Fear of public speaking aka stage fright

Have you ever walked on stage to give a presentation and felt paralysed? Your throat is dry, your mind blank and the audience feels like a pack of predators ready to pounce on you. Welcome to the fear of public speaking! In fact, these sensations of anxiety and overwhelm can come with any kind of speaking, even talking in a small group where you’re not the primary focus of attention but we will discuss other situations another time. 

Today, we’re going look at presentation anxiety that comes with speaking in front of an audience, and you can reduce (and eliminate) those feelings of dread.

Why do we feel anxiety at giving a speech?

Public speaking is a stressful experience for many people (75% of people questioned on this topic say the thought of standing in front of an audience and speaking for even a short period of time terrifies them). But why? Why is it that so many people who would otherwise become amazing speakers find themselves crushed by speech anxiety?

The fact of the matter is this: it’s complicated and, in many cases, driven by the way our brains have evolved, I’m going to show you the main reasons you might dread public speaking as well as 6 simple, yet effective tips, for overcoming speaking anxiety.

Before moving on, a small modification of the tips and tricks in this post can also be used to help manage social anxiety.

Your brain is trying to protect you from the audience

Millions of years ago, long before the concept of a speaking gig was invented we were being hunted by huge predators that roamed the land and sea. Giant cats lay waiting in long grass, ready to make a snack of any passing human. Huge fish with sharp teeth patrolled the seas and any human splashing around in the water was fair game. But what has this got to do with speaking in front of an audience?

It’s all in the eyes. As part of our evolution, our brain became aware that having a pair of eyes focussing on us was likely a bad sign aka a predator was ready to pounce. As a result of being watched, our brains release cortisol – the stress chemical – and our amygdala gears up for the fight or flight response. Now this might seem crazy, but when you stand in front of an audience the first sensation you become aware of is having many pairs of eyes fixed on you, and can you guess what happens? Yep, the brain, unable to understand you have an adoring audience waiting for you to speak, registers a threat and with it comes feelings of stress and anxiety.

We don’t understand the art of communication

The art of communication, when applied to public speaking, is an essential skill to understand. Simply jumping on stage, throwing out some words, a few smiles, and some random arm movements is not a presentation – it’s a calamity in the making, one that will likely damage your speaking reputation. So, what is the art of communication?

It’s many things and if you want to speak in a way that motivates your audience to not only sit up and listen, but also take action on your words, you need to learn these skills. Don’t worry, they’re not difficult to master, but you will need to practice them regularly and incorporate each one into your speeches. Here’s a list of communication skills you really need to learn:

  • How to project your voice. Being able to push your voice to every corner of the theatre is an incredibly powerful tool that should never be underestimated.
  • The right way to use hand gestures during a presentation, or speaking engagement. Hand gestures are an effective way to add emphasis to your stories, to pull people deep into your words, and story.
  • Movement on the stage. I’ve separated this out from hand gestures as learning how to move around the stage is an art in itself, albeit a small art, and when done right helps capture your audience at key points in your presentation.
  • Pacing your speech. Every speaking engagement I’ve ever had involves pacing which means speeding up, or slowing down, the rate at which you speak in order to highlight key points or identify moments of emotional intensity.
  • Voice modulation. When combined with pacing, vocal modulation enhances your public speaking skills and pushes your presentation to a new level of excellence.

These above points are the bare minimum of skills you need to master and incorporate into your presentation. Looking at the list might seem daunting – I thought so when I was learning the skills – and a way of overcoming any fear of failure is to see them as part of a personal or professional development plan, depending on why you want to improve your public speaking skills.

You haven’t prepared for your speech

This is one of the biggest pitfalls you put in your own path. Any kind of public speaking requires preparation and when you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail (I learnt that one in the Army – and it’s 100% an accurate description of the truth). Over the course of my public speaking career, I’ve met many people who suggested they simply stepped onto the stage and invented a presentation on the spot.

This simply isn’t the case, unless their speeches were awful!

What I will say is this: those speakers probably prepared their presentations but not in a traditional way. What do I mean?

Often, you’ll hear people say you need to practice your entire speech until it’s word-prefect. But learning word for word (rote learning) is the wrong approach, and we’ll look at the right way to do it in a minute. The key point to note hearing is, when planning any type of speaking engagement you must factor in the time required to fully prepare.

Have to give a powerful presentation free of fear

6 tips that will stamp our stage fright

There are more tips, but the 6 listed below are those I have found most useful for reducing anxiety. 

