9 Essential Tips to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

Note from Celes: Hi everyone! Today I would like to introduce to you the second guest writer to join the PE family. :) He is Benjamin Loh, an Executive Speech Trainer and Coach based in Singapore.

Ben and I met over four years ago in a personal development workshop. At that time, we had a very short exchange and didn’t get the chance to know each other. It wasn’t until last year when I arranged to meet with Ben over coffee as he had been a strong, silent supporter of my postings on my Facebook Page. And boy, was I impressed by him!

Benjamin Loh

To begin with, Ben conducts himself very well—other than his youthful appearance, you could not have told that he’s just 25 years old. He’s clearly wise beyond his years. At only 25, Ben is the youngest Associate Certified Coach (ACC) in Singapore (and possibly Asia Pacific). His speaking portfolio floors many who are double his age—he has trained over 1,000 clients over the past 5 years in the areas of public speaking, communication skills, and leadership, and has clinched five championship and two runner-up titles in the Toastmasters Humorous Speech and Evaluation Speech contests!!

Today, Ben is the Founder & Principal Trainer of Speaker’s Flare Training & Consultancy, where he does speech & communications training for executives and young professionals. He’s passionate about speaking with authenticity and passion about what matters to him and helping others to do the same.

I thought Ben would be the perfect person to own the Public Speaking and Communications column at PE, and was ecstatic when he responded to my open call for guest writers a month back on Facebook. And here we are!

Ben will be contributing a new article on public speaking and/or communication on PE every three weeks to a month from now on. I’m super excited to have him aboard and I’m sure you are going to benefit from his tremendous stage experience. I’ll now hand the “stage” over to Ben. Take it away, Ben! ;)

(And do welcome him to the PE family by leaving him a note in the comments section! Thanks everyone! ;) )

Overcome Fear of Public Speaking

“You were so smooth on stage, were you even nervous at all?”

I asked my friend, Bongani, after I watched him deliver a most inspiring speech on stage. What he shared with me next, transformed my world as far as public speaking is concerned.

You would be surprised to know that Bongani being a seasoned orator, theatre performer and actor… will still be nervous and has the usual pre-stage jitters before he steps on stage. It wasn’t just how he handled it that left an indelible impression on me. Why he was able to transcend his fears made it all the more humbling a lesson for me.

“Ben, of course I am nervous. In fact, I am every bit as nervous as the first time I spoke on stage in my life! But these days before I step on stage to speak, I have a powerful reminder that keeps me going,” he quips.

As if left on a cliffhanger, I asked Bongani what exactly was this potent reminder that keeps his fears at the bay when he has hundreds and thousands of eyes on him when he speaks.

“Ben, speaking on stage is a privilege, it’s an opportunity. When you speak to an audience of 50 for just 10 minutes, you’re taking up 500 minutes of the world’s time.

When you allow your fears to get the better of you, you are squandering precious time away. When you transcend your fears, you create magic in that 500 minutes”

Bongani told me with a smile and wink. :-)

How does Fear Come About?

You must have heard of how public speaking is the number one fear for people according to a well-known survey (but we never seem to know the source of it) and death ranks as number two. So people would rather die than deliver an eulogy. Perhaps repeated ad nauseum by public speaking trainers to assert that it’s normal for people to fear public speaking, what is more meaningful to know is: how does fear of public speaking even come about in the first place?

(Check out 4 Reasons We Should Overcome Fear while you are at it.)

In the book, Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, he suggests that our brains identify the following four conditions as extremely bad for survival,

  1. Standing alone
  2. In an open territory with no place to hide
  3. Without a weapon
  4. In front of a large crowd of creatures staring at you

If you are imaginative like me, you may visualize a medieval caveman standing at the edge of a cliff with a pack of ferocious wolves all ready to pounce on him. He is helpless, desperate and at his wit’s end. He turns behind, glances down the cliff and decides that a free fall downwards may just be a wiser choice than getting torn apart by the gang of beasts.

