How to tame your fear of public speaking

Ensuring that everyone can understand what you say will improve your presence and impact. Here are six ways to improve the audio quality of your video calls.
July 26, 2021
How to Tame Fear of Public Speaking in 7 steps

At the start of the lockdown when our lives migrated to Zoom, a CEO coaching client of mine said he welcomed being distanced from the audience because his legs shake from nerves when speaking in person. He was excited about being able to read from a script on the screen seated with his legs out of sight.

Can you guess what happened when we practiced for a high-stakes online speaking opportunity? The CEO sounded robotic and looked like he was sitting in a motorized massage chair. The energy coming from his nervous legs was traveling throughout his entire body. And reading word for word broke the cadence of his natural speech pattern.

Public speaking on Zoom is not a panacea for nervous speakers. On the contrary, it poses its own set of challenges that can be overcome with practice, focused exercises, and good coaching. 

I have written about this before from the perspective of a former stutterer.  In this blog post, I provide a variety of exercises and techniques to counter glossophobia, the scientific term for performance anxiety or stage fright.  

As the world of knowledge workers migrates toward hybrid interactions in virtual and physical spaces, leaders need to build stronger yet versatile public speaking muscles.  The skills needed to shine on the small screen with confidence, authority, and credibility are directly transferable to real-world scenarios. Glossophobia affects speakers in all settings. 

Let us get something straight.  Anyone who says they never feel nervous when speaking to a live audience on camera or in public, never feels anxious, sweaty, and agitated when doing an oral presentation—is lying.

“There are two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and the liars.”

Mark Twain

If you are living and breathing, your nervous system is going to be pumped when it is your turn to speak. But you can put that nervous energy to work to animate your delivery.  In other words, you can turn anxiety into a positive force. 

Here are seven of my favorite ways to deal with performance anxiety.

1. Tame the butterflies.

Positive nervousness activates your body’s adrenaline.  It makes the eyes shine and sharpens the edges of what you are presenting.  It adds to the drama and excitement of the moment.  If you harness this energy, it can work in your favor. 

Motivational speaker and sports psychologist Dr. Rob Gilbert said:

“It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach.
Just get them to fly in formation.”

Dr. Rob Gilbert

It can be done.  But it takes lots of self-awareness and practice to shift nervousness into a smooth and successful performance.

2. Turn nerves into service.

One way to wrangle the butterflies in your stomach is to understand why you are worried, scared, and terrified to speak. Likely it is that you care a great deal.  You care about communicating your ideas.  But, perhaps, you care more about what people will think of you.  You want to avoid embarrassment at all costs.

If you transform nervousness into service, anxiety and fear will begin to dissolve.  Here is how: think about the value of what you are sharing and how it will help your audience.  Consider that you have something that will help them.  Their lives and careers will improve, and you made it possible.  Take the focus away from you and put it on your audience—online or in person.  You will notice a big difference in your mental state. 

3. Get to the point right away. 

Your audience will form a first impression of you as a person in the first seven seconds. They will decide if they want to tune in or tune out to your presentation in the first 90 seconds

Tell them what they need to hear from you right from the start.  Do not say that you are nervous.  Do not mumble niceties about the person who introduced you.  Do not say how thrilled you are to be there—you can tell them at the end when you thank them for listening.  Get to the point and grab attention right away.  The look of approval and interest on their faces will calm your fears of failure.

4. Build rapport with your audience.

You need to sense the audiences’ approval and engagement when you speak on any stage.  Without some indication of a response, confirmation, or acknowledgment the presenter is lost at sea, adrift, looking for a signal.  No reaction is in many ways worse than outright rejection. 

Believe me—I have experienced moments online when I felt my audience had zoned out and I was talking to myself.  It feels awful.  The remedy is to draw them in.  Stop speaking, ask questions, take a poll, ask for a show of hands, and put the figurative ball in their court.

5. Smile. 

A smile is potent and contagious. Neuroscience shows that smiling triggers your mirror neurons so people who see you will want to smile as well.  A smile also helps you calm down and recenter when you are feeling uptight and anxious.  Your brain chemistry alters, and your nervousness decreases. 

There is solid evidence that even a “forced” smile activates the same muscles in the face as when you are happy.  Placing a pencil or pen between your teeth forces your face to mimic a smile.  In turn, the muscles of the face react as if you were happy, content, and stressless.  Try this before you start your next talk or turn on your video camera.

Kick-off your presentation with a smile and good humor. During your talk, smile occasionally where appropriate.  Smiling connects you with the audience and puts them at ease as well.  In a video conference setting, smiling naturally helps to make the virtual more human.  And that is important these days.

6.  Breathe.

Remember to breathe properly before you start speaking and throughout.  Most people fail to do so, and it shows.  The adrenaline from your nerves increases your heart rate and makes your breathing shallower.  You may feel out of breath mid-sentence. Or your rate of speech may be faster, your speech slurred, your words running together.  Some remedies are to speak in short sentences, take deliberate pauses to catch your breath, and vary the tempo. 

Stressed breathing makes it difficult to sound confident. To counter this, stop and breathe deeply and more often.  Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body.  There are many breathing exercises you can do almost anywhere to calm your nerves. One of my favorites is the Straw Breathing Technique which activates the parasympathetic nervous system to decrease anxiety.

Straw Breathing Exercise

  1. Inhale normally and naturally through your nose.
  2. Purse your lips and exhale fully through a plastic drinking straw.  Exhale all the air out of your lungs.
  3. Inhale normally through your nose.
  4. Exhale fully out of the straw.
  5. Repeat this exercise for 5 minutes.

Click here for other breathwork relaxation techniques from the University of Minnesota.


7. Be yourself.

“Be yourself.  Everyone else is taken.”

Oscar Wilde

Sometimes the best antidote to fear of speaking before a group of people is simply to be yourself with all your faults and imperfections.  Trust is built on shared human experiences and all of us share the gifts of imperfection. Anyone “too perfect” is suspect. 

At your next public speaking event, work to be more of what you are.  Emphasize your expertise, the insights and value you bring to your audience, and your passion for the subject matter. You will feel more grounded, less stressed, and be a lot more interesting and memorable to everyone.  Use fear to step into your personal power and do not let it stop you from sharing the best you have to offer.

Rosemary Ravinal

I teach business leaders how to shine on video calls and have more productive virtual engagement. As Founder/Chief Trainer at RMR Communications Consulting, I also help executives master the art of public speaking, inspiring presentations, and authoritative media interviews online and in person. My company’s services are available in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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How Mondays with Mitch inspired great presentation tips.

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Mondays with Mitch is fictional. It is a play on the global best seller Tuesdays with Morrie by renowned author Mitch Albom. I could not think of a title for this blog, so I resorted to parallel structure and alliteration to hook you in. Apologies for the confusion, but now that I have your attention, let me tell you what I learned from Mitch…and TED.

Rosemary Ravinal

Let me help you speak, engage, and persuade like a pro in person and online in English and Spanish.

Your success in the new normal of work depends on how well you navigate virtual and in-person communication.

Your success in the new normal of work depends on how well you navigate virtual and in-person communication.

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