How to overcome the fear of public speaking

What do Adele, Geoffrey Rush and Jim Carrey have in common?

They all experience stage fright. You wouldn’t guess it, would you? You may experience a similar thing – a fear of speaking in front of groups of people. The good news is, you can overcome the fear of public speaking.

You might think that such accomplished performers would have their nerves in check, that they have nothing to worry about before a big show, but fear is not rational. Nerves and anxiety can overwhelm anyone when it comes to speaking in front of a group.

It might reassure you to learn that speaking in public is a common fear.

Research tells us that most people fear public speaking more than they fear death!

In 2012, a study by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Omaha concluded that the fear of ‘speaking before a group’ was the most commonly identified fear, in a list that included fear of heights, flying, financial problems, deep water and death.

What can you do to overcome the fear of public speaking?

First, you must understand what’s happening in your body when you experience nerves and anxiety.

When it’s your turn to speak in front of a group of people or in a new environment, your brain recognises this situation as a threat to your survival, and your fight or flight response is triggered.

Your body responds by producing a large amount of adrenaline, taking you into a state of high arousal.

The response is different for everyone – but it often means your heart rate increases, muscles tense, your breath becomes shallow or caught in the upper body, your mouth may go dry, and you might have a feeling of butterflies in the stomach.

Muscle tension quickly closes the throat and constricts the breath, often leaving you with a higher pitched, shaking or quivering voice.

These changes are what make you feel like your voice sounds different when you speak in front of a group of people.

There’s a wonderful quote from author Maryanne Williamson, “Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn.”

Years of teaching people of all ages has taught me that we learn to fear speaking in public, it is not something we necessarily fear from a young age.

Many people I’ve worked with who feel an overwhelming fear of public speaking, often recall a particular moment when they experienced failure in front of a group of people, and it made their nerves more prominent from that point on.

This is the beauty of children being involved in drama, school plays and public speaking competitions – they learn to speak with confidence from an early age in a supportive, nurturing and positive environment, and bounce back quickly if a particular performance or event isn’t as good as another.

To overcome to fear of speaking in public, you must tackle these 4 myths, head on:

Myth 1: Speaking in public is dangerous

When I was training with world-renowned voice teacher Kristin Linklater, part of the teacher-training was to teach classes, and receive feedback from Kristin.

When it came to my turn one day, I was beside myself with nerves. I could feel my breath getting faster, I was shaking and teary with nerves, and my fellow trainees were as baffled as me that my nerves had completely taken over me.

Kristin asked a question and I couldn’t answer it – I had no voice. Then she blurted out, “Amy, what’s the worst that can happen?”

I considered the answer to that question, and realised how much I’d blown the whole situation out of proportion. Suddenly the whole room was in fits of laughter!

I was not going to die from teaching, nor was it going to be the end of my teaching career if I made a mistake!

Kristin wanted me to succeed – yes, she would critically analyse my teaching style and delivery, but her job was easier if I was on the right track.

It’s imperative to remind yourself that any mistake or hiccup in a presentation gives you something to work on next time.

Myth 2: The audience are against you

Think about the last time you watched someone do a poor job of speaking in public.

How did you feel as you watched them?

Most people say that they feel sorry for a speaker when they’re not doing a good job, and that they just want the presentation to end.

It’s uncomfortable for everyone in the audience if a speaker is not doing well for any reason.

Your audience wants you to succeed! They’re supporting you!

The audience are not your enemy. It’s more relaxing and enjoyable for everyone if the person speaking is at ease and doing a good job.

Myth 3: Nerves will make your presentation worse

There is no proven link between nerves and giving a bad presentation.

Nerves can actually be helpful – they psyche you up for your presentation and can help bring energy into your delivery.

Of course, deep-seated fear can push you over into irrational thinking. It’s about getting the balance right, so that nerves don’t morph into debilitating fear.

You should recognise your body’s physical response to fear, focus on your breath, and allow those nerves to give your presentation energy.

Myth 4: You have to be an excellent speaker and be funny

Your only job is to be yourself, speak clearly and present well. These are the qualities that make a strong speaker.

We pay attention to those who speak in a convincing manner, who deliver with authority; they radiate authenticity and we are drawn into their delivery.

That doesn’t mean they’re excellent speakers, it means they can express themselves clearly, concisely and with conviction.

Where to from here

You can learn to overcome your fear of public speaking, and use your nerves to your advantage.

The best news? There are benefits of feeling nervous! It shows you care about your audience, nerves can help you get ready for a peak performance, and can be a source of energy that you can channel positively.

I always recommend practical training with a qualified coach so that you can become familiar with these techniques in action, and practise in a safe, friendly environment.

Get help with public speaking.