Guess what? The experience of public speaking fulfills the above four conditions! Though unlike the imagined scenario, you do not have an escape route and it can be an emotionally trying experience if your audience is not supportive or receptive.

So what exactly can you do to gradually overcome the fear of public speaking? Here are nine tips that you can apply before, during and after the speech to get those nasty butterflies to fly in formation.

9 Tips to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking

Before the Speech

1. Rehearse

While this seems like a no-brainer, a lot of the corporate executives I have coached before actually think they can wing it before their big speech. As a result, their speeches and presentations end up with many awkward silences and transitions while building up unnecessary tension for themselves.  

The key in rehearsing is not to memorize it word for word such that you are unable to flow or react with sudden circumstances, like having a question from the audience that derails your train of thought.

Rehearse standing up. Gesticulate as if you are speaking to an actual crowd. Practise pausing at important segments of your speech like after asking a rhetorical question or for dramatic silences while telling a story. The closer you get yourself to anchoring to an ideal state of delivery, the better your rehearsal prepares you for your actual speech.

2. It’s about Your Audience

There are two questions that remain in the minds of the audience, “What’s in it for me?” and “So what?”

Handling these “mental objections” at the onset ensures that both you and your audience will be on the same page.

The first question boils down to either what the audience can gain in listening to your speech and/or what the audience will lose out on in not listening to your speech i.e. the pleasure and pain principle. The second question relates to relevance to an audience — the more you connect the dots and make it relevant to them, the stronger the listening you create.

To find the answers to these two questions, you can do two things – interview your audience and intelligent guessing.

A professional speaker who gets paid a modest five-figure sum for his hour-long keynote speeches once shared with me that he has a routine system of interviewing at least 15% of his audience before his speech with a set of questions to find out what are the challenges they face vis-à-vis the topic to be presented and what they hope to take away from the speech. It’s really about customizing the presentation to the extent that the audience feels as if they are having an intimate conversation with the speaker.

If you do not have access to your audience before your speech, what you can do is to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and generate the Top 10 questions they may have about the topic that you’ll be presenting.

Say you’ll be speaking to business development professionals about “Mobile Technology – the Next Disruptive Trend of the Century”, you can think of questions like,

  1. What is mobile technology?
  2. How will it be disruptive?
  3. What trends are we experiencing now?
  4. What can we do to leverage on the slew of mobile technology innovations?
  5. How can I increase my clientele base through mobile technology?
  6. What are the different considerations that I need to have before implementing different technologies?
  7. How can I get my business development force trained up to be conversant with the new technologies?
  8. How will my prospects’ behavior change as a result of adopting mobile technologies in our business development process?
  9. What is the typical outlay, financial and otherwise, involved in adopting mobile technologies?
  10. What will be the benefits e.g. time-to-value, lowered cost per acquisition, shortened sales cycle as a result of adoption?

With the questions, you can reverse-engineer and structure the flow of your presentation such that it makes most sense and ensure that your speech remains audience-centric.

3.  The 10-Minute Rule

Professor John Medina, the Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, proposed from his extensive research that after just 10 minutes in a class or lecture, the attention of our audience plummets dramatically.

What this means for speakers is that you want to structure your speech into 10-minute chunks and vary the speed and mode of delivery. For example, you can segue into a video, product demonstration, story tell, audience activity etc.

When you get to capture your audience’s attention, you will naturally feel better as a speaker from the positive feedback from your audience. After all, we all have innate desires to “be loved and appreciated” and they get amplified once we are on stage.

4.  Know Your Audience First

So your big speech is at 10am and you’ve arrived early to set up your laptop and other AV equipment by 9.30am. Your audience is trickling in slowly but surely. What do you do?

Do you freeze the screen and check your emails on your laptop? Or do you take the remaining time to check out updates on your news app or social media platforms? Or will you go hiding in washroom till it’s just five minutes away from your speech?

Think of public speaking as you trying to be part of the coolest “clique” in town – your audience.

Your task is to win them over so they trust you and have a listening for you. For that to happen, you can seize the golden opportunity to know as many people you can before your speech begins. And when it does, these people whom you had spoken to previously would be your “nodes of influence” and would be more likely to give you positive feedback (like smiling, nodding) while you’re speaking.

