Dear Lifehacker, I’m really nervous about giving a presentation soon. While I know the presentation itself is amazing, I’m just not comfortable speaking in public. What can I do to get rid of these fears and make sure I don’t clam up or die of stage fright? Signed, Scared to Speak
Dear Scared, Don’t worry. It’s completely normal to fear speaking to a room full of strangers who are focused on your every move and word. In fact, surveys have shown public speaking is the number one fear we have -- even more than death. Some people make public speaking look effortless, but even famous orators and Oscar-winning actors get nervous in those moments. In the documentary Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld says:
You’re never really comfortable [on stage]. Even though you may think you are… you really aren’t. But, with time and practice, you learn how to open, how to sustain, how to pace…
Here are a few things you should try to build your confidence and maybe even help you actually have fun when you’re in front of an audience.
Practice Makes Perfect (or Poised)
The more you know your material, the more comfortable you’ll be. So rehearse, rehearse, and then rehearse some more. Think I’m exaggerating? For every minute of a speech he made, Winston Churchill spent an hour working on it. He wasn’t a born orator, either, but overcame a childhood lisp through hard practice enunciating.
Try mentally rehearsing to the last detail like stuntpeople do, until you see yourself doing it perfectly. For feedback, practice in front of friends and family and/or video tape yourself to review later. You may end up sick of your presentation, but by then you should be able to deliver it more naturally.
Try to Relax
In addition to all that preparation, there are a few things you can do to take some of the awkwardness out of talking in front of a group of strangers.
Bond with the audience. You’ve probably heard the advice before to imagine everyone in the crowd in their underwear or naked. That’s probably a bad idea, since you can end up really distracted or, worse, laughing like a lunatic. A better idea, says professional speaker George Torok, is to see them as equals:
You are good at what you do and they are good at what they do. You offer value and so do they. It’s not about who has or makes more money. It’s not about job titles, age or corporate hierarchy. It’s about you having a conversation with a room full of equals. That’s one of the secrets of overcoming speech anxiety - make it feel like a conversation.
Seeing and treating people like equals is an important fundamental shift in your perspective as an effective public speaker.
I spent a few years teaching, and at the start of every season I was a nervous wreck in front of the students (seriously, my palms would get sweaty, my face would blush and my voice would quaver) -- until I learned their names and faces. Before your presentation, take some time to talk to the people in the audience beforehand so you can make a connection with them.
It’s a good idea to also get to the place early so you’re familiar with the environment and equipment (and can make sure the equipment works!).
Anticipate possible questions. Another reason people get nervous in public is not knowing what to expect from the audience and being put on the spot. When you’re preparing your talk, try to anticipate any possible questions, including challenging or opposing viewpoints. Come up with a couple of examples, anecdotes or other support you can use to answer those questions.
Don’t worry if you get stumped. It’s perfectly fine to say you don’t know the answer and that you’ll find out. You could even throw the question out to the audience to see if anyone else knows. That’s a lot better than trying to speak off the cuff or making answers up.
Let go of assumptions. While we’re on the subject of the audience, consider this advice from WikiHow:
Just because an audience is not smiling or nodding in agreement does not mean they aren’t listening or feeling positive about your talk. People often do not display encouragement on their faces in an audience situation, so don’t seek it. You’ll know from the applause level at the end how well you went and by then, the speech is over!
In general, people do want you to succeed, Toastmasters says. They’re rooting for you (and even if you do trip up, they probably didn’t notice).
Use body hacks to boost your confidence. Before you step into the limelight, adopt a power pose, such as stretching out your arms or raising your hands with closed fists in a victory sign. This will increase your testosterone level and your confidence along with it.
Also take deep breaths if you feel the butterflies returning, and try slow pacing across the stage. Presentation company Duarte says these techniques can help fight stuttering and performance anxiety:
Before you go on stage, focus on the pace of your breathing until you can slow it down and reduce your heart rate. Once I get a controlled rate of breathing, I try to be conscious of it when I’m on stage. If not, the adrenaline kicks in, my heart races, and I talk so fast that no one can understand me.
A slow, steady walk across the stage can set a rhythm, that will help slow down your thinking and your speech, and reduce the confusion that often leads to stuttering. My instructor once made me recite four pages of a play while walking around the campus with her. I didn’t stutter once! But when I stood still on a stage in front of a large group, I stuttered and mumbled like a madman. The pace of my walking helped control the mechanics of it all.
Find the passion in your topic. Finally, try focusing on the message and the conversation with your audience, rather than your performance. Nervousness happens when you become too self-conscious. If you can talk passionately about your subject, audiences will soak it up and the presentation will be over before you know it.
Take a Public-Speaking Course
The more you practise speaking in public, the better you’ll get at it. Even if you don’t plan to give presentations, TV interviews or keynote speeches often, public speaking is a useful skill to have. It can improve your communication skills in general, come in handy during interviews or negotiations, and boost your self-esteem.
One great way to continue improving your public speaking is to join Toastmasters, which hosts regular speaking and leadership workshops all over the world. Joining costs $US20, plus club dues of $US36 every six months. If you can’t attend a local Toastmasters meeting, these short videos from the association offer time-tested public speaking tips.
University of Washington professor Matt McGarrity also offers a free Intro to Public Speaking online course on Coursera. The 10-week program takes 3–5 hours/week and teaches essential public speaking concepts. This session started on June 24, but you can still jump in or join the waitlist for future classes.
You can probably find other public-speaking courses at your local TAFE or community college.
Good luck with your presentation!