to feel like it’s life or death, but it’s not. This is the same as the fight or flight response, is very real, and can be overcome. 

99 percent of the world is also scared to present. Only the people who do it each and every day are pushing through the fear. Know you’re not alone, it’s not life and death, and that preparation helps. Preparing and practicing are the keys to success and the game of life. 

The other thing I would say is don’t make it about you.

Make it about the audience and serve. When we make it about us, the fear and insecurities come in. Even during a business presentation, when we make what we’re saying about someone else, it becomes bigger than us and we get over the anxiety. 

At least one hour before your presentation, get quiet and do a visualization exercise of you going through the speech, talking to the audience, and crushing the presentation in all the right ways. Finally, it helps to get into a power stance of confidence. 

Before taking the stage, close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and after each breath say to yourself, “I am going to crush this presentation.” 

If you mess up, laugh about it, talk about it, and continue going. People love vulnerability and honesty.

Tommy Breedlove is a regular featured keynote speaker at global events and a Wall Street Journal & USA Today National Best-Selling Author of the book “Legendary”. He shares tools and simple steps to help ambitious people reclaim purpose and significance in their lives.

3. Fear of Presenting: Have Water on Hand, Stress Hormones Cause a Dry Mouth

Dr Tracey Evans, PhD in Neuroscience & Scientific Writer, Fitness Savvy

We frequently have to present our research to the scientific community and also in lay-man terms for a wider audience. Both of which are nervewracking, however, presenting to your peers can be quite traumatic. 

I have witnessed a colleague vomiting before her presentation and other visibly shaking/trembling. 

I believe the greatest fear in my workplace is the questions that you will be asked relating to the presentation (at the end), the pre-empting of the unknown and whether you will humiliate yourself in front of an audience is very daunting. 

In order to minimise this stress, the key is to actually be prepared and not leave it until the last minute (as many often do). 

The presentation rarely comes together as smoothly as one would like and therefore, you find yourself under pressure and rushing. This leaves the feeling of a lack of preparation. 

  • Think of your target audience and prepare accordingly.
  • You will be asked questions – anticipate them, if you do not know the answer give yourself permission to say ‘Can I check that and come back to you’ – ask for contact details and follow up.

Never give a presentation before checking how it looks on the equipment you will be using on the day, this is a sure way to find it has re-formatted itself in the middle of the presentation – leading to stress and anxiety.

  • Before the presentation, sit in a quiet space and practice mindfulness. It is a way to remove excess clutter from the brain and ensure you do not take it with you.
  • Practice the first few slides so that you can say them in your sleep – the reason: your stress hormones will spike at the start, the heart will race, hands go clammy and mouth go dry. If you can get through the first few slides, you should find you can settle into the presentation a little easier and the physiological response will mostly subside.
  • If you falter and your mind goes blank, take a deep breath and if necessary review the previous slides.
  • Have footnotes for each slide and print them, if you lose your train of thought you can refer to the key points you would wish to make.

Have water on hand, stress hormones cause a dry mouth – this can be a distraction to yourself.

  • Look at the group you are presenting to with unfocused vision (personally this helps) but DO look at the audience. Do not pre-empt what they are thinking – they are probably mentally writing a shopping list!

Dr Tracey Evans holds a PhD in Neuroscience, MSc in Molecular Neuroscience and BSc (Hons) in Biomedical Sciences. Working in medical research and as a scientific writer for Fitness Savvy, Dr Evans is passionate about mental well-being and health and has spent several years working as a personal trainer and fitness manager.

4. Overcome Nervousness and Fear of Public Speaking by Using Large Gestures

The fear of public speaking or that nagging nervousness can strike you out of the blue. Ask anyone who speaks for a living and they will tell you they get anxious occasionally. 

Everyone’s experiences and solutions are different. Try new things and find remedies that work for you.  

As an example, you can start with a compelling story and use large gestures with energetic body language. This will release the nervous energy and add flair to the story.

Accept a level of presentation anxiety or fear of public speaking as part of the deal.  

Here’s the good news. Things can get better and improve so you don’t feel “crippled”. Those who persist are the ones who will experience breakthroughs.  

Refine your presentation skills during every available opportunity. The trick is to deny the fear of public speaking to slow you down.  