During the Speech

5. Open Body Language

Get away from the podium or table or any other physical objects, if you can. Go closer to your audience and be comfortable standing in the open. Don’t hide your hands in your pockets and play with its contents nor cross your arms even if it’s your habit to. Let your hands express your points in a natural fluid manner and likewise, get used to having them rest at your side even if you find yourself not knowing what to do with those limbs of yours.

Yes, all of these will make you will feel more vulnerable than not. But vulnerability is a show of your authenticity and fallibility as a speaker and fellow human being. The amazing truth here is the more you embrace your fear, the more your audience will be supportive of you because they see you as common and likeable. They really do want you to win.

Read more about body language: Are You Keeping People Away with Your Body Language? (Plus 10 Tips to Improve Your Body Language)

6. Smile

There’s nothing quite like watching a frowning and doleful looking person speaking. As an audience, you naturally think of reasons why is he as such. Is he unhappy to be here? Is he not interested in the topic? Is he being coerced to speak on the topic? Did he go through a rough patch and do I care? Should I give him the benefit of doubt and why?

And while these questions are floating through the minds of your audience, you wonder why they look distracted and listless.

Sure, you are not expected to be a laughing hyena when you’re relating a story of your best friend’s passing to make your point. But most speakers forget that their most ready “prop” are their genuine smiles because it is disarming and comforting for the audience.

Smiling is probably the most understated and under-emphasized point about speaking. Most of us are so preoccupied to bring our points across that we forget to be present, in the moment, with our audience. To smile and rejoice for being given the opportunity to share an important message with them.

7. Pause and Breathe

Yes, you are permitted to do so.

If you come from this part of the world where I live in (Singapore) where we sometimes speak so fast to a point of incoherence because we do not enunciate our words clearly or take the effort to pronounce them properly, then you ought to slow down your pace of speaking. Pause and breathe.

Speaking too fast is sometimes also, a defense mechanism for concealing your uncertainty about your content and the unwillingness to feel what you say. If this is the case for you, get back to Tip #1 – Rehearse. Perhaps, what some also speakers fear in slowing down and taking pauses is… the fear of silence.

Silence can be a wonderful tool especially in allowing your poignant points to seed with your audience while you steal a breather and still look at your audience as if eliciting their reactions.

“So, what do you really fear about silence?” (pause)

After the Speech

8. Reflect

Dale Carnegie once said about public speaking,

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practised, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

For that speech you wish you gave, this is why you need to invest some time to reflect. Be honest with yourself on three points – what was good about your speech, what didn’t work about your speech and what could have been improved?

If you have trusted friends who were part of your audience, run through these questions with them to obtain a better and more diverse perspective.

Better still, record all your speeches and review them personally. Yes, it can be painful and you will probably cringe while watching yourself on video. But this process is absolutely necessary for you to become a better speaker and one who is committed to overcoming his fears of speaking.

9. Celebrate

For all that’s worth, you’ve made it on stage and off, alive!

Public speaking is just like extreme sports – not for the faint-hearted! And I say this with a straight face because I have had clients who have no qualms jumping off a bridge for a bungee jump but get all queasy at the thought of stepping up on stage to have over hundred pairs of eyes on them while they speak.

If you have a tendency to be critical about yourself, then all the more, appreciate yourself and the process you have been through. Drawing from the roots of Positive Psychology, make it a habit to jot down 5 things you can be thankful for every speech you’ve delivered.

It could be having the emcee give you a solid introduction, the loyal friend of yours who gave you reassuring nods throughout your presentation, a curious member of the audience who asked you a key question that addressed the elephant in the room or your audience yelling “it’s ok” when the projector dies on you and you start to get all nervous.

Above all, when you step on stage with the awareness that you are not just speaking for the sake of speaking, but speaking with the world’s time invested in you, have faith that magic can only happen.

