Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi, Sir Richard Branson, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Lincoln and Prince Harry have all admitted going out of their way to avoid speaking in public? So fear not, you're not alone if you associate public speaking with anxiety and dread. If there was no way of overcoming public speaking anxiety, imagine how many tremendous ideas would have been missed - it doesn't bear thinking about! Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. You feel in danger, singled out and surrounded. The good news is that there are lots of ways to learn how to overcome the fear reflex and break out of the fight-or-flight mode in order to speak. By overcoming your fear of public speaking, you can start delivering confident, authentic and compelling speeches. Read on for six simple tips.
1. Positive visualisation
Let's face it, worrying about how badly things could (but probably won't) go isn't a valuable use of your time, and certainly won't help you get over the fear of public speaking. Instead, imagining it all going smoothly is scientifically proven to help you with the real thing. It sets up neural pathways that will re-trigger when you step into that situation for real. This can be done weeks, days or even minutes before a presentation or speech.
Close your eyes, imagine entering the room confidently, stepping onto the stage with a smile, making eye contact with your listeners, owning your space, pausing throughout your presentation, hearing the audience's laugh or cheer, answering questions with clarity and being rewarded with a sea of engaged smiles and nods.
You might find that you experience public speaking nerves even when you're practising from the safety of your imagination - this is normal, it means you can truly get the most out of the visualisation. Simply calm yourself in that moment of nervousness by breathing and relaxing your body, taking back control, creating the pathways in your brain that work for you. The more you do it, the more prepared your brain will be on the day.
2. Practise speaking
Many people spend hours researching the content of their presentation and putting all the slides together, checking it for errors and then job done. If this is you, you may be disheartened to find out that your words count for a measly 7% of the impact you have on your audience. The rest comes down to gestures and tone of voice. By practising your presentation, you'll create neural pathways (are you starting to see a pattern here?) in your brain, so that it is less of an adjustment when you do it for real.
Once you have the bones or outline of the presentation, get on your feet and practise it out loud to an empty room. Practise for friends, practise for a teddy bear, practise for a blank wall... you can even record yourself practising, to help you narrow down the bits that need more work. Did you mumble or rush your words? Was it obvious what the main point was? How was your body language?
Practise again and again, working out where you need to use emphasis or pause, to let them take the idea in. Mark these bits on your speech in a clear and precise way.
"As a keynote speaker myself, I used to get severe performance anxiety. I know that it’s all about shifting how you think about public speaking and how to prepare for it. Some nerves are a good thing! All it takes is practice, practice practice. The more we do something, the easier it gets."
- Emma Serlin, LSW Director
3. Move the spotlight to your audience
Often when we speak in public, we get caught up thinking about ourselves - concerned with how we look and sound. We understandably want to be judged as competent and doing a good job.
What if we were less concerned with judgement and what others think of us? Try moving the spotlight from you to the audience and thinking about what they want to get out of your presentation.
Go through your presentation or speech and underline the key messages, words or phrases that you really like or particularly want to share with your audience. You can think of it as if you are placing them, fully formed, into your listeners heads. If your focus is on what you want the audience to get out of your presentation, it's in the right place.
4. Connect to your audience
Take the first moment on the stage to connect to your audience. Just a few seconds here will make all the difference, as you calm yourself and gather your space. You connect through stillness, and taking that moment to look at your audience. Take them in, maybe smile. It’s a few seconds, but trust us, it can be a game changer. This moment of connection is brilliant to remind you of why you are speaking, and who you are speaking to. Remember, they're just normal people, like you, who are interested in what you have to say, and want you to do well.
5. Start with your hands high
If you do nothing with our body whilst on stage, you will find that this has the effect of constraining you not just physically, but vocally and verbally. If however, you consciously engage your body through gestures, then in turn, this sends signals to your brain that you are engaged, enthusiastic and having fun. There’s a region of your brain called the Broca’s area, which helps formulate speech, and it lights up when you gesture. So when you start freeing your body, you are encouraging your brain to think of the right words, so you can form your next sentence without freezing. This helps to free up your voice, giving increased melody and resonance, and also frees up your imagination so you can start to bring in more detail, humour, personal perspective and even metaphors.
If you are feeling particularly nervous and defensive and about to give a presentation, you can make sure your body language is expressing confidence and openness so you give a positive impression to the people around you. Start off with your arms bent at your elbows and if you like, you can rest one hand in another in line with your navel. This is a good position of readiness as your hands can spring out into gesture easily from there. This space, from your navel and above, is actually your performance space. Keeping your hands separate can make you appear more open and confident, and hand gestures can be used to emphasise key words.
6. Eliminate internal chatter
You know the score. You're speaking perfectly well, and then… that little voice in your head starts telling you you're going to fail, and the negative thoughts keep sliding in. We call this our imposter syndrome - it refers to the "internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be".
Don’t criticise yourself mid speech, picking up on everything you’re doing wrong, instead, tell yourself you are doing brilliantly, and the audience are loving it. Even if it doesn’t seem entirely true, the positive self talk will boost you up, and get you feeling more confident. Many studies have been done on how we talk to ourselves and how this affects our mood, confidence and happiness levels.
If the negative thoughts still find a way in, try reframing them to make them more positive. Instead of "I'm going to fail", try "I'm going to share some great ideas". Instead of "they're all looking at me and judging me", try "everyone's rooting for me." Instead of "I'm terrified", try "I'm excited". Instead of thinking about what could go wrong, think about what you could achieve. Turn the somersaulting stomach feeling into adrenalin-filled butterflies.
So, next time you know you have a presentation or speech around the corner, and the old feeling unease settles in, take a moment to pause, think over these six public speaking tips and let your nerves make way for a confident, competent and clear communicator.
If you’d like to say goodbye to your public speaking anxiety or presentation nerves once and for all, why not transform your confidence with a public speaking course, tailored to your unique challenges and goals? To start this incredible journey of personal development, book a free 15-minute Discovery Call.