Aram Bakshian Jr., the renowned speechwriter of President Ronald Reagan observed that: “As with alcoholism, there is no known cure for stage fright. You’re either a ‘chronic’ sufferer or ‘recovering’ sufferer.[1] 

5. Dealing with Nerves Before a Presentation: Breathe Deeply and Slow It Down

Roger Southam, High Performance Coach & International Speaker, CaribbeanMGT

One thing to realise is that 73% of people fear public speaking, which is greater than the number of people who fear dying.  That means more people would rather die than speak in public!  It is important to keep this focus and humour on this point can go a long way. 

Would you really rather die than speak to a group of people?  Are the audience going to be armed with guns and knives and take aim for every slip or dull sentence?  

Gaining perspective is vital.  It is only a presentation.  The world isn’t going to end, you won’t be attacked.  

How do you feel watching a presentation?  Are most of the audience going to be encouraging?  Harness the good thoughts, the positive images and build on that.

Prepare your topic and feel comfortable.  Calm the voices in your head that are doubting and challenging you. Take control and go and enjoy – okay enjoyment won’t be there for a while but I have had clients where enjoyment was the outcome!  

If you have a panic attack breathe deeply and however slow you think you are breathing slow it down further.  Take stock and use your notes to lead you.

Make a quip to garner empathy from the audience.  “I would rather be where you are now, mind you I know what’s coming and I want to hear it again!” 

If the nerves are bad then make sure you seek help; a good coach can eradicate the fears and give you strength and focus to be your best.

Roger Southam is a serial entrepreneur and high-performance coach. He is an international speaker and regularly present, host and train audiences from after-dinner speaking, speeches and presentations at conferences, as well as appearances on TV and radio.

6. Fear of Public Speaking: Listen to a Power Playlist while Preparing

Jennifer Hennings, Executive Public Speaking Coach, JENNIFERHENNINGS

Use deep belly breathing. Nervous speakers often breathe shallowly and feel like they’re hyperventilating.

Instead, put one hand on your belly and inhale for a slow count of 4, then exhale for a slow count of 4. It should feel like a balloon is inflating and deflating in your belly as you breathe. 

Give yourself a pep talk. Often when we’re nervous, we’re saying things to ourselves like, “I HAVE to give this talk” or “I HAVE to speak at the conference,” which creates a sense of dread. 

Instead, tell yourself, “I GET to speak at the meeting” and it’s a powerful mindset shift. 

Create a power soundtrack.

Instead of listening to relaxing music or trying to calm down, make yourself a playlist of songs that get you pumped up and listen to it while you’re preparing for your presentation. This will get you in a more positive and excited frame of mind.

Jennifer Hennings helps people say yes to the next level in their careers by breaking through their fear of public speaking. As an executive public speaking coach, she trains leaders at organizations like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Salesforce, and Stanford Graduate School of Business, as well as numerous startups.

7. Tips for Calming Nerves Before a Speech: Don’t Compare Yourself with Other Presenters

Gloria Pierre, Presenter, Author & President, CLEARLY SPEAKING

Every person who is doing something for the first time or something unfamiliar will feel nervous.

Think of a time you were very nervous and think about when it happened. Was it when you were inexperienced or new to doing it – whether it’s dating, meeting your prospective in-laws for the first time, going on an airplane for the first time.

It’s the same with presenting. Feeling nervous or apprehensive before you start is quite normal. You are in the company of thousands who sweat and shake before and during presentations. 

  • Close your mouth when breathing. Chew gum to stimulate the saliva. Drink lots of water every day and especially days before. 

Don’t compare yourself with experienced presenters.

  • Know that you were asked to speak so you must be seen as an expert.

Know that you are a work in progress and don’t expect everything to be perfect.

  • It will get better because when you speak often, you know what to expect, how to prepare and deliver better and how to adjust your presentation as needed.
  • Know your story/topic inside out – especially the focal points. Have all the nuances of the story in your mind as you rehearse.

Rehearse with the equipment you will use in the presentation.

Gloria Pierre coaches and trains presenters, speakers, entrepreneurs and executives to communicate their ideas effectively. She is the author of “ABC for Speakers & Presenters”, featured on various TV programs and other media such as Cosmopolitan Magazine quoting her.

8. Reduce Nervousness Before and During a Presentation: Focus on Something Physical

Leah Bonvissuto, Workplace Communication Consultant & Founder, PresentVoices

First off, remind yourself that most people experience anxiety about their communication and presentation skills. Eighty percent of folks surveyed in my data report difficulty managing speaking nerves. 