Image: Brisbane City Council

About the Author: Benjamin Loh is an Executive Speech Coach, TEDx Speaker and a Personal Development Gen-Y Blogger. As the youngest Associate Certified Coach (as credentialed by International Coach Federation) in Singapore and possibly, Asia-Pacific, he coaches senior executives, Directors and CEOs in speaking effectively and confidently.
  • http://www.vision4dynamics.com Joan De Winne

    Thank you for sharing your experience Benjamin. The fears are very recognizable and your tips are practical. Thanks also to Celes for bringing in Benjamin to the PE community.

    Kind regards to both of you,

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Hello Joan,

      I appreciate your feedback and glad the tips resonated with you. Feel free to leave questions or concerns you have on the topic of public speaking and/or communications and I’ll try my best to clarify them!


  • http://poisecatalyst.com Cornelius

    Hey Benjamin,

    Welcome! :) Very engaging post and also full of practical advice!

    I agree with you that it’s all about the audience. If you understand your audience well and you are confident that you deliver great value via a quality presentation, I believe it’s a bit easier to manage your fears…

    Thanks for the great post!

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Thanks Cornel, I’ve enjoyed your articles on handling office politics too! Looking forward to read more about office politics and workplace relationships management.


  • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

    Hey Ben! :D Awesome work on this article again. I’m already seeing people tweeting and sharing it with others. ;) It’s so great to have someone like you with so much professional stage experience coming in to share public speaking tips. I have no doubt that the readers at PE are going to benefit immensely from your tips.

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Thanks Celes! I’m more than glad to contribute insights to PE. Thanks for making this guest columnist feature open and I’m sure this is a big step towards delivering the key message about personal excellence to the world stage too :)

  • http://www.keoleny.wordpress.com Leny Keo

    Thanks for this good article. I always have fear when I speak in Public. I feel I do not have confident and cannot manage my fear. I have a lot of fear. My heart rate is run very fast and i forget all the message to my audience. I feel I cannot be a good speaker. How do I be a speaker with confident in myself.

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Hi Leny, why don’t you try the nine tips which Ben has outlined in the article and see how they work out for you first? I believe applying some, if not all, of the nine tips will help to mitigate your fear.

      At the end of the day it does boil down to stage time (which alludes to Ben’s first point on rehearsing). You have to start somewhere, even if there is fear involved. I refer to this quote I just saw on Twitter today which really struck me: “Fear is never a reason for quitting; it is only an excuse.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale. One option is to start with a very small crowd, even if it’s just one person, to get the ball rolling. Then work your way up from there. (Increasing from an audience of one person, to two people, to three people, and so on once you are comfortable with the previous audience size.)

      Regarding confidence, have you read the article on PE on how to be the most confident person in the world? You may find it helpful for your situation.

      • http://www.keoleny.wordpress.com Leny Keo

        yes, I read this article already. I will try this method. I feel I got a big panic all the time. Thanks Celes for your reply.

        • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

          Yes Leny, start small and often. Try out speaking at your local Toastmasters club first. Visit them and do small speeches and you will slowly but definitely improve over time.

          • http://www.keoleny.wordpress.com Leny Keo

            yes, I try to join the Toastmaster Club in Phnom Penh already. It helps me a little. I try to overcome that fear. Sometimes I feel so weak in myself. I also do a self-talk to my self, and use all the method of public speaking. Anything cannot help me.
            The cause of my problem is that I am lack of self confident, not prepared well, shy, procrastination, lack of communication skill ( mostly I am stay alone and not social life) and limited English skill.

            I try to change it, but it change a little and move back in the few next week. In short, I still keep go forward to be a better speaker in the future.

            • Bob

              Hi Leny,

              A few ideas, prepare subjects you know about for example:
              Current International news items ie. American President, world affairs – things that effect everyone.
              Your favourite hobbies.
              Types of music

              Start by making a card on one topic and updating it regularly and review it briefly each time before you know you will speak.

              Read Wikipedia and watch youtube on topics you are interested in every day.

  • http://www.drjitesharora.com Dr Jitesh Arora

    Hello Benjamin , what would you advise to people who face physical manifestations of anxiety on a public platform like tremors or palpitations

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Hi Dr. Jitesh,

      Great question!

