Ready to Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking? (Issue #2)
How I learned to stop worrying and love the stage
Many of us dislike public speaking. But an outright fear of it isn’t as common as you might think, despite the popularity of throwing around an estimate that 75 percent of us suffer from speech anxiety. Approximately 7 percent of the global population deals with some sort of anxiety disorder (although this varies wildly by country), and speech anxiety is a subset of that.
But it is true that public speaking is by far the most common fear for people who actually have social phobia (91 to 97 percent fear it). That means in the United States alone, approximately 20 million people are struggling with this fear of public speaking! Believe it or not, that includes people like Warren Buffet and others you’d have a hard time imagining being nervous on stage. They experience nausea, panic attacks, and sleepless nights before events.
If you’re one of these people (like I was), for most of your life you try to escape any situation that requires speaking in front of a group. With a few rare exceptions, I avoided public speaking until I was almost 40 years old. When forced to present to an audience, I felt those familiar butterflies in the stomach, my chest would tighten, my breathing became shallow, my palms would sweat, and every verbal tic felt amplified. Our brains become overwhelmed with fight-or-flight reactions in these situations, which certainly doesn’t help us perform our best.
You may be thinking that the best speakers are extroverts, and, yes, several talented extroverted speakers and presenters come to mind (Kamala Harris, Steve Jobs, Bryan Stevenson, Sheryl Sandberg). But there are also many well-known introverts who have become great public speakers (Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Guy Kawasaki, Susan Cain). If it is possible for them to conquer their fear of public speaking, you can too. But I don’t just want you to conquer your fear and somehow manage to push through it—I want you to fall in love with the act of public speaking.
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Yes, I Said Love
Many people who fear public speaking have adopted a strategy of simply avoiding it (as I did for decades). Rather than seeking to conquer their fear, they find ways to work around it. Given that you’re reading this article, I’m assuming that either public speaking is a necessary part of your job or you know you need to master it for your career.
I’ve said this many times:
Mastering public speaking was the best investment I ever made in my career.
It enabled me to:
Make the case for my promotions
Perform better in my leadership roles
Be more effective in meetings
Present to executives and boards
Build my personal brand at speaking events
Handle media interviews
Get better at selling as an entrepreneur
Raise funding for my startup
Many of the most successful leaders, executives, and business owners I’ve known have all been quite good at public speaking.
Seventy percent of employed Americans who give presentations agree that presentation skills are critical to their success at work. (Forbes)
So why do I think you should love public speaking, rather than simply tolerate it as a necessary evil? Because it will show. When you just grind through a speaking event to get it over with, it will show. When you suffer through your stage fright to rush through your talk, it will show.
But when you truly love what you’re doing, you realize that being on stage offers you a unique opportunity to reach people deeply, and when you know you have something of value to share, that will show instead. The audience will feel that you are enjoying speaking with them, and your message will have a much greater impact.
Given that every one of your talks should have a goal in mind, the inability to overcome your fear greatly reduces the likelihood that you will achieve that goal. Let’s start with tackling this fear.
Conquering the Fear
I’ll share my personal tips for preparation and delivery later in this article, but none of that matters if your fear prevents you from accepting speaking engagements in the first place. This fear must be faced first.
Where does a fear of public speaking originate? A number of hypotheses try to explain fear and anxiety, and the source varies from person to person, but I know in my case it was all related to a fear of failure, fear of public embarrassment, and my introverted social anxiety. I had associated public speaking with the discomfort of social situations, a loathing of small talk, and a desire to avoid the spotlight.
This article isn’t going to cure anyone’s social anxiety. What I want to accomplish is demonstrate that public speaking isn’t as fraught with social anxiety as you may think. I thought it was, but I was wrong, and I wish I had learned that decades ago.
I had mistakenly thrown public speaking into the same bucket of anxiety as small talk, group discussions, cocktail parties, and networking events. As an introvert, those experiences are to be avoided at all costs. I didn’t have some magical revelation that helped me realize public speaking was actually different. I was simply forced to do more public speaking as part of my job, and the realization slowly grew with each presentation.
