9 Essential Tips to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking
This is a guest post by Benjamin Loh.
“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.)
- Standing alone
- In an open territory with no place to hide
- Without a weapon
- 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
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,
- What is mobile technology?
- How will it be disruptive?
- What trends are we experiencing now?
- What can we do to leverage on the slew of mobile technology innovations?
- How can I increase my clientele base through mobile technology?
- What are the different considerations that I need to have before implementing different technologies?
- How can I get my business development force trained up to be conversant with the new technologies?
- How will my prospects’ behavior change as a result of adopting mobile technologies in our business development process?
- What is the typical outlay, financial and otherwise, involved in adopting mobile technologies?
- 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)
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
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.
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.