      I haven’t had the opportunity to work with someone who has serious physical symptoms of anxiety like tremors or palpitations. But I did coach a CEO whose hands dripped with tremendous amounts of cold sweat when he was on stage. For him, I prepped him up with increasing amount of audience numbers 3 – 5 – 10 -20 until he had a pathway of – awareness -> reframing action and thoughts -> reflection -> internalization. On his big day when he delivered his company address, his hands were still dripping with cold sweat but it did not impair his performance at all and was all smiles on stage.

      I’m not a trained psychologist and will not and cannot “diagnose”. Yet as a trained coach with some field work in process work, awareness is the first steps of the many in working with clients with serious physical manifestation. If you are keen to find out, feel free to drop me an email – mail@benjaminloh.sg



  • http://Www.wordinternational.com Rain

    This is extremely useful and very practical for me as a pastor who speaks at least once a week to a congregation. I am so blessed to have stumbled upon this blog site. Thanks everyone especially to Benjamin for sharing that. Of course to Celes, for your generosity!
    God bless you more!

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Thanks Rain (that’s a beautiful name, by the way).

      Do look around at the many other articles Celes has to offer. :)

  • Avinash

    Hey Ben,

    Welcome aboard!!!

    Thanks for sharing with us,this beautiful excerpt above,speaks truly and highly of your quality as a human and a keynote speaker.

    It’s my sincere heartfelt desire to be a good conversationalist too, as i feel there’s nothing better in life than helping and comforting a fellow human, and i am working very hard for it.

    Looking forward to your articles in future, much appreciated!


    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Hi Avi,

      Thanks for the warm welcome. The anecdote was something that moved me a lot and always a conscious reminder for me before I step on stage to speak. It really changes you because you remind yourself that “you care”. Unfortunately for some seasoned speakers I know of, they no longer bother and deliver the same knowledge all canned.

      Do stay around and let me know how I can help!


  • http://www.speaking-infront.co.uk/ John Dawson

    I teach 40 public speaking courses a year and there seems to be a secret about public speaking that shouldn’t be a secret. It is understanding blank faces in the audience. As a speaker if we are not careful we carry on using normal conversational skills when we are speaking to a group.
    When you have a standard conversation – you normally get nods, smiles, agreements back from the listener however when we speak to a group ALL that changes. All you see is blank faces.
    So we start speaking to blank faces and they don’t usually smile (at least not very often) or nod their heads (some people will but again not a lot) so we are left struggling with critical thoughts about our performance. But blank faces are normal in audience – they are just listening faces.
    So try not to read people’s faces when you speak publicly because your brain will interpret any sign as negative.
    Of course there is more to getting your head around public speaking but when I teach public speaking this is the point that helps a lot of people.

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Hi John,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Indeed, the “conversing faces” and the “listening faces” are vastly different and this is also one of the understated points about public speaking that affects speakers but they may not be aware of it or aware of how it impacts them in terms of the feedback.

      For example, I told a humorous story once but I left it more on a pensive twist and the humor wasn’t really at the level of understanding for my audience. So instead of laughing their hats off, my audience had stifled laughter for some but for most of them, they had imaginary clouds above their heads. Definitely not the kind of feedback I was looking out.

      In any case, I do recommend that people speak to a couple of people before their speech as once the rapport has been built, they are likely to give positive responses. Better still, mention them in their speeches and gesture to them and put them in a positive light,

      “I was speaking to Jessie just now and I have to acknowledge for sharing with me this one big secret about your company…”

      Aside from that, in training executives within the same company, I recommend them to give the kind of feedback as they would during conversations like nods, smiles and participate but not do it as if they are orchestrated, lest they look like nodding zombies.


  • http://www.drjitesharora.com Dr Jitesh Arora

    Thanks For the Reply Ben, This article can be helpful for many

  • Sebastine Junior

    The 10-minute rule – does it imply that if you are on the stage to present your topic, the minutes is to feel the audiences’ response to what is being presented to them?