Not only was public speaking different from these other social situations, but it was also the answer to my natural human need to be heard. If you’re an introvert, I’m sure you understand what I mean. In a small group setting, extroverted individuals tend to dominate the discussion. When you’re uncomfortable with interrupting others, drawing attention to yourself, and speaking loudly, your thoughts and opinions are rarely shared. I unexpectedly discovered that public speaking gave me this opportunity.
“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
— Ralph Nichols
This wasn’t the only trick up my sleeve that reduced my social anxiety. I also engaged in systematic desensitization and counterconditioning, albeit in a somewhat unorthodox manner: karaoke. I know this sounds strange, but bear with me. In addition to reducing my anxiety, singing helped me improve my speaking volume, learn how to breathe more deeply for a richer voice, and develop a wider vocal range.
Many years ago, I participated in a two-day workshop on public speaking, which gave me some useful tips that I rely upon even now (for example, the power of the pause, making eye contact with someone first before speaking to them, never turning your back on the audience to read your slides). But I can’t say that this workshop helped me overcome my heart-pounding social anxiety.
Instead, my desensitization took place during a temporary move to China. The team there introduced me to karaoke, and we probably spent two to three nights each week at various karaoke clubs. It started small, with just a few of us in a private room. But at one point, it was a large group offsite party, and we ended up singing in front of an entire suite full of people.
It helps to close your eyes. Or so I hear.
I would like to say this was all an intentionally planned self-treatment, but the reality is that it was a lucky coincidence. Little did I know that this slow ramp-up of karaoke experiences over a period of months was reducing my phobia of public speaking events. By the time I returned to the United States, speaking on stage seemed easy in comparison to singing in front of friends, colleagues, and even strangers. The embarrassment of failing suddenly felt minor.
Fear of Failure
I do think that a fear of public failure, and the subsequent embarrassment, is the reason so many people fear speaking in front of an audience, above and beyond the basic level of social anxiety that we introverts experience. We’ve observed great speakers like Sir Ken Robinson, Michelle Obama, and Steve Jobs and set a perfectionistic bar at that level. This is unrealistic, and the real bar for a good speech is much lower than you think.
After experiencing thousands of talks over the past 25-plus years of my career and education, I know that the majority of speakers aren’t that amazing. In fact, 32 percent of people fall asleep during typical work presentations. However, with sufficient practice, your own talks can easily rise above this bar and satisfy your audience, even when you don’t feel like it has met your own expectations.
As I mentioned in one of my recent articles, “How to Leverage Introversion as a Career Strength,” your introversion will actually help you become more successful as a public speaker. The solution lies in how you prepare, present, and interact with the audience.
Introverts enjoy time alone for researching, deep thinking, and perfecting their talks. Taking the time to obsess over the details, instead of just winging it, will serve you well. When I dug into my fear of public speaking, I discovered that a fear of failure was underlying a great deal of my trepidation.
I was afraid that I would stumble and fumble over my words. I was afraid that I would freeze up and forget what I wanted to say. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know the material well enough to handle questions.
How did I overcome this? Practice, practice, practice. Running through a talk during my daily commute. Presenting in a conference room at work. Giving my talk at home and recording a video of myself to review later.
Nancy Duarte (an excellent presenter and TED speaker) estimates that a professional should expect to rehearse at least an hour per minute of their presentation. Yes, that means that you should spend at least 20 hours practicing your talk if it will be 20 minutes long. Shorter talks actually require more practice to perfect the timing and keep it tight.
Some people mistakenly think that excessive rehearsal will make their speech sound “too practiced” and robotic. The opposite is actually true. The more you practice and memorize your talking points, the better your ability to improvise and sound natural.
Now, let me be very clear: Don’t memorize with the intent to deliver your presentation word for word. That would sound robotic! What you want to commit to memory are your talking points, the overall structure and flow, transition points, and the key message and takeaways you want to leave with your audience.
On a similar note, resist the urge to create a presentation that captures all your speaking points in an endless series of bulleted slides. Over the years, my presentations have become simpler and increasingly text-free. I prefer to use a great deal of imagery to serve as a memory aid for me and to evoke an appropriate emotional response from the audience.
For example, here is a slide from one of my past presentations, when I was describing how we persuaded executives that a product change was required to address customer pain points.