Get to know your audience

Spend some time speaking to people before your presentation. I recommend arriving at the venue about 30 – 45 minutes before you’re due to speak and mingle with the people there. Here are a few tips to help you engage:

  • Find one person and strike up a conversation, asking them their name and the reason they’ve come to the presentation;
  • Ask them where they will be sitting – make a mental note of the physical location;
  • When you go on stage, speak to those people you’ve met, moving between each person as your speech progresses.

Why this works

Forming a one-to-one connection feels more natural – it’s how our brains our wired. Although you’re not actually giving a speech to those you’ve tricked your brain into believing you are having a conversation with someone you know well, which is far less daunting than talking to a huge group of people.

Break your audience into chunks

Earlier in this post we looked at the fear that arises as a result of having so many pairs of eyes fixed on us, and the most obvious question is this: how do overcome this ‘fear switch’ nature wired into us? A really powerful mental trick I use is to convince my mind I’m talking to only a very small group of people or even a single person. But how?

Break your audience into small chunks and ‘talk to only them’. This is how it works:

  • Look at your audience and find a small group of 3 – 5 people;
  • Draw an imaginary triangle or square around that group;
  • Talk to the centre of the shape you’ve made in your head.

Why this works

When you fix your eyes on a small section of the audience, especially when you’re removing direct eye contact, you reduce, or even eliminate, the fear response generated by your brain. As a consequence, your overall sense of feeling anxious melts away.

The most powerful mental trick you can use – knowledge

Whilst not really a trick, this tip is the most powerful I know. Having a deep knowledge of your topic is the easiest way to obliterate those feelings of tension and anxiety when you’re faced with an audience whose gaze is fixed on you. But simply learning your speech word for word isn’t necessarily knowledge.

True knowledge is having a deep understanding of the topic you’re talking about which requires time and effort for you to gather and assimilate into your head. For example, let’s say you’re giving a talk about the best treatment for dog ticks. In this case, rather than collect a series of bullet points that you recite, go deep and explore factors such as how ticks attach themselves to a dog, the most common places to look for ticks, the very specific dangers associated with not removing ticks (including transmissible diseases and corresponding symptoms).

Why this works

When compared to simply learning a list of details around a given topic, a deep knowledge of your chosen speaking topic gives you more information to share and play with when you’re speaking. And when you have an in-depth understanding of your speech topic you’ll easily continue talking if you forget a part of your speech. Whilst this isn’t really a trick, I find it to be one of the most powerful ways to cure even the thought of speaking anxiety (which is a huge load removed from your already strained brain).

Plan a question and answer session

Q&As are probably one of the hardest types of presentation to give and are guaranteed to create a peak in your anxiety level, and it’s for this reason I highly recommend you plan and present more of them. For clarity, a Q&A session is one in which you first give a presentation and then allow your audience to quiz you. And, if you’re like me, this is going to make you feel nervous.

A Q&A session is NOT asking a question of your audience.

Why this works

Q&A sessions are tough as you never know exactly what questions your audience will ask. But this type of public speech gives you the opportunity to plan for every possible question and test yourself under pressure. When you plan a Q&A-type presentation try to imagine every possible question you could be asked and mentally answer questions you think will be asked..

Use visualisation

Another powerful yet incredibly simple tool you can use to overcome anxiety and stage fright is visualisation, but not in the way you’ve likely heard about. Most visualisation techniques involved picturing yourself attaining your goal (in this case, giving an amazing speech resulting in a standing ovation), but I find them ineffective. A better option I use, and highly recommend you test, is to visualise every aspect of your speech – walking onto the stage, giving your presentation whilst picturing your hand gestures and hearing the words and tone of voice you use, seeing your audience’s response, then giving a small nod as you close your speech).

Why this works

By creating a mental image of every aspect of your speaking engagement, and walking through it in your mind’s eye, you are effectively practising your speech. Whilst it may not be in the real world, you’re priming your brain – exercising mental muscles – for the experience by front loading the entire presentation in your head.

Get support

If after practising the above tools you’re still struggling with anxiety, the next step you could take is to get support from a speech expert who can work with you to improve your performance and smash any fear of public speaking you might be feeling. The obvious issue for many people is cost, but experts aren’t all expensive – if you search the way, checking out sites like Reddit, you’ll find a large number of accomplished public speakers who are prepared to give them for free, or maybe a referral

Summary: public speaking anxiety is very real

Being nervous when you go on-stage is normal. And feeling the slow build up of anxiety before, during, and after your presentations is also normal. The biggest obstacle you have to creating an amazing speech and giving an inspiring presentation is your brain, and the advice in this post has been proven to work time and again. Over to you – take these recommendations, practice them, and become the very best speaker you can imagine. If you found this useful, follow me on TikTok for more public speaking tips.

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