How to… Struggle through the Fear of Public Speaking

When asked to list their top fears, most people actually list public speaking as a greater fear than dying.  I guess the people surveyed feel either secure in their eternal destiny or simply would rather die than having a group of people stare at them while they speak. Whatever the reason, the fear of public speaking lives and breathes as a very strong feeling of fear for many people.

Personally, this fear does not make my top 10 fears, but my days of teaching beginning speech class at a community college taught me that the fear is not only very real but very powerful for a great deal many people. The student who sticks out most in my mind is one who actually could not finish her first speech. She simply couldn’t stand being in front of the class, completely froze, and then walked back to her seat. More about her later.

Based on my experiences with terrified students, I am going to share 5 tips that will help you struggle through the fear of public speaking. First, let me just say that this is not a “how to” on giving a speech, nor is it a list of ways to totally overcome the fear of public speaking. In my experience, most people don’t speak in public enough to actually completely overcome their fear. Until they do, they need to focus on pushing through those feelings.

Not only that, but even after my many years of public speaking (teaching at a community college, teaching adult Sunday school, speaking to women’s groups, and giving presentations to businesses), I still have a niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I speak. The feeling is not fear. Rather, it’s that feeling of hoping that I’ll remember what I want to say, that I’ll not do anything to make a fool of myself, and that my audience wont’ be totally bored. (All of these have happened to me on more than one occasion, by the way.) Personally, I think if that feeling ever goes away, I need to stop speaking in public. That feeling keeps me motivated to prepare properly as well as keeps me from over-confidence.

Now, on to the 5 tips that will help most people push through the fear of public speaking.

  1. Have and use an outline. Even if you believe you know your material well, have and use an outline anyway. You’ll be glad you have it when you go blank with all those pairs of eyes staring at you. (See How to… Create and Use an Effective Outline for more details.)
  2. Know your topic. Especially for your first time, choose a topic you already know well. Doing so gives much-needed confidence. Public may be stressful all on its own, but try doing it when you don’t know your topic well. (Note: Look for tips on “How to… Create & Use a Web” for help on choosing a topic in two weeks.) Many of my students struggled with speeches because they weren’t choosy enough about their topics. (Incidentally, the most confident student was one who gave a speech on how to put on a condom. Typically, I approve speech topics ahead of time, but he changed his on me at the last minute. Suffice it to say, I was quite surprised. Yet, he did choose a topic he knew very well, that much was clear.)
  3. Practice. Practice. Practice. I have practiced speeches in front of my son in his highchair, (he just sat there and grinned at me), while running on the treadmill (you’re supposed to be able to talk while running anyway, right?), and while driving. The more you ingrain your speech/talk into your mind, the easier it will flow at delivery time.
  4. Focus on the nose. Many people struggle with making eye contact when speaking in public. I told my students to stare at the bridge of people’s noses instead. Try it… people really can’t tell the difference between that and looking directing into their eyes. I still do this today, even with one-on-one conversations. (Great tip for those of us who are also very shy. Yes, I speak in public event though I am shy.)
  5. Expect to mess up. Once you accept the fact that you will stumble over your words at least once (and probably multiple times), and that it is possible you will trip or drop something, public speaking becomes much easier. These things happen to even the most experienced public speakers, and what do they do? They simply keep going. I have spoken in front of a group after getting a stain on the back of my pants and after having some pretty stupid words come out of my mouth. Guess what? I lived through it!

Over time and with experience, the fear of speaking in public will diminish. Some people will even grow to love public speaking. Remember that student who couldn’t even finish her first speech? She ended up doing very well in the class and gave me a Christmas present at the end because she was so grateful to have struggled through. She represents the fear that almost all of my students had with speaking in front of a group and that all of them were able to struggle through and overcome to some extent. Believe me, if those college students (all ages, by the way) can do it, so can you. I promise!