Avoid the Green Room
I know the green room is meant to be a convenience for the speakers at an event, and some of the more extroverted presenters I’ve met seem to enjoy it. They chat, laugh, and have a great time meeting the other speakers and facilitators. As an introvert, however, I have always found the experience to be a stressful distraction.
When your energy is drained by social interaction, it’s not a great idea to squander it with small talk when you should be saving it for the audience. Instead, I prefer to leave the venue and take a walk outside. The solitude, fresh air, and sunshine always lift my spirits and recharge my introverted batteries. The effect is even more powerful if you’re lucky enough to find some green spaces (instead of the green room) for your walk before the talk.
You still may experience nervous energy before you go on stage. Even some of the most famous presenters in the world still feel those butterflies. Tony Robbins jumps on a trampoline right before he steps onto the stage. Gina Barnett, longtime TED speaker coach, recommends that you “don’t try to contain all your nervous energy. Let it move through you and energize you for your talk.”
Some research has found that a physical action of “shaking it out” (that is, through neuromuscular tremors and shaking) works to release tension and stress. Some people choose to jump on trampolines, and some run up a flight of stairs (I’ve done this), but you can also just shake out your arms and legs and bounce up and down in place a few times (I do this too).
This accomplishes three things:
It releases the nervous energy that can make your voice sound shaky and weak.
It increases your breathing to boost oxygen flow, which makes you more alert.
It raises your energy level in a positive way, which will carry through into your talk and be noticed by your audience.
This is also the time to reinterpret any residual anxiety as excitement instead. Some interesting research that evaluated public speaking and karaoke performance found that the simple act of redefining your emotions can improve your performance during a stressful situation.
Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance. (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2014, Vol. 143, No. 3, 1144–1158)
If you have time, try to meet and greet a few people in your audience. Hats off to Peter Shankman, who takes this to a whole new level by mingling with his audience under an assumed name. He really gets to know them and what they want the most from the event, and then he customizes his talk on the fly to address their wants and needs.
My goal with this isn’t quite as ambitious as Shankman’s, although I plan on experimenting with that. I simply find it easier to speak in front of an audience when I know at least a few of the people. Later, I will talk about “friendly fans,” but it does help to connect with some people before your presentation begins. You can then direct your talk to them versus feeling like you’re speaking to a room filled entirely with strangers.
During Your Presentation
As an introvert, you probably can’t stand talking in front of a group of people. But remember that this is different. You are presenting to the audience who is there to listen to you and hear what you have to say. They won’t interrupt you. You won’t have to shout over others to be noticed. Your message won’t be lost when the extroverts dominate the discussion. This is your time to be heard.
Your Speaking Persona
One helpful technique for introverts is to adopt a speaking persona. I learned to think of my public speaking as a performance and that my talking on stage was acting. It is rather liberating, and this helped me overcome being inwardly focused on myself and fixated on the fact that it was me speaking on stage. Instead, I was someone else.
This wasn’t very different from the times I adopted my work persona to act like an extrovert earlier in my career. I simply adopted a persona who loved being on stage, enjoyed speaking in front of an audience, and smiled in the spotlight. Define your own persona with all the positive traits of someone who loves public speaking. Get into character before you step onto the stage.
The good news is that I see this as a temporary fix. It will help you overcome your anxiety, but your need for a persona will continue to decrease over time. With each talk, you will become more comfortable being yourself, and, at some point, the real you will actually enjoy public speaking. No more persona.
More Nervous Energy
I talked about shaking off the nervous energy, but you may still have some residual butterflies. Or, your positive energy might be low, which will hurt your ability to project your voice with confidence. I like to use one last technique to release stress and boost my energy—an outburst of sorts. This can be coupled with self-deprecating humor to warm up the audience as well.
“Wow, that is some snowstorm out there! I’m glad I was even able to make it here today. As a Californian, I’m afraid to leave my house without a parka and snow boots when the temperature drops below 60 degrees.”
It doesn’t really matter what you choose for your own outburst. But keep it short and sweet, and speak that first sentence in what passes for your booming voice. The purpose is to squelch those remaining butterflies, elevate your energy, and improve your voice projection with one metaphorical kiai.
While many extroverts enjoy being the center of attention, an introvert does not want to be in the spotlight. The thought of it triggers a great deal of social anxiety. But I discovered that I could visualize a shift in focus from myself to the message I wanted to convey to the audience. Think more about what your audience wants and needs to hear versus obsessing about your appearance and performance on stage.
It’s not about you, and that is a good thing. Once you realize that your story is a gift for the audience, the stress of delivering it reduces. You are simply the messenger, and you know that with preparation and practice, you can master delivering that message to an audience who will appreciate it. Knowing that you will have a friendly and receptive audience will also reduce your potential anxiety.
Even though I avoid small group discussions, I actually enjoy one-on-one conversations. I found that this insight was critical for managing my anxiety during presentations. When you first walk onto the stage, you face an imposing sea of faces. The key is to find the faces of your friendly fans. Rather than feeling like you’re speaking to a crowd, you are having a series of one-on-one conversations throughout your talk.
Remember how I suggested that you meet a few people from the audience before your talk? Depending on the size of the audience and room, you may now be able to find them and make eye contact. Given that you made that earlier connection, they often will enjoy this look of recognition and smile back at you.
Even if you weren’t able to meet and greet before the event, there are always a few friendly fans who are smiling and nodding. I use these people as anchors within the audience and direct my talk one-on-one in their direction. Unsurprisingly perhaps, research has found that a friendly and appreciative audience lowers your anxiety and improves your self-confidence. Obviously, you don’t want to speak to just one person the entire time—find a fan in different sections of the audience so that everyone feels as if you are sharing your attention with them.
I have experienced talks where the lights were so bright on stage that I couldn’t even see the audience in the darkness beyond. That can be disconcerting and requires a strategic adjustment. Visualize the audience, and specifically imagine your friendly fans at different locations, smiling and nodding as you speak. Present to these imaginary fans. It isn’t easy, but you do get better at this with practice.
After Your Talk
The introvert’s nightmare of small talk may not be an issue for you after your presentation, depending on the structure of the event. Sometimes when you finish, there’s no time for Q&A, and you immediately exit the stage to make way for the next presenter. But there will come a time when you finish and some members of the audience are eagerly awaiting you.
If it’s a formal Q&A session, that’s not too bad. When you have prepared well for your talk, you know your stuff. They’ll ask questions, and you’ll easily answer—or defer if it’s off-topic or you don’t have a great answer for them right away.
But if it’s just the audience members wanting to mingle and chat with you, that’s more challenging for an introvert. You’ve just given your talk, and, if you’re like me, you are drained. The adrenaline rush is wearing off, you’ve used up your social energy, and you just want to retreat to a quiet place to recover.
Be prepared with your own calendar event after the talk to keep this audience discussion limited to five to 10 minutes at the most. Look at your watch or phone and state, “I have about 10 minutes.” Some will want to engage in a longer discussion, so have your business cards handy and ask people to follow up with you later over email.
Respect your time for the hard stop, say your goodbyes, and exit stage left. Some events will have a place for the speakers to gather for an after-party of sorts, but I tend to ghost. My tank for social interaction is empty, and I need solitude to recharge. For the introverts reading this, you know that you need your alone time after social engagements. Public speaking is no different, and you may also have been dealing with some level of social anxiety on top of it all.
Take the time you need to recharge and treat yourself to your own after-party to be able to enjoy public speaking and get the most out of it. Have a glass of wine, watch a movie, read a book, or do whatever you need to do to relax and unwind. This is the counterconditioning I mentioned earlier. Engage in positive reinforcement to help train yourself that public speaking is a good thing.
Learn to Love Public Speaking
As I stated earlier, learning to love public speaking will be one of the best investments you can make in your career. As an introvert, I spent more than 40 years fearing and avoiding public speaking, which is a shame given what I now know. I hope this article will help you conquer it long before I did.
Not only did I conquer my fear, I actually love speaking now! This is the critical discovery that is so important for those of you who are also introverts. Competing with extroverts for attention in common social situations is entirely too fatiguing, so we just give up, go to our quiet corner, and observe the others. But once you master public speaking, you will find that your voice will now finally be heard.
Larry Cornett received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Rice University. He spent decades in the Silicon Valley tech industry as a designer, Design leader, Product executive, and startup founder. He eventually left the corporate world to start a coaching practice and now lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others create their own invincible lives. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.