The best presentations are conversational, but most people don’t know how to prepare for spontaneous speaking beyond the content. 

I recommend separating content from delivery: Certainly, spend time on your slides and outline so that the work is there to support you, but ultimately, the most important part of a presentation is your ability to bring yourself to it with clarity and confidence.

Articulate an objective for yourself—what you want your audience to walk away and do—and this can then be articulated as your first piece of content. 

If you have a physical manifestation of nerves, remind yourself that even people who enjoy public speaking experience some degree of physical sensations—they may call it adrenaline and I may call it anxiety.

It’s important to reframe the nerves as energy so that you don’t feel beholden to them.  Give yourself something physical to focus on that also happens to build your personal and projected confidence. 

  • For example, you can put your attention on where your foot sits in your shoe. If you feel flighty or lost in thought, this can immediately ground you and get you out of your head and into the present moment.
  • If your hands shake, use a prop like a remote control, and be deliberate with your hand gestures instead of trying to mute them.
  • If your voice shakes, take up more space with your voice and speak so that the person at the back of the room can hear you.
  • If you have breath-based anxiety, put your focus on something other than your breath so that you are not giving the sensations more attention.

Leah Bonvissuto has empowered thousands of people to manage speaking nerves and to prepare them for spontaneous speaking. She works with sales teams, executives, entrepreneurs, data scientists, remote teams, engineers, and administrators.

9. Stage Fright: Stretch and Loosen Up Your Neck and Shoulders Before the Speech

Celeste DeCamps, Co-Founder, Authentic Voice LLC

The first step we teach is how to breathe before doing any speech.

The best way to calm nerves is to breathe in through the nose for four counts. Hold the breath for four counts. Exhale the breath through the mouth for four counts. Do this at least three times.

Breathing also helps if you are experiencing a panic attack. Taking a moment to take a deep breath, will appear to the audience that you want the information you just gave them to sink in. A long pause can be very impactful, for you and your audience. 

The second step is to pay attention to any tense muscles.

Before your speech, stretch and loosen up the neck and shoulders.

Take a moment to make sure you are standing tall. Your shoulders are back. Your head is held up and you are smiling. 

The mind pays attention to how we hold our bodies. Once we are in a confident stance the mind will feel self-assured. 

The third step is to embrace the nervousness. Don’t be afraid of the butterflies. Instead of saying “I’m nervous” say “I’m excited.” This helps flips the script in your mind. Be happy that your message will be heard. Know that your business will grow and succeed because of it. 

The fourth step is to not be afraid to make a mistake. Everyone walks away from delivering their speech knowing that they could’ve done it better or they left out a part. As long as you put the work in and came prepared, people will appreciate your passion.

The more stage time you get, the better you will be at presenting.

Celeste DeCamps and Michele Marshall are co-founders of Authentic Voice. Together they work with staff and individuals who need help to overcome their anxiety when delivering presentations. They also privately mentor people to develop their inner storyteller.

10. Avoid Panic Attacks: Fine-Tune Your Presentation and Practice Ahead of Time

Josh Hastings, Founder, Money Life Wax, HFE Marketing & Media

Scan the room. When giving a presentation, don’t just look at one person and lock-in, instead, be sure to scan the room.

Look slightly above the forehead of your audience and be sure to work left to right and then back right to left (or vice versa). This makes it look like you’re talking to each person but you’re also not getting nervous by one person’s demeanor. 

Practice in your recorder ahead of time. 

If you’re super nervous when giving a presentation, be sure to practice ahead of time. 

Use the voice memos on your phone and simply record yourself practicing. Listen for ums, ughs, and likes. Be sure to fine-tune your presentation before giving it! 

Realize everyone gets nervous.

It’s ok to be nervous when talking in front of a group, some of the best speakers and musicians still get butterflies. For most people, speaking in front of a group of their peers is not comfortable.

So be sure to give yourself credit and do your best to remain calm prior to your presentation.

Chances are you will miss things, you’ll forget to say something and you might even say something wrong. It’s OK.

Do something like listening to music beforehand to get your mind off the presentation!

Josh Hastings is a former athletic administrator who started his blog Money Life Wax to help young adults with finances and life. He has contributed to many publications and also owns a media company.

References:

  1. Snippets / New Directions. – [s.l.] : Newdirections.uk.com, p. 16, Accessed on 8 February 2020.