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Hello Sebastine,

      I’m not too sure if I got your question right but the 10 minutes is a rough gauge as to how long your audience will lose attention of your speech and get distracted, which is not what you want to happen in your speech. You want to continually surprise, enthrall and engage them.

      So in planning a speech, you pre-empt their responses and keep pumping their interest. A simple breakdown can be -

      0min – opening story and point of lecture
      10th min – video and importance of XXX
      20th min – live audience demonstration to illustrate XXX
      30th min – whlole audience interaction to wrap up speech and call for action

      This way, you purposefully plan ahead and manage the energy and attention of your audience.

      Hope this answers your question.


  • Bob

    Welcome to PE Benjamin,

    Nice tip on the 10 minute rule. I think that audience participation is crucial to make a good speech great, because it moves from action to interaction – this can be in the form of a question or drill or something that makes it more memorable.

  • http://www.CoachingWithChristina.com Christina

    Hi Benjamin,

    I really loved this article! There is a lot of valuable information here, and I will definitely be coming back and reviewing this information as I plan upcoming speaking engagements. I particularly appreciated the 4 reasons public speaking is so scary (really great to have it articulated) and the tips to get to know the audience, anticipate what they would like to learn, and plan to present information in 10 minute chunks. Thank you for writing this!!!


    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Thanks Christina :) Feel free to let me know how else I can help!

  • kafola mpazi

    Hey Ben!

    It’s an honor and privilege to have you in PE community, have really enjoyed your article on how to overcome fear of public speaking because I was once a victim of public speaking. Once again it’s an honor to have u.


    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Thanks Kafola, feel free to leave your concerns and suggestions so I’ll be able to know what to write about for subsequent postings.

  • rachid

    I really like this article. It’s full of useful great tips.

    Thank you so much for sharing these tips with us, there are so many people that are fearful of public speaking. My tips for these people :
    trust yourself. and Practice…Practice..Practice…Practice….Practice is a good thing.

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Thanks Rachid, most certainly. We all start somewhere and with practice, we can get anywhere. :)

  • Jacqui Joseph

    Very helpful Ben, how can I reblog this

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Hi Jacqui, thanks for your interest to reblog this! Just copy the article and paste it on your blog while giving attribution to PE and to Ben (his bio can be found at the end of the article). Do provide a link back to the original article which is: http://personalexcellence.co/blog/overcome-fear-of-public-speaking/.

      • Jacqui Joseph

        thanks Celes :)

  • http://coaching-journey.com HT Lee

    Thanks Ben for the tips.

    As a visual person, I find it invaluable to visualize my presentation (and actual practice too!) over and over in my mind. If it’s a known/familiar speaking venue, it’s easy to visualize. Otherwise, gather as much information as possible beforehand.

    And another powerful yet often overlooked tip for me is to simply……BREATHE…..take time to pause and slow down the pace. I’ve learnt that sometimes, it’s good to give that extra space for the listeners to think for themselves.

    Wow! You’re the youngest ACC in Singapore? Would love to listen to your journey one day.

    • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

      Thanks HT! Are you in the coaching industry too? :)

      • http://coaching-journey.com HT Lee

        Yes Ben. I’m from Malaysia and an ICF member too.

        • http://www.benjaminloh.sg Benjamin

          Glad to know HT! We should catch up since we are “neighbors” whenever either one of us swings past the causeway, let’s stay in touch over LinkedIn. I don’t have your full details so how about you add me there @ Benjamin Loh?

  • Kwamise Taylor

    I am so glad to have come across this article. It will help me to prepare for my upcoming presentations :dance:

  • Neil at No Fear Speaking

    Really good post – I think what a lot public speaking courses forget to mention is what happens after the presentation and was great to see you recommend that people should celebrate what they have accomplished. This will help people build on the presentation they feared so much and do an even better one the next time around.

    Whilst preparation is key for any presentation, for those that fear the scenario and get feelings of anxiety and stress the key is to remain relaxed by breathing and focusing on your content as opposed to internal negative thoughts.

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