Nervous about Public Speaking?

The difference between excitement and nervousness is that
excitement is knowing what to expect
nervousness is not knowing what to expect.

Many people dread public speaking.

The secret to overcoming this is to prepare for the worst.  Then, when you are prepared, you are free to achieve your best.  That’s easier, and more positive, than it sounds.  Preparing can even be really humorous.

But what’s the worst that can happen?  In most cases, people fear that they will forget what to say.  Or that they will trip over, or make fools of themselves in some other slapstick and horribly embarrassing way.  But I’ve made about 3,000 public speeches, in one form or another, and have seen thousands more – and I promise you that I’ve never seen anything terrible happen in real life.  (The worst I’ve seen is Boring, and I’ll get to that later.)

The trick is to first prepare for the excitement stuff, and that will prepare you for most of the nervousness stuff.

Preparing what you Know

Most times we speak in public (whether it be a formal speech, an informal speech, giving a class, making an introduction in front of strangers, or just making an announcement to a group), the information we convey follows a similar pattern, such as:

  1. An overall theme or topic (get your audience ready to listen)
  2. A specific purpose for talking about it (grab their attention)
  3. A main point to get across (explain what you want them to know)

    More complex speeches might also involve
  4. Sub-points that explain the main point in more detail.  If you use these, it is a great idea to…
  5. Wrap up by briefly reiterating the sub-points and the main point, and the reason for talking about it.  (This helps people understand how the information fits together.)

For briefer talks, the first three steps are all you need to remember off by heart, and if you prepare a written speech, it should follow the same pattern.  It’s a good structure for information flow, and it will help you remember where you are up to.

Giving small speeches to larger crowds is not different, except in our perception.  

If you are more nervous talking to a large crowd than a small one, it means your attention is on the crowd instead of your speech.  

Focus on your speech.

If you focus on your speech, so will your audience.  

So now that you have 3-5 steps about what to say, how to avoid it being boring?  Fortunately, the same techniques that work for this also help reduce anxiety.

Rule # 1 is to breathe.  Yes, you breathe all the time, but it really does help to take a big breath, and to let it out slowly, before you even start talking.  Pretend you are organising papers on the lectern.  Or better yet, smile at the audience as you breathe out.  If you’re scared it will come across as more grimace than charm, don’t worry – focus on the breath.  Always, always breathe in through your nose.  It is calming, but it also reduces dry throat (potential coughs) and helps to moderate the pace of your speech.

Speak slowly.  When we get anxious, we speak really fast.  So fast that it becomes very difficult for audiences to follow, let alone understand and retain information.  Speaking slowly will also give you more opportunities to breathe (at commas and especially at the ends of sentences/paragraphs) and it will help you to lower your heart rate. It also helps your brain, speech and reading to stay in synch, so you should have less to worry about, and you’ll be less likely to um, ah, or mumble.  Wins all around.

Look at the audience.  They love it.  Even if we know it’s not the truth, speakers who don’t ever look at their audience appear distanced, and even disinterested – the audience is less engaged and the speaker stays cocooned in a private bubble of worry.  And here’s my secret:  You don’t actually have to look at anybody; just appear to.  I wear reading glasses, and can’t see further than six feet with them on, but nobody knows that.  (Until now.)  Even if you want to follow a fully scripted speech, it is important that you occasionally put your finger on the place you’re up to and look up.  Look at different areas of the audience so that everyone feels included.  Look up during breath pauses, or pause a second longer after key points or at the ends of paragraphs so that your audience has time to absorb what you’ve said.

Rehearse out loud.  This has far greater benefits than reading silently.  It gives you lots of opportunity to practice your speaking pace and breathing calmly, so it will become more natural to you.  You will also be able to check how long your speech will take to say. Chances are, it’s a lot longer than you think!  Use a stopwatch three or four times to get an average.  If you have an official time limit/expectation, doing this will help you identify whether you should add more content or edit down a bit.  The repetition will also help you become SO familiar with your speech that you will be more confident about looking up.

Believe it or not, if you practice these techniques, you will become more confident.  And if you practice a lot, you will eventually talk for hours with just a few dot points.  Or none!

True story.  The first 2-hour lecture I ever gave (to 170 students) was scripted to the eyeballs.  I spent three full days writing every word of explanation for every one of the PowerPoint slides my students saw on the screen above me.  Despite years of experience in the entertainment industry, I had never spoken about something that had to be 100% factually correct, so I was petrified of making a mistake and seeming an impostor.  But it didn’t take long to learn to put the facts in writing (on the screen), and to just follow along, explaining each slide dot-point: No notes necessary.

Trust your subject-matter knowledge above all else.  Technology can fail and microphone batteries can go flat… but if you know your topic, you can still talk.  And if those things happen, stay relaxed because it won’t matter whether you follow your original plan, the crowd will respect you as a trooper for whatever nuggets you give them.

Speaking of which…

Preparing for what you Don’t Know

Hopefully you are somewhat less nervous by this point (well, until I mentioned technology!), but if you are still worried about uncertainties, allow yourself to visualise all the scenarios – the best possible, as well as what worries you.  As well as visualising everything going perfectly, mentally rehearse whatever you are afraid of, just enough that you learn to imagine yourself responding well.  Doing this means it’s unlikely that something could take you by surprise, and greatly increases the probability that you would respond well.

Imagine yourself:

  • being asked questions
    (It may not happen, but if you know your topic, you will know the answers.  Imagine what questions could possibly be asked, and practice answering them out loud. Or rehearse in front of a relative or friend and have them ask you questions.)
  • forgetting where you are up to
    (Have notes, in big-enough font, with highlighted key headings.  Follow them with your finger if necessary.  Nobody in the audience will notice; and even if they do, they won’t care.  But if you know your general topic well, and you know your main point(s) for the day, it will be easy to say something relevant even if you forget to take your notes!  Nobody knew what you had planned, so nobody will know the difference.)
  • dropping your papers
    (Try to have just one page, double-sided.  And if you drop it, pick it up!  No worries.)
  • having a coughing fit
    (Suck a lozenge beforehand.  And always breathe in through your nose.)
  • needing to go to the toilet right when you are introduced
    (Don’t worry – it’s a normal flight response, and it only lasts a few seconds!)
Image source:

Imagining ourselves responding well to things we fear is very empowering.  The more we drill competence into our minds, the less important the uncertainties become.  We begin to feel confident.

Not nausea, but butterflies.
Not nervousness, but excitement.

Allow yourself the feel the butterflies, because they are a sign you’ve turned up for something exciting in your life.

by Dr Kerri O’